Below the Missing Steps

by

Noël Manning


Ribbons scurried up the dusty staircase, her high heels tap tap tapping as she went and her ankle ribbons flying. In one hand the maid balanced a food tray, loaded with pancakes and muffins and orange juice.

When Ribbons reached the top of the stairs, stepping precariously over the missing step, she turned quickly to her right and began banging on an old wooden door.

"Mr. Elmo, Sir!" she yelled. "I've got yer breakfast!"

Ribbons pressed her ear against the door, but the old man didn't reply. She pounded some more.

"I'm comin' in, you hear? So don't say I didn't warn you."

Gently she twisted the brass knob, and the door creaked open painfully. Ribbons entered and set the tray down on the big chestnut desk. From his office chair by the window, Elmo looked up miserably.

"I do not like muffins," he grumbled, scooting his seat over to the tray.

"Well, I'm sorry, Mr. Elmo, but that's what Toes bought at the market."

"Then why is she the one going to the market?"

Ribbons just sighed, blowing her hair ribbons up in the air. "Because all us others is too busy."

"Humph." Elmo slurped his orange juice loudly, a clear sign that he was done talking to Ribbons. She left the room and shut the door behind her.

As soon as Elmo heard the latch click, he covered his food with a napkin and leaned back in his chair. He would eat his food when he felt like it. Right now, he needed a little nap...

Elmo-in-the-dream woke up to find himself standing in the middle of a dirt road. All around him were bright, colorful little shops that sold everything from clothes to cooking pots.

After Elmo's momentary surprise passed, he noticed that darting in and out of the stores were people, all dressed in medieval-style clothing. Some stood laughing and chattering by trees, while others seemed content to rush to and fro.

Eventually Elmo found himself walking towards a particularly yellow shop that sold hand-made scarves. The grey-haired woman behind the counter looked up with a wide smile.

"Can I help you?" she asked him pleasantly.

And Elmo, who hated being spoken to nicely, started to reply something quite rude, but at that moment a tall, pretty girl walked in and smiled at them.

"Hello," she said.

"Hello," the counter lady replied.

"Where am I?" Elmo demanded grouchily.

Both females looked at him in surprise. "You are in the village of Southbell," the young girl informed him gently. "Are you from out of town, too?"

"Am I from out of- of course I am from out of town! I am from out of state! Out of country! This is a foreign world! I'm not even really here; I'm dreaming."

The girl's small red lips curled into a knowing smile. "I'm dreaming too. My name is Aleeah. What's yours?"

"Elmo," he grumbled.

Suddenly the shopkeeper vanished, and the two looked over in mild shock. Then Elmo heard a voice inside his head.

"You must find it," murmured the voice. "You must find the iron key. Wait for the one who speaks fondly of Shirley. They will aid you."

Elmo was about to ask the voice what on this strange earth it was talking about when suddenly the floor melted and he and Aleeah went tumbling down with it.

When they landed Aleeah was the first to her feet.

"Oh my!" she exclaimed shakily, rubbing her leg. "Oh, Elmo, are you alright?" Aleeah reached to help him up, but Elmo shook her hand off.

With a great many cracks and pops, and no shortage of grunts, Elmo heaved himself up and leaned against a convenient pillar.

"Now where am I?" he grumped.

Aleeah looked around and tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. "This is a house," she observed. "A mansion. Why, it looks like my Aunt Posy's home!"

While Aleeah rushed up to the door Elmo huffed and resisted from asking who 'Aunt Posy' was. She sounded like a sweet person, all the more reason for Elmo to avoid her.

Then the sky turned green, and the mansion disappeared and Elmo was left standing alone in the middle of a purple daisy field. He snorted in disgust (flowers repulsed him) and then...

Elmo-not-in-the-dream woke up. He had quite a start, especially for someone who did not like change, to be in a daisy field one moment and the next to find himself in his drab office chair, looking out the dull window of his miserable study.

"Dreams," he thought, shaking his head unhappily. "Disturbing things."

The aroma of pancakes wafted over to his nose, and it was then Elmo realized just how hungry he was.

As the old man stuffed the food in his mouth, he recalled the mysterious voice in his dream that had reminded him of the iron key, and speaking of someone who would help him find it.

For the first time in a long time, Elmo had something besides misery to think about.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was later that night, long after everyone had gone to bed, except Ribbons, who was going around the house blowing out candles, that a loud knock was heard on the door.

Ribbons stopped mid-blow.

Nobody knocked on that door.

Ever.

Even Toes, who sometimes got locked out after her trips to the market, just used the back door.

Panic filled the young maid, and she thought about asking Elmo what to do in this sort of unnatural predicament; but of course, he would only grouch and grumble at her and shake his fist.

So she tiptoed into the foyer, wielding a flashlight and a baseball bat. Ribbons drew a deep breath and reached for the door knob.

She turned it.

And slowly, slowly, the old oak door creaked open.


On the front steps stood two sillhouetted figures, one tall and one short. Ribbons quickly flipped on the flashlight and shined it at them, and they shielded their eyes in annoyance.

"Oh, dear!" the tall one exclaimed in a British woman's voice. "Oh, do turn that thing off! It is much too bright!"

Ribbons, after recovering from the surprising relief that they weren't axe murderers, did as she was asked. The maid opened the door wider. Soft candlelight filtered out and illuminated the faces of the callers.

"How m-may I 'elp you?" Ribbons queried nervously, tucking a stray purple ribbon behind her ear.

"Tell me that Elmo lives here, and I will be forever grateful," the woman replied in her British accent, almost breathlessly. "I've been trying to find his house for a fortnight! May I speak to him, please? It is urgent."

"Uh... w-why, yes! I think I could arrange that. What do I say to 'im?"

"Tell him that his step-sister, Bonnie Kiply, wishes to have a word with him concerning her son, Fitz," the woman replied, gesturing to the person beside her.

Ribbons looked at the short, red-haired boy. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt and a very tired expression; in his right hand he held a small brown suitcase and in his left he clutched a metal cage.

In the cage was a white bunny.

"I'll see what I can do," Ribbons assured the woman, as she started to close the door. But seeing the two shivering, exhausted people, Ribbons opened the door again and stepped aside.

"Won't ya come in?"

Bonnie smiled gratefully, ushering in Fitz before her.

To the delight of the two, they found themselves standing in a grand foyer, one of the only rooms in the mansion that the maids bothered to clean. Hanging from the ten-foot ceiling was a large, delicate chandelier that glimmered in an oddly annoying fashion.

The beautiful whitish-grey tile floor was waxed daily, making it dangerously slick, so one of the maids carelessly laid out an ugly dark red and gold rug that looked much duller than it was for all the dust and dried dirt on it.

