Here is an excerpt from The Painted Page.  This chapter takes place about three-quarters of the way through the book, when Rowan and Ben are on the trail of the thieves who have stolen the Page.




By bedtime, the drops of rain had become sheets of water so thick you could hardly see through them out the window.  I had never known such hard rain.  It seemed angry, furious with the world somehow.  I lay in bed with all my clothes on, listening to its fury, and wondering what Ben was doing.  We were going to get completely and totally soaked.

And then, as quickly as the rain had started, it was finished. 

The normal sounds of nighttime suddenly filled the empty space left by the rain:  Mum and Dad watching the news, the low hushed tones of their eternal argument. 

“I can take the girls with me, and when your work is finished you can come back home, too,” Mum said.  “It won’t be too long.”  They were the first words I had heard Mum speak all day.  She spoke slowly, as if it took a great effort.

“Margaret, I can’t.  Look, I know I’ve been working too much—and I’m sorry—I know it’s been hard on you and the girls.  I’m going to try to be home more, I am.  And I know you miss teaching, but until we get our Green Cards, you can’t work here.  I wish it was different, but I can’t change the laws.  I’ve been thinking—perhaps you could volunteer, help out at the girls’ school?  Would that help?  What would make you happy here?  What would it take?”

I got up and closed the door, so I didn’t hear what Mum said to Dad.  Then a few minutes later, I heard the water running in the bathroom as they got ready for bed. Sitting up in bed, I turned my reading lamp on and held my Concise Oxford English Dictionary in my lap, just feeling the weight of all those words.  Professor Applebaum had got me thinking.  I opened the dictionary and looked up emigration.  It comes from Latin and means a movement outwards, away from your home.  The dictionary listed an older meaning, too, right under the first, and it was that one that caught my eye:  to the people who lived in medieval times, emigration meant the movement of the soul leaving the body.  That sounded pretty scary to me.  Leaving the land of your birth is like your soul leaving your body, which is a kind of dying, as far as I can figure it out.

It sounded just like Mum.  She was a person without a soul right now.   I had to help her.  But first, I had to get my Page back.

I slipped out of bed and put on my shoes, then unlatched my window and pulled up on the handles.  It didn’t budge.  I pulled again, even harder.  The window moved a few inches.  Great, what if I couldn’t even get out of the house?  I squatted down and pushed up on the sash, and this time with a great sigh it gave and opened about a foot—just enough for me to squeeze out.  I straightened up to catch my breath, and that was when I saw Esme.

She was standing at the door of the Connecting Bathroom.  “What are you doing?” she said.

“Getting some fresh air,” I told her. 

“Why are you wearing all your clothes?” she asked.

“I was just going to check to see if Junior had come back, if he was all right after the rain,” I said.  I knew I didn’t sound too convincing.

“He’s not coming back,” Esme said.

I needed a change of tack.  “Hey, Esme, what if I told you I was going on a secret mission, to save something that was lost?”


“No, no.  This is something even more special, something very valuable.”

“Can I come?” 

This was not the answer I was hoping for.

“No, Esme, you’re too little.”  The corners of her mouth turned down, as if she were about to cry.  “No, Esme, don’t cry!  Mum and Dad will hear you!”

“I don’t care,” she said.  “You never take me with you anywhere.  You never play with me.”  In the dim light from the bathroom I could see the tears starting to form in her eyes.  I had to think quickly.

“Okay, Esme, let me think a second.  You want to come?  You promise not to tell Mum and Dad?”  Her tears miraculously dried up as she nodded and crossed her heart.   “All right.  You can ride on my bike seat; I’ll pedal.  But you better not mess this up for me.  You have to be very quiet.  And you have to do exactly what I say.  It’s dangerous, okay?”

She nodded again.  “Okay,” she said. She slung her plastic purse across her shoulder.

So that was how the two of us found ourselves riding on one bike across the grass of the electricity easement.  Esme in her pajamas was sitting on the seat of the bike with her arms around my waist.  Her feet rested on the horizontal bar of the bike frame.  I was standing up, pedaling.  My legs began to ache from the effort.  At least there are no hills, I kept telling myself. 