They wiped their feet on the filthy carpet as Ribbons instructed them to, then waited patiently as the maid tripped up the stairs and knocked loudly on Elmo's study door.

Understandably, Elmo did not answer to the first knock. Or the second. Or the third. Or the next seven.

"Mr. Elmo!" Ribbons called through the key hole. "You got some visitors out 'ere!"

Nothing.

With a huge, exasperated sigh she pushed the door open. The old man's office was pitch dark; Ribbons quickly pulled out a match from her apron pocket and lit the nearest candle, holding it in his sleeping face and prodding his shoulder gently.

"Mr. Elmo, sir?" She tapped his head.

Finally, with a loud harrumph, Elmo's eyes blinked open. He sat still, dazed by the sudden light. Eventually, he directed his sleepy glare at the servant girl as she peered down at him.

"What do you want?" he grunted irritably, batting away the candle in annoyance. "It is the middle of the night."

"Visitors," Ribbons said.

It took a moment for that to sink in.

"Visitors?" he repeated in disgust, glaring towards the door. "What are VISITORS doing in my house?"

"They're 'ere to see you, Mr. Elmo, sir," she explained. "One of 'em says to tell you that her name be Bonnie Kiply, and she wishes very much to speak wit' you immediately concerning her child."

"I do not like children," he snorted distastefully, spinning his chair around to face the wall.

"But she said it is most urgent," Ribbons protested.

With a great huff Elmo spun back around and growled at the maid. "If she wishes to speak with me then SHE can come up HERE."

Ribbons nodded, set the candle on the desk and hurried down to the callers, who stood fidgeting by the door. Bonnie's head shot up when Ribbons came in.

"What does he say?" asked the woman anxiously.

"He says he'll speak with you if yer willing to come upstairs."

A weary smile of relief lit up Bonnie's face as she and Fitz followed the maid up to Elmo's dreary study. Fitz nearly fell down through the hole where a step should have been, but fortunately Ribbons caught him in time.

"Careful of them missin' stairs," she warned, dusting off his shirt. "I almost died a hundred times 'cause of them things."

Fitz nodded wide-eyed.

They continued their climb without any more incidents.

Upon their entrance, the old man raised his head miserably.

"Well?"

Bonnie appeared slightly insulted at this gruff greeting, but pushed it aside for the moment and stepped forward. "Elmo, ever since my husband ran off with the gypsies, I've been struggling to find work. Well, a few weeks ago, I read about a couple of job openings in South Carolina."

As she paused for breath, Elmo used this opprotunity to recall the day Bonnie's husband had, indeed, ran off with a band of gypsies, and was never heard from again. A terrible thing, but still, Elmo found it amusing all the same.

"One of my good friends lives there and invited me to stay with her while I go to some job interviews," the woman continued, "it sounds good, and would be, if only she liked kids."

Here Bonnie bit her lip and turned pleading eyes on her step-brother.

"No."

Desperation filled Bonnie's eyes and she clasped her hands together. "Oh, please, won't you at least consider watching Fitz while I'm away? He's very easy and well behaved; you won't have to supervise him or anything, and I'll ring you up sometimes and see how things are going; and I'll be back in a week or so for him, unless something happens and you need me to come pick him up sooner."

Once again, the dark-haired woman gave Elmo a pitiful glance.

He looked at Bonnie, then Fitz, then Ribbons, then the white bunny in the cage, and then Bonnie again.

He let out an enormous sigh of defeat. "Fine."

If people could smile so big as to crack their faces in two, Bonnie Kiply's face would have shattered into a hundred pieces from all her grinning.

"Oh, bless you, Elmo!" she exclaimed, rushing over and throwing her arms around his neck. "Thank you! You don't how much this means to me! How can I ever repay you?!"

The startled old man pried her fingers from his grey sweater. "I don't want you to repay me," he grumped, pushing her firmly out of his face. "I just want you to go away and find a job already."

She nodded eagerly and, to Elmo's abhorrence, kissed his forehead, then turned to Ribbons and thanked her warmly for her kind and generous welcome.

Bonnie teared up as she squeezed her son tightly. "You be a good boy, now, you hear?" she sniffed, kneeling down so she was eye level with him.

Fitz nodded, his sea-blue eyes never straying from her chocolate-brown ones.

"I'll ring you up as often as I can," Bonnie promised, "and I'll be back in a week, just like I told Elmo I would. If anything happens, you call this number-" Bonnie unzipped her purse and shuffled through its contents, finally producing a crumpled scrap of blue paper with some numbers scribbled on it, "-and ask for me."

He nodded again and took the paper, stuffing it in the back pocket of his jeans. "You promise to ring me?" he asked at last.

It was the first time he had spoken since their unexpected arrival, and Ribbons quite liked his accent.

"Cross my heart," Bonnie smiled. She wiped her tear-stained face and drew him into another bear hug. "I love you, sweetie."

"I love you more," Fitz replied.

Ribbons felt her own self start to snuffle, and she quickly brushed her hand across her eyes. As she looked away, she happened to glimpse Elmo watching the two huggers in disgust.

"You have permission to go," he interrupted rudely. "Now."

Bonnie swallowed hard and patted Fitz's curly head of hair. "Alright. I'm going. Thank you, Elmo; this is a true blessing for me. I can't thank you enough."

"I know," he muttered.

With a cheery wave of her hand, Bonnie exited the office and made her way down the treacherous staircase, careful to step over the gaping hole.

A dreary silence fell over the three, plus one white bunny. It was broken only by the scratchy groan of the front door as it swung shut.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Fitz trotted quickly after Ribbons. The maid had been ordered by Elmo to show his step-nephew to one of the guest rooms, and she was doing just that.

"Be careful of 'at hole," she warned him, gesturing at the black pit which should have been covered by a step. "You don't wanna fall down there."

"Are all the staircases like this?" Fitz asked her. He was having a lot of difficulty stepping over the obstacle while holding his suitcase and bunny cage.

Ribbons took the suitcase from him. "Yes siree," she grinned. "Always been and always will be, far as I know."

"Why doesn't somebody fix it?"

"'Cause," Ribbons replied as they continued down the dark corridor, "Mr. Elmo says we mustn't. We've all asked him about as many times as a human bein' can, and he just gruffles and puffs and tells us to go collect the eggs; which is mighty curious, as he doesn't own no chickens."

"'We'?" Fitz repeated, suddenly interested. The boy turned and looked at her, his eyes sparkling. "Are there others?"

"'Course there's others!" exclaimed the maid. "There's me, Toes, Glasses, Stupid, Nosy- oh, look. Here's yer room, little sir. You've got a bed and a window and yer own personal bathroom, just put yer things in that wardrobe there, and don't mind the cobwebs 'cause they're all but abandoned."

Fitz set his cage down and looked around the room.

Dust swarmed about a buttery candle that rested on the cracked windowsill, the red flame dancing wildly like it was trying to escape itself. The bed, which was assumed to be infested with dust bunnies, had a thick mustard-yellow quilt spread over it just dying to be washed.

Indeed, there were cobwebs, a whole layer of them hiding the dark brown mahogany wardrobe with chipped brass handles. Out of all the elements in the room, Fitz decided the wood floor was in the best condition, as there was not one single visible scratch.

"Sort of a mess, ain't it?" Ribbons laughed good-naturedly. She tap-tap-tapped over to the filthy window and flung the tattered grey curtains aside.

"Quite," Fitz responded, cracking a smile. "It ought to clean up nice, though."

"Yep. Tomorrow us'n Jingles, she's another maid, can fix 'er up good as new."

"Smashing!" the boy exclaimed. "Now I think I'll get some sleep."

"Alrighty." Ribbons patted his head awkwardly and backed out of the door. "G'night... Fitz, is it?"

"Yes," he said. "You?"

"Ribbons."

"Good night, Ribbons."

"Good night, Mr. Fitz."

* * * * * * * * * * *

If the window in Fitz's bedroom had not been caked with dirt, then perhaps the sun would have been able to shine through and wake him.

But since it could not, Fitz was instead awoken by the alarming sound of someone beating a cowbell with a spatula.

"Breakfast! Breakfast! Come an' get it!" he heard Ribbons' muffled voice shout. "Nice, hot, toasty toast and eggs! Hurry an' eat it afore it all turns rotten! Breakfast!"

With a groan, Fitz sat up in his surprisingly springy bed and stretched. After he had finished dressing, fed his pet bunny named Bowtart, headed for the kitchen, got lost five times, and accidentally banged his head into a low-hanging ceiling, Fitz managed to find his way down to where Ribbons was hollering.

When she saw him enter, rubbing his forehead, Ribbons put down the cowbell and spatula and grinned at him.

"Well, looky who's here!" she exclaimed. "Good mornin', Mr. Fitz!"

He grinned back tiredly. "Good morning, and it's just plain Fitz. What's for breakfast?"

"You just sit right down there in 'at chair there an' I'll tell ya'."

Fitz sat.

As soon as he did, three other females entered. One was wearing a black dress with a white lace apron tied around it, two low pigtails and a pair of mocassins with the fronts busted out so one could see her toes.

The second was a huskier woman, who wore the same oufit, minus the mocassins, with her dark hair down, pink house slippers and a pair of sparkly silver earrings.

And the third was decked out in tiny golden bells that jingled and jangled when she walked.

They all seated themselves around the circular wooden table and stared at Fitz.

"Who is that?" the second woman asked, leaning towards him inquisitively.

"Nosy, this be Mr.- ah, I mean, Plain Fitz Kiply," Ribbons stammered. "Fitz, this here's Nosy."

"Hiya," Fitz waved politely.

The first girl then tossed her pigtails over her shoulders and said, "My name's Toes. It is a tremendous honor to meet you."

"Um, thank you...?"

"And I'm Jingles!" the girl with the bells giggled. "You are from England, am I correct?"

"Yes," Fitz replied. "I mean, my grandmother was from England, and she married my grandfather who was from America, and they had my mother, and she got married to somebody from England, and they had me; so, I'm sort of mostly English."

"And mostly not American," put in Toes. "When did you get here?"

"Last night."

"You know," Nosy interrupted, her eyes growing wide, "we haven't had visitors since that traveling dragonfly tamer!"

Everyone but Fitz nodded solemnly.

"He was a double-crossing fraud, he was!" burst out Jingles suddenly. "Couldn't tame a gnat to save his puny life! None of my dragonflys were fit to keep; vicious savages, they were. Practically mauled me to death!"

Toes patted her shoulder. "We would have given you a funeral fit for a queen."

"You are true friends," Jingles smiled.

And then nobody said anything.

"Well!" exclaimed Ribbons, breaking the awkward silence as she skidded over to the rusty stove. "Who's 'ungry?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

After breakfast, Jingles, Toes and Nosy stood up and bade Fitz farewell, thanked Ribbons for the yummy meal, and scrambled off to do whatever it was they were expected to do in Elmo's ginormous, ancient mansion.

Fitz wiped his face with a torn fabric napkin that probably used to be cream colored. He stood up.

"That," he declared, "was delicious."

"Why, thank ya', kind sir," Ribbons winked. "I must say, I agree with you."

The young boy laughed. Like any well-mannered teenager, he brought his dirty dishes to the sink and pushed in the backless chair.

"Do you mind if I just gander around a bit?" Fitz then queried, turning to the maid.

"If that's a Britland term for 'wander', then be my guest."

Fitz secretly chuckled at the idea of 'Britland', thanked her once again for the food, and backed out into the hallway as he spoke. Fitz sighed deeply and looked at the aged door on his right. He looked at the one on his left.

With a shrug, he finally decided to try the left-hand door. The knob was in sad condition, Fitz noted, and so he was gentle to turn it.

Once inside, Fitz stepped back and surveyed the wreck that beheld him.

Cardboard boxes, torn, muddied furniture, cracked picture frames, broken china doll heads and heaps of tools lay strewn about the perfect floor, all covered in dust thick enough to cut with a knife.

On the far wall was a bare window. Early morning sunlight struggled to beam through the years' worth of dirt and grime that coated it, but the little light that got through only showed off all the dust floating in the air.

Fitz shook his head at the inexplicable disgustingness, hoping that not all the rooms were like this.

Unfortunately, most of the rooms in the mansion WERE quite like that: musty, cluttered and forgotten. The doors were all the same dark brown oak, with the cracked brass knobs that were just begging you to turn them. Besides the tile in the foyer, every other room and hallway in the house had expensive wood flooring that the owner was most careful not to scratch.

For two hours, Fitz strolled aimlessly through the winding turns of the house. And just like Ribbons said, every single staircase had one step missing; no more, no less. A couple of times, Fitz was nearly tempted to go down one of the holes, curious what he might find.

But his common sense won the internal battles, and Fitz ended up hopping over so many black pits he started to tire; prompting him to look for a nice chair to sit down and rest.

Finally, after much hunting, Fitz found a crippled bench placed just outside of the kitchen. Relieved and exhausted, the sixteen-year-old flung himself onto it and lay still.

Fitz started to close his eyes and drift off to sleep, but the hum of voices brought him back to reality. They were coming from the kitchen, he realized, straightening up. For the moment Fitz pretended that eavesdropping wasn't rude, and he strained his ears to make out what was being said.

"Ya' mean ya've never cleaned his office durin' his nap time?"

Ribbons.

"Of course I have not," replied what sounded like Toes, "because that is your and Nosy's duty."