When I made the turn into the alley that led to the creek, I could hear water rushing somewhere close by, and I realized with a start that the culvert running alongside the alley was now full of water, just as Ben had said it would be.  I couldn’t see it in the darkness, but the water sounded furious.  I thought of when we hid under the bridge from Marcus; the culvert was at least six feet deep and six feet wide.  If it was full, that was a lot of water, moving fast.  “Hold on tight,” I said to Esme, and I almost had to shout to be heard over the sound of the water.

When we got to the tree, Ben was already there, and he had brought a flashlight.  He got a shock when he shone it towards me and saw Esme perched on my bike.  “I had to bring her,” I told him quickly.  “She was going to tell.”

“All right,” he said.  “Just stay close to us, Esme.  Don’t go past the tree.  Look at the creek.”  He shone his flashlight down towards the creek, and the light hit water almost lapping the roots of the live oak.  The creek had risen far out of its banks; the water looked muddy and was moving fast, churning about as it went.

“All the water from the storm is draining into it,” Ben said.

“What are we doing here?” Esme asked, whimpering a little.

“Esme, don’t,” I scolded.  I didn’t feel like being nice to her.  “You wanted to come, remember that.  We’re on a secret mission.  We’re waiting for someone.  Now, be quiet and stay right by the bike.”

“But I’m cold,” she said.  The weather had changed.  The air felt cool and damp on my skin.

“Here, Esme,” Ben said, “you can have my sweatshirt.  I don’t need it.  I brought some cookies, too.  Here you go.”

Esme sniffed and nodded.  I helped her put on Ben’s sweatshirt, and she didn’t seem to mind it was far too big for her.   Then she held out her hand to take his offering.  Chocolate chip.  I had one, too.  We sat down on the wet ground under the tree to wait.

“We’re getting Granny’s page back, Esme,” I said.

“Yeah, some bad people stole it,” Ben said, which I thought was a nice way of interpreting the facts.  “If we get it back, we might be famous.”

Esme’s eyes widened.  She clutched her pink plastic purse tighter.

“Hey, Esme,” Ben said. “What’s the quietest thing in the world?”

She thought for a second.  “A butterfly?  That’s even quieter than a turtle.”

“I agree,” Ben said.  “Can you be as quiet as a butterfly?”

Esme nodded.

“When do you think he’s going to be here?” I asked Ben, ignoring my little sister and leaning back against the tree.

Ben shrugged.  I could see his fingers moving as he worked on a piece of paper. 

“What are you making?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.  Anything,” he said.  “A butterfly like Esme?” And he held up a paper butterfly that glowed white in the darkness.  He let go and it drifted slowly to the wet grass.  Esme bent down and picked it up.

When I looked up, Ben was looking at me strangely. 

“What is it?” I asked.

“Rowan—” he began.

Just then an old Chevrolet drove slowly over the bridge and turned into the alley.  The lights dimmed, and Professor Applebaum stepped out. 

“Are you ready?” I asked Ben.  Esme followed us without a sound to Professor Applebaum’s car.

“Esme, this is Professor Applebaum,” I said.  “He’s going to help us get Granny’s page back.  Professor Applebaum, this is my little sister, Esme.” He bowed his head and said, “Salve.”

“She’s coming with us tonight,” I added, somewhat unnecessarily.  He nodded, and if he was surprised, he hid it well. 

In the car, we were silent for a moment.  Then Esme asked in a small voice, “What if the police come?”

Ben said, “We’re not doing anything wrong, Esme.  We’re not stealing.  We’re just getting back your Granny’s page, which is yours anyway.  We’re not even breaking in, since Professor Applebaum has the key.”

“Remember what Mum said?  They don’t arrest children in America,” I added.  Esme didn’t look convinced.

“Listen, children.  We must have a plan before we go in,” Professor Applebaum said from the front seat. “You might need this, Rowan.”  Without taking his eyes off the road, he handed me Mum’s empty spaghetti jar.  Esme’s eyes widened.

“It’s for the Page,” I explained.  “To protect it so it doesn’t tear or break.” I put the jar in my backpack.

“I’ve been thinking it over,” Ben said.  “Professor, obviously you have to let us in to the secretary’s office to find the master key.  Then, if it’s cool with you, I think you should go back and wait in the car, to be ready as soon as we come out.  Esme, can you stand lookout? It’s a very important job.”