"Well, then you've never heard Mr. Elmo talk in his sleep," concluded Nosy triumphantly.

"Talk in his sleep?" Jingles repeated enthusiastically. "Whoo- what does he say?"

"Somethin' about this 'Iron Key' he apparently keeps havin' dreams 'bout," Ribbons answered. "Mumbles things like, 'need to find it', and, 'one who likes Shirley', and, 'who asked for yer opinion?'."

Fitz chuckled.

"Hmm," Jingles mused. "Well, it sure sounds interesting. Probably just another one of his delirious dreams. Hey, Toes, pass me the butter, would you?"

As the girls droned on about cooking, Fitz began to wonder about the 'Iron Key'. He decided to go see Elmo about it. After all, what could the harm be in asking?

* * * * * * * * * * *

Bang bang bang!

Elmo jumped, startled awake. It took a few moments for him to come to his senses, but when he did, he focused his most penetrating glare on the vibrating door.

"Who goes there?" growled the old man.

"Fitz," called a youthful British voice.

"What's a fitz?" Elmo puffed in irritation.

"No, my NAME is Fitz."

Dead silence.

"Can I come in?"

"... No."

"Please?"

"Absolutely no."

The pitter-patter of footsteps could be heard, then there was quiet. For a few minutes, Elmo's hopes started to grow to the size of a mountain. But they were shattered by another tremendous BANG BANG BANG!

"Who goes there now?"

"Me."

"Me who?"

"Me, Fitz."

"Go away."

"Can't I please come in?"

"Most certainly not."

"I have muffins."

"I do not like muffins."

"Everybody likes muffins."

"Everybody is stupid."

"Well, I have chicken."

"CHICKEN?"

"Yes, chicken."

"Where did you get CHICKEN?"

"From Toes."

"..."

Thinking he might be getting somewhere, Fitz asked carefully, "May I PRETTY please come in?"

"... How much chicken?"

"LOTS of chicken."

"Exactly how much chicken?"

"Five pieces."

"Five pieces?"

"Five pieces."

"... Oh, fine."

Instantly, the old oak door was thrust open. The boy with red, curly hair from the night before burst in after it, toting a basket with two muffins and five pieces of chicken. He plopped it down on the desk and stood, facing Elmo expectantly.

"What do you want NOW?" the old man asked him suspiciously.

"To ask you a question," Fitz replied, his blue eyes sparkling as he pushed the basket towards his step-uncle.

Elmo took a piece of chicken and raised it to his mouth in slow-motion. "What question?"

"A question about..." Fitz drew a deep breath, "... the Iron Key."

The only sound that could be heard was Elmo chewing his chicken. Once he swallowed, Elmo wiped his mouth and gave Fitz a hard stare.

"How do you know about that?" he asked grumpily, taking another bite.

"I, um, overheard Ribbons and some of the other maids talking about it in the kitchen."

"How do THEY know about that?"

"Well, they said that sometimes, while they're in here cleaning your office during your naps, you talk in your sleep."

Elmo practically spit out his chicken. "TALK IN MY SLEEP?!" he bellowed. "Where did they get that ridiculous notion?!"

"Ribbons said they heard you."

"Heard me, did they?" grunted Elmo. "Hmmph. Well, it will give them something to talk about so they don't come up here bothering me every second of the hour."

"It's true, then?" asked Fitz excitedly. "There really is an Iron Key?"

Elmo frowned thoughtfully at his step-nephew. "You," he said suddenly, pointing at Fitz, "go over to that," he pointed to a bird cage with some white cloth draped over it, "and take off the white cloth."

Puzzled, Fitz obeyed. When the material slid onto the floor, he was shocked to see a real, living, breathing parrot perched on a bar.

"Shirley wants a taco!" it shrieked, cocking its red and yellow feathered head at Fitz. "Shirley is a pretty owl!"

The boy gazed at the bird in wonder. "She's beautiful!" he exclaimed softly. "And she can talk!"

"'She's beautiful'!" Shirley screamed. "'And she can talk'!"

A wide grin spread across Fitz's face. "Aww, youse a smawt yiddle birdie, yes you awe!"

"Smawt birdie! Smawt birdie!" the parrot croaked. "Shirley wants a taco!"

Still smiling, Fitz whirled around to look at Elmo. "Where'd you get her?"

Elmo shrugged and started on his second piece of chicken. "How am I supposed to know?" he replied ignorantly. "Not that I care. She's a horrid beast anyway. Thinks she's an owl; yells too much."

"Well." Fitz kneeled down next to the cage. "I think she's lovely."

That was all Elmo needed.

"Right!" he announced, rising to his feet for the first time in a long time. "It's you! You must help me hunt for the iron key!"

"Wha- I... who?" spluttered Fitz.

"In my dream," Elmo explained impatiently, pulling out his walker with little green tennis balls on the feet. "Someone said in my dream that, 'The one who speaks fondly of Shirley will aid you'. That's you. So come on. And quit standing there with your mouth open, a bug might fly in."

Elmo hobbled stiffly towards the door, but Fitz stopped him.

"Okay, I'll help you hunt," he said, "on one condition."

"What?" grouched Elmo.

Fitz grabbed up Shirley's cage. "That we bring her."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Fitz told Ribbons about the treasure hunt, she was ecstatic.

"A treasure hunt!" squealed the girl. "Oh, I do love me a good lookin' for somethin'! What is it y'all are huntin' for?"

"The iron key," replied Fitz proudly. "I'm going to bring along Shirley and Bowtart. Would you like to help us?"

Ribbons beamed. "I'd be honored!"

"Split up, people," Elmo grumbled, stalking over to them. "Start hunting; we haven't got thirty years."

"Yes, sir!" Ribbons saluted him. She tapped over to a door and flung it open, sending clouds of dust flying out. Hacking and wheezing, Ribbons entered the dimly lit room and pulled the door shut behind her.

Elmo then turned to Fitz, who had begun walking in the direction of his room.

"Where are you going?" yelled the old man hoarsely.

"To get Bowtart."

"BOWTART?" Elmo repeated in disgust. "Is that some sort of pastry?"

Fitz stifled a laugh. "No, it's my pet bunny."

"Bunnies!" scoffed Elmo. "I had forgotten about those."

The miserable man stayed where was until Fitz returned, hauling another pet cage. Shirley was squawking her multi-colored head off at the sight of the white, cotton-tailed creature.

"Rabbit! Rabbit!" she screeched. "Shirley wants a taco!"

"Hush, there," Fitz scolded her gently, giving the parrot cage a little shake. "His name is Bowtart, and he's a BUNNY."

"It's the same thing," Elmo grumped. "Bunnies and rabbits and Easter Day mascots. Go start searching."

"Very well," Fitz agreed. "Why don't you take Shirl-"

"I resent that suggestion!" boomed Elmo, who then started into a coughing fit.

"But she's your parrot," protested Fitz, shoving the cage towards his step-uncle. "She's your responsibility."

"It was your idea to bring her," Elmo retorted scratchily, but nevertheless he took the bird.

Satisfied, Fitz hurried off in the opposite direction Ribbons had taken, leaving Elmo and Shirley all alone.

"Gargoyle," Shirley croaked at her owner, cocking her head artisticly.

"Shut up, you," Elmo glared at her. "If anybody is a gargoyle, you are."

"'You are'! 'You are'!" shrieked the parrot.

Furiously, Elmo latched the cage hook onto the handle of his walker.

"You'd better behave," he warned, waving a finger in her feathery face. "Or I'll have Ribbons turn you into a parrot pie."

"Pie! Pie! Shirley wants a taco! Squwawk! Gargoyle!"

"Ugh."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Each time she stepped, poufs of dust shot up , contaminating the already contaminated air.

"Gol-ly!" Ribbons sighed, running her hand through her hair and ribbons. "I'll never not clean all the rooms ever again!"

She flapped her arms wildly, trying to clear away the musty smell, but it only got worse. Out of the three rooms she had searched, Ribbons decided that this was in the absolute poorest condition.

Every inch of the floor, or so it seemed, was cluttered with antiques, broken wine bottles, old newspapers and dust.

Dust!

It covered every nook and cranny of every particle of every thing in that room, suffocated the windowsill and any other ledge that made contact with the air, and then invited itself right on into the lungs of anybody who dared to come in and breathe.

"Good gravy!" Ribbons exclaimed, her strong will finally crumbling as she made a beeline for the hallway. She flung the door wide and tumbled out, panting and gasping, "Air!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Creeeeak.

Cautiously, Fitz peeped around the slender door into the dark closet of the fifth guest bedroom on the right. When his eyes adjusted to the blackness, he saw that there was a skinny staircase leading a little ways down. Then the wall took a sharp turn to the right, and he could see no further.

The teenager gathered his courage, and the bunny cage in which Bowtart hopped about restlessly, and lowered himself slowly onto the first step, testing it a minute before trusting it with his full weight.

Nothing terrible happened, so he continued down the stairs with a lot more confidence, peering into the dark passageway.

But Fitz forgot about the missing step.

And when he came to it, he fell straight down.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Squwawk!" Shirley shrieked.

"Be quiet," grumped Elmo, for the fifth time that minute. "I'm warning yo-"

He was interrupted by a faint cry that got cut short, and followed by a terrific CRASH! beneath them. A fearful expression washed over Elmo's face, and not even Shirley made a sound.

It was Ribbons who brought the old man out of his frozen state.

"Wh-what d'you suppose that was?" she asked shakily, causing him to jump.

"I'd rather not suppose," answered Elmo, somewhat harshly. He, for once, didn't mean to come across as rude, but rather, that was his way of dealing with unexpected catastrophes.

Forgetting about Elmo for a moment, Ribbons took off in the direction of the yell; although, running in high heels while staying calm and still getting someplace in a relatively short period of time is not as easy as it sounds.

Elmo puttered nervously along, going as fast as his walker and cramped, old legs would allow. Shirley and her pointless, "Squwawk! Squwawk! Gargoyle!", which she had resumed was not helping.

"Close your yapper, stupid bird!" panted Elmo. "Or else I will locate some duct tape and personally close it for you!"

"Pie!" shrieked Shirley ignorantly. "Shirley wants a taco! Squwawk!"

A loud growl emmitted from Elmo's throat, at which Shirley surprisingly hushed. Elmo grinned. He hurried after Ribbons.

When they reached the closet door that Fitz had left ajar, Ribbons peeked around and then squeezed down the stairs, almost falling through the hole. Suddenly, she heard a loud groaning from down below.

"Mr. Elmo!" she hissed. "I think it's comin' from down there!"

Before the old man could reply, a voice that sounded like Fitz murmured weakly, "Help!"

Ribbons blue eyes grew round as dinner plates. "Fitz!" she gasped. "Holy smokin' roosters! Don't you worry! I-I'll get a rope- ah, a ladder! Just hold on!"

Elmo moved out of her way, plopping Shirley's cage down on the floor. He stood helplessly, not sure what to do, until Ribbons returned with a long rope ladder.

The maid tied one end to the door handle and let the rest of it unroll into the black pit. Without even checking to see that it was secure, Ribbons scuttled down the rungs, ribbons of every imaginable color falling into her eyes and under her feet.

When she finally disappeared from sight and did not call out, Elmo began to wonder if the pit did not just keep going on forever, and that maybe Fitz had landed on a lone overhang or something.

"Are you alright?" he yelled after a good three minutes had passed. "Is it safe to come down?"

"... Yes," replied a muffled voice. "Very safe. I got Fitz now; he's fine, except fer a nasty bruise on his ankle."

Elmo grudgingly snatched up Shirley, who was screeching as loud as she possibly could, and called down the hole, "Catch!" and he let the cage fall.

Next he threw down his walker. "Catch again!"

A loud OOF could be heard, and then Ribbons hollered up for Elmo to climb down.

"That is easier said than done," the old man reminded her gruffly. "I am sixty-eight, you know."

But after some encouraging words from his two partners, Elmo managed to clamber down awkwardly. On the last rung, his foot slipped, and he tumbled onto a pile of dirt.

"Oh, my!" exclaimed Ribbons, lending him her hand.

Elmo snorted at her kind gesture, but allowed the girl to pull him to his feet. Sadly, though, his joints fared no better than in his dream.

Once Elmo was sturdily on his feet, Ribbons, never one to be caught unprepared, pulled out a match from her apron pocket and magically produced a candle from somewhere on her, lighting the wick as quick as she could.

The light made their faces glow, standing out from the darkness.

Fitz set down Bowtart's cage and directed everyone's attention to the incredible place they were in.

"Just look at it," Fitz breathed, massaging his wounded ankle. "Did you know about all this, Elmo?"

Surrounding the trio was a maze of metal pillars, sheets of plywood cemented into the dirt ground, and lots of rubble.

Elmo shook his grey-haired head, speechless.

"No," he answered at last. "No, I did not know about all this."

For a few minutes, nobody said anything. Finally Ribbons shook herself and turned to face them, grinning broadly.

"Well, what're we waitin' for?" she exclaimed. "Let's start huntin'!"

Everyone immediately scattered, digging through the massive piles of debris and maneuvering through the winding paths.

Luckily, there was hardly any dust down in the secret maze, although in its place was dirt, dirt and more dirt. Ribbons was just thankful that the sod wasn't hovering about her head.

Elmo and Fitz had left Shirley and Bowtart near the ladder site and gone off in opposite directions. As he growled at the dark soil for not allowing his tennis balls to glide across smoothly, Elmo tumbled over something buried in the ground.

"You alright, Mr. Elmo, sir?" shouted Ribbons. Her voice echoed, bouncing eerily off the brick walls that surrounded them.

"I'm wonderful," he grunted back sarcastically, slowly sitting up and rubbing his knee. "Just fell over something some stupid oaf probably dropped down here a millenia ago."

Ribbons came over and dragged Elmo to his feet. The thing that had tripped him caught her eye, and the maid kneeled down and ripped it out.

"Well, wha'd'ya' know!" she exclaimed triumphantly, holding up a broken, lensless, filthy pair of glasses. "It's Glasses' glasses! Must've fallen through one o' them stair holes. She'll be mighty pleased you found 'em, Mr. Elmo, sir."

"Found them?" gaped the miserable old man. "You mean I nearly broke my head when I tripped over those rotten things!"

Elmo marched scornfully away, dragging behind him his walker.

Ribbons slipped the glasses into her apron pocket and smiled.

After roughly fifteen more minutes of searching, the three gathered underneath the ladder.

"We've looked everywhere," Ribbons declared, wiping perspiration and ribbons from her brow. "P'raps the treasure ain't down here."

"You're right," Elmo huffed in exhasperation. "Maybe it's all just a wild goose chase."

The two shrugged at each other and started to climb back up the hole, when Fitz noticed something strange about one of the walls.

"Hey! Look at this!" he exclaimed, excitement building up in his tone. "I think there might be a secret compartment!"

"A what?" Elmo asked, coming over to where his step-nephew stood fingering the brick.

Ribbons joined them. "Can ya' open it?"

"I'm trying!"

Fitz heaved all of his weight against the outlined block, and with some help from the other two, much squawking from Shirley, and a saucer-eyed stare from Bowtart, they finally got it to slide back.

Elmo stepped forward and began feeling around the opening. His hand came to a sunken part, and down in it, to his rare joy, lay the iron key.

The old man picked up the rusted old thing and held it in the candlelight.

"YES!!!" screamed Ribbons. "WE'VE FOUND IT!!!"

"SUCCESS!!!" Fitz cried, pumping his fist in the air.

"Look," Elmo interrupted, noticing something yellowish white in the hole. Gently he pulled out the piece of paper and blew on it.

"Is it a riddle?" Fitz asked, leaning in closer to see it.

"A poem?" Ribbons queried.

Elmo cleared his throat. "It reads: 'Go to the library and find Catherine's favorite book'."

Startled, he briskly stuffed the paper into Ribbons' hands. A strange ticklish feeling swelled up in the back of his throat, and for the first time in twenty-nine years, Elmo felt the sensation one gets before one weeps.

Fitz stood looking quizzical and awkward.

'Of course, he don't know', Ribbons thought to herself sadly. 'Only Mr. Elmo, me an' them other maids knows of Mrs. Catherine's fatal stroke.'

Aloud, Ribbons said soothingly, "Shh, there, it's alright. She was a good woman, an' we all loved her as she loved us." The maid dared to place her hand on Elmo's shoulder, and to her surprise, he didn't shrug it off.

Eventually, he cleared his throat and shook off Ribbons' hand. "Enough," the old man said firmly, trying with all his might not to sniffle. "Let's go find that book."

Ribbons nodded with a giddy smile, while Fitz grabbed up Bowtart and, because he wasn't certain what was wrong with his step-uncle, Shirley, and the three dragged themselves up the ladder and out into the bright hallway.

Elmo ignored the blinding glare and continued on towards the library, his aged face set in determination. Following closely behind was Fitz, who blinked in irritation at the light, but managed to look as intent and serious as possible.

Ribbons stayed to untie the rope ladder and shut the door, then ran after the two shouting, "Wait up fer me!"

Now the library was probably the oldest, spookiest, quietest and dustiest room in the whole entire mansion. Every inch of all four walls was covered by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed full of every sort of book you can imagine. On the floor, too, were stacks and stacks of books that didn't fit on the shelves.

In the middle of the room was a tiny wooden table that wobbled, due to a chipped leg, and also there was a round stool-thing that had a big chunk of seat missing, so one had to be careful not to shift, or else they might slip off.

The only two spots of wall that were not taken up by bookshelves were the places where holes had been cut for a door and window. With there being, conveniently, no light in the library, one had to read during the day and adjust the stool to match where the single ray of sun fell.

"What was Mrs. Catherine's favorite book?" Ribbons asked carefully when they had finished taking in the sight of the library. "I mean, you DO know, don't ya'?"

"Of course I know!" grunted Elmo in annoyance, quickly shuffling over to one of the bookshelves. "Let's see... A... A... A... more A... B... E... G? Hmm- oh, here we go. H."

Elmo ran his hand along the uneven book tops, murmuring softly to himself. By the door, Ribbons and Fitz waited intensely as the old man finally tugged out a thick, black-covered book.

"This is it," Elmo stated quietly, brushing cobwebs from the treasure. "Catherine's favorite book."

He held it up for the other two to see, and Ribbons read the title aloud.


He held it up for the other two to see, and Ribbons read the title aloud.

"'The Holy Bible'."

Hearing the name spoken aloud brought back fond, and painful, memories for Elmo; memories like picnics, board games and that time when he and Catherine had discovered that pogo sticks were meant for young, athletic people and not middle-aged, unathletic people.

Thinking about his beautiful wife was something Elmo hadn't done in many years. It only increased his misery. So now, with her favorite book clutched in his aged hands, Elmo felt his eyes welling up with tears as he shuffled over to the wooden table.

"Easy there!" Ribbons advised him, hurrying over to make sure he didn't slip off the half-stool when he sat. "Watch 'at gap!"

She steadied him by the shoulders, and Elmo did not slip.

Eagerly, Fitz joined the two as they peered down at the big book. He set the pet cages on the flawless wood floor, and Shirley, who did not tolerate being ignored, started up a terrifically obnoxious "SQUWAW! SQUWAW! SQUWAW!", until Ribbons untied her apron and draped it over the barred coop.

"Shush, you owl-beast," commanded the maid softly, waving her finger in Shirley's feathery face. "Else I'll haf'ta turn ya' into a parrot pie!" She resumed her station at Elmo's side, and the old man couldn't help but snicker triumphantly at the threat.

"Well, are you going to open it?" Fitz pestered, trying not to sound impatient.

Elmo waved his hand at the boy in irritation. "Don't rush me," he growled, but he didn't huff quite so loudly as he carefully flipped to the first page.

Due to their age, the pages had turned a grungy yellow, similar to the paper hidden with the iron key. A few words were illegible, as small rips and stains dotted the old script, but for the most part the Bible was in fine condition.

Elmo frowned and scanned the page for any sign of a treasure, but his search was in vain.

"P'raps if ya' turn to the middle you'll find somethin'," Ribbons suggested, when she sensed Elmo's disappointment.

"Of course," Fitz agreed quickly. "Surely the treasure will not be on the first page. Check the table of contents; maybe there is a clue to the treasure there."

Elmo harrumphed at their helpfulness, but nevertheless he scoured the contents. One book had a miniature drawing of a leprechaun guarding his pot of gold next to it, and after pointing this out to the others, they all came to the conclusion that that was not a common trait to find in a Holy Bible.

"I'll bet it's a clue!" Ribbons declared with a broad grin. "Why not flip to 'at book?"

Once again, Elmo carried out their recommendations and turned yellow leaf after yellow leaf until, conclusively, he reached the book of Isaiah.

That small success was followed by a minute of silence.

"What now?" Elmo demanded. He looked from Fitz to Ribbons to the worn verses staring him in the face.

Both people shrugged, and so the old man returned the favor and then began the tedious chore of reading through every word on every page.

Such a task was doomed to take a long while, and pretty soon Fitz and Ribbons grew bored and wandered off to the musty shelves, looking for any title that might strike their fancy.

Half an hour passed, and still Elmo had found nothing that stood out. But just when he was about to slam the Bible shut and give the treasure up for fantasy, a single verse, highlighted with green marker, caught his eye.

"People!" Elmo announced, rising creakily from the stool and holding the Bible over his head victoriously. "See what I have found!"

Fitz ran over excitedly, followed by Ribbons, who wore a grin identical to the British teenager's.

"What have you found?!" cried Fitz, curiosity written all over his face.

"Ooh, yes! Do please read it to us, Mr. Elmo, sir!" Ribbons added gleefully.

Clearing his throat, Elmo peered down at the words before him. "Isaiah 33:6 says, 'He will be your safety. He is full of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge. Respect for the Lord is the greatest treasure'. What does that mean?"

"'Respect for the Lord is the greatest treasure'," Fitz repeated thoughtfully. "Well, I'm pretty sure that verse means that, the first step to having a relationship with God is to respect Him. After all, the Bible says, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom'..."

'Wisdom,' thought Elmo, his attention diverting from Fitz as memories came flooding back to him. 'Yes, fearing the Lord is the start of wisdom. I remember Catherine talking about that. She always seemed so heart-broken, yet hopeful, when she reminded me of it daily.'

He recalled a time when she forced him to go to church with her, how he had grunted and humphed at every person she introduced him to. Memories of Catherine praying before her meals, unceasingly telling Elmo the good news of the Gospel, and quoting to him her favorite Bible verse, John 3:16, all came rushing back into his head, sparking more and more thoughts he had buried deep beneath his melancholy.

And then suddenly, miraculously, all of it clicked.

Catherine's mumbled thanks to Jesus when a prayer was answered, her strong attachment to the Bible, never missing an opprotunity to spout verses, all of it, all at once, burst out like a crystal-clear river being released from its dam.

Elmo understood.

"Gargoyle!" Shirley shrieked, ever the champion of wrecking special moments. "Shirley wants a taco! Squwaw!"

Her outburst brought Elmo back to reality, just in time to hear Fitz finish his translation speech.

"... when you accept Jesus into your heart and become a Christian, you are saved, and that is a treasure worth more than all the gold in the world," concluded Fitz. He smiled and added, "I am happy to say that I've already found this treasure!"

"So've I," sighed Ribbons peacefully, drying her misty eyes with her sleeve. "It's all so beautiful. I 'member when Glasses used ta' read ta' us maids from the Holy Bible. We'd be all crammed on her dingy ol' bed, with a candle burnin' in the windersill. Ya' could feel magic push away the dust when she'd read them verses." Ribbons sighed again and pulled her sleeve back to its usual resting place by her elbow.

Fitz smiled up at her, and Ribbons smiled down at him.

It was almost a perfect moment.

Still frozen stiffly by the stool, Elmo was pondering over what his step-nephew had just said.

Saved.

Treasure.

A Christian.

Catherine had been a Christian.

Before her stroke, she was always preaching to Elmo about the Gospel, and always repeating this famous Bible verse:

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. -John 3:16

An image of his wife, smiling her flowery smile and holding her arms wide, beckoning him to her, flashed in Elmo's mind.

And then Elmo made his decision.


And then Elmo made his decision.

"People," he said, rising slowly from the stool, Bible clutched in his wrinkly hand. "I have an announcement to make."

Ribbons and Fitz looked over, surprise and wonder filling their young faces when they saw that Elmo had tears in his grey old eyes.

"You alright, Mr. Elmo, sir?" asked Ribbons in concern, leaping to his side.

He then offered them a rare smile, a genuine smile, one that crept into his eyes and lit up his whole face. "No," grinned Elmo. "I'm more than alright. I'm saved."

There was no explanation needed. Everyone knew what the stubborn old man meant. So joyous were the moments that followed that no one felt the need to say anything.

What COULD one say?

Finally, Ribbons, teary-eyed and choked up, wrapped her arms around Elmo and asked what he would like them to do.

"Pray with me," Elmo replied, and so they did.

All three friends bowed their heads, clasped their hands, and murmured a prayer. Both Ribbons and Fitz prayed for Elmo as he accepted Jesus as his Savior, and then they all said hello to Catherine.

Elmo finally let his hands fall to his sides. "Amen," he murmured contendedly.

"Amen," chorused Fitz and Ribbons.

They all shared blissful smiles, and Elmo set the Bible down on the crippled wooden table, accidentally knocking off the iron key.

It smacked against the perfect flooring with a THUNK, not leaving so much as a scratch.

"I wonder," Fitz mused, kneeling down to pick it up. Turning it over in his hands, the boy noticed something stuck to the handle of the key. He tore it off and waved around what seemed to be more yellow paper. "Look! Look! A note!"

Elmo took the scrap that was thrust in his face, carefully flattening it out and squinting his eyes at the minuscule script.

"'C through E , top and back, find the chest, and do not crash'," he read.

"What?" Ribbons asked, befuddled.

"Shirley is a pretty owl! Squwawk!" Shirley screeched.

"It sounds like a riddle," Fitz piped up, setting down the key and joining the others by the bookcase. "'C through E'. That could mean the C and E section of books. 'Top and back' might indicate that we look at the top of that shelf and then at the very back. 'Find the chest', well, it obviously wants us to find a chest of some sort. And I guess the last line just suggests that you'd better be careful not to fall."

"The last line," corrected Elmo, "means don't drop yourself and mar the floor. Catherine's biggest pet peeve was a flawed floor. That's why she kept them perfect, and why I still do."

That being clarified, they all shrugged, then Ribbons ran off to find a step-ladder.

The maid returned about ten minutes later hauling a rickety, wooden step-stool which she set at the foot of the C bookshelf.

"Start with C," she advised Elmo, as he stiffly mounted the ladder, "and then just work your way down the line."

Elmo nodded and began shoving worn, musty books aside. Dust flowed down onto the heads of Fitz and Ribbons, who spluttered and spat when it got in their mouths.

Finally reaching the far back of the bookshelf, Elmo saw no signs of any chests or anything, so they scooched the stool over and he began again.

Twenty minutes later, and at the last row of E books, Elmo's hands bumped into something cold and metal.

"HA!" he shouted in triumph, grasping the thing tightly and dragging it out into the dim light. "I have found it!"

"Ooh!" Ribbons squealed. "Bring it down 'ere, Mr. Elmo, sir!"

"Pass it to me!" Fitz offered, holding empty hands up.

Elmo carefully handed the boy the small chest, and then backed slowly down the ladder. Once safely on the ground, they all crowded around the table as Elmo fiddled with the padlock.

"Where is the iron key?" he asked finally, after failing in his atempts to open the box.

Fitz pushed it towards him.

With a nod of thanks, Elmo solemnly shoved the key into the hole.

It was a perfect fit.

Ribbons was bursting with excitment as Elmo turned the key.

Inside the lock, the tumblers CLICKED!, and the chest was open.

Bang.

Just like that.

"YAY!!!!" Ribbons exploded, grabbing Fitz and twirling around with him.

"Hush, you people!" Elmo exclaimed. "There's a note."

Silence filled the room and buzzed in the onlookers' ears as Elmo carefully pulled out the sheet of faded pink paper. Blowing off the cobwebs, he proceeded to read aloud the contents:

Dearest Elmo,

As I write these words to you, I do so knowing you will not read them until, if at all, after my death, whenever that shall happen. If you are indeed reading this, then I can be certain that you found the iron key, the clues, and the most important treasure of all.

Whether or not you have accepted Jesus as your Savior, I shan't know until you arrive- or don't arrive, where I will be after I meet my demise.

If you still reject God even now, then here is my note to you: I love you. And I'm going to miss you. Someday, you'll understand what I've been talking about all these years. Goodbye, Elmo.

However, if you finally realized what I realized so many years ago, that without Jesus in our lives there is nothing worth living for, then this is what my letter to you reads:

Don't you feel great? Like everything will be okay? Like, at last, someone understands you and has your back? I know that's what I felt like when I put my life in God's hands, and for all the years- past, present, and future- I have been, and will be, trying with all my power to share this joy with you. I'll be waiting for you in Heaven.

Come home soon.

Love and leprechauns,

Catherine

Elmo let the letter slip from his grasp, its pinkness twirling in the dust as it cascaded to the floor.

"Was that... from your wife?" Fitz ventured to ask, finally breaking the quiet.

"Yes," Elmo replied, grinning and wiping away his tears. "Yes, that was my wife."

"Sweetest woman I ever knowed," Ribbons sniffed happily.

"The most wonderful person in the world," Elmo sighed in agreement. "And for the first time ever, I am almost looking forward to my death, so that we may be reunited."

So then everybody, including Shirley and Bowtart, the latter having had sat patiently in perfect silence throughout the joyful and touching process, all left the dingy library.

Elmo, of course, brought the Bible and Catherine's note, and the two young people carried along the animal cages. When they reached their destination, which happened to be the kitchen, the other maids ceased their chatter and stared at the group in baffled surprise.

"Strange is the sight that beholds us, to be sure," Toes remarked at last, flipping her pigtails over her shoulder.

Fitz and Ribbons laughed, and to the maids utter shock, Elmo joined along.

"Do you have a fever, sir?" Nosy queried, cocking her head in puzzlement.

"No!" laughed Elmo, setting his treasures down on the kitchen table. "I have never felt better! Now make us something to eat, please."

After exchanging curious looks, all the maids cracked smiles and scrambled off to fix a delicious meal for their master.

It wasn't often he said 'please'.

~*~

Once the food was finished, the happy crowd sat down to enjoy their meal of grilled chicken, dressed with Worcestershire sauce, blueberry muffins and lots of carrots.

When Elmo reached for a muffin, Ribbons couldn't help but give him a funny look.

"I thought ya' didn't like no muffins, Mr. Elmo, sir," she reminded him.

Elmo broke off a piece and stuffed it in his mouth, sighing. "And I don't," he replied. "But there is a big difference between 'dislike' and 'tolerate'. I tolerate muffins now."

When they had finished eating, Elmo thanked the maids and requested that they clean up the kitchen.

As they bustled about, dusting this, sweeping that, Ribbons asked Fitz if he would like to tidy up his room.

He said that would be smashing.

And once those two rooms were clean, or as clean as they could be, the maids continued to neaten up the mansion.

At Elmo's request, they covered all the missing steps, except the secret staircase that Elmo discovered in his wall, which could be accessed through the closet door.

Elmo even sent Toes out to the market to purchase lamps and such.

Since Bonnie wasn't due back for another week or so, Fitz spent time with his step-uncle, Ribbons and, despite Elmo's protests, Shirley.

They became inseparable.

Well, Elmo and Shirley were still highly opposed to each other, but when Fitz and Ribbons encouraged Elmo to make a peace offerings to his parrot, he reluctantly agreed and fixed her a big, savory taco.

Shirley wouldn't stop screaming 'TACO! TACO!' long enough to eat, so Elmo stuffed it in her beak, and then they got along fine.

For the most part.

When Bonnie did return, she came bearing joyous news that she now had a job and could afford to live, with Fitz, in a very cheap house. Of course, they had to tell her all about their adventure, and she was astonished and thrilled at Elmo's change of heart.

It was arranged that Fitz would come to visit about twice a month.

Every time he did, Elmo's mansion was one step closer to clean and tidy, with Ribbons still struggling to accept the reality of no more candles.

And so life was good for Elmo, and his maids, and Shirley, who got tacos every Wednesday, and for Fitz, and Bonnie, and Bowtart.

Especially Bowtart.

Fitz crafted a saddle to put on Shirley, which Bowtart was strapped to, and the parrot flew around crashing into things screaming, "RABBIT! RABBIT! TACO! SQUWAWK!"

Bowtart just wiggled his nose.

And while all this blissful chaos was unfolding around him, Elmo just sat in his chair, reading the Bible, a content grin plastered on his face.

He was counting down the days until he could be reunited with his beloved, and all the while, enjoying life, as she would have wanted him to.

Besides, after he assured her the floors had been kept perfect, she would want a full account of what he'd been doing on earth without her. And Elmo wouldn't disappoint.


LPH Writing Class stories 2013-2014