She nodded at him, smiling.  Maybe it was going to be okay that Esme was here, after all.

“Cool.  We’ll show you where to stand.  If you see anyone coming, you whistle, okay? What’s your loudest, best whistle?”

“Definitely black-capped chickadee.”  She demonstrated it for us right then.

“Sweet. Rowan and I will take the master key and unlock Valerie Winters’ office.  The Page will be right there on her desk, and next thing you know we’ll be back in the car and driving home, safe and sound.”

I was looking at Ben without blinking.

“What is it?” he asked.

“You’ve done things like this before, haven’t you?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Breaking in to places. Back in Calcutta.”

“Maybe,” he said, and grinned. But his eyes didn’t have the sparkle they usually did when he smiled. 

A few minutes later, we were parked in the Faculty Parking Lot outside the Classics and Art History Building at the University.  The clouds of the passing storm reflected the city lights back down and glowed a dull orange.  The red-brick building loomed black and enormous against the uneasy sky.

“Ready, everyone?” Ben said.  We all got out of the car.  “Now, no more speaking.” And we followed Professor Applebaum to the side door of the building.  He unlocked it and held the door open for us, saying, “Come in, children.  I don’t think we’ve been seen.”

Once inside, Ben flicked on his flashlight.  Professor Applebaum went first, then Ben, then Esme and I.  The professor unlocked the main office with his old key, then rummaged in a big drawer in the secretary’s desk while Ben held the light for him.  Esme and I stayed in the doorway; the hall behind us without the flashlight seemed so black the darkness was like a living creature, and you could almost feel it pushing against you, breathing. It was palpable, from the Latin palpare, which means to touch gently, to stroke.

After what seemed like minutes, Professor Applebaum straightened up, holding a key attached to a large keychain.  The key glinted in the beam of the flashlight for a second, and I just had time to read the words printed like a warning on the keychain’s label: “DO NOT REMOVE FROM SECRETARY’S DESK.”

“The master key.  Thanks, Professor,” Ben whispered. 

“This is where you must return the key after you have the Page,” Professor Applebaum said.  “Now, Valerie’s office is up the stairs on the left. The key should get you in. I’ll be waiting in the car, right outside the door. Good luck.”  He hobbled away towards the “Exit” sign that glowed over the door, his walking stick tap tap tapping along on the old linoleum tiles.  We could hear the stick long after we couldn’t see him anymore in the darkness.

The three of us made our way up the stairs.  The whole place had a dusty, dry smell that reminded me of the Latin dictionary we’d taken down in the library.  Esme yawned, but otherwise we didn’t make a sound.  When we reached the top of the stairs, the hallways stretched out before us in three directions. Ben headed down the one that lay straight ahead.  “Wait,” I whispered. “Didn’t he say go to the left?”

“I thought he meant on the left hand side of the hallway.”

“Okay, we’ll try that way first.”

As we walked, Ben flashed his light at the name placards on the sides of the doors.  The doors stretched on and on, each exactly like the others.  None of them said “Valerie Winters.”

“We’ll have to try the other hallways,” I said, and even my whisper sounded loud. Esme clutched my hand even tighter.

“Okay,” Ben said, and we went back to where we’d come up the stairs, then took the hallway on the left.  I looked down at Esme.

“Are you okay?” I mouthed.  She nodded.  “I can see in the dark,” she whispered back.  “I’m like an owl.”

I didn’t tell her it was just her eyes getting accustomed to the dark. 

Door after door after door, and none of them the one we were looking for.  Any kind of monster could have come out of those doors and I wouldn’t have been surprised. We found another stairwell, and the women’s bathroom, and the faculty lounge.  Then finally, just when I thought we were going to have to go back to Professor Applebaum in the car to see if he gave us the wrong instructions, on the far side of the hallway, near the back of the building, there it was.  Ben’s flashlight beam glanced off it, then sprang back as he realized what he’d seen. A little white sign reading, “Professor Valerie Winters.  Art Historian.  Specialist in Medieval Manuscripts.”

“Some specialist,” Ben said.

I held up the key and tried it in the lock.

It didn’t fit.

Ben held the flashlight closer so I could see better.  I turned it upside down and tried again.  It still didn’t go in.

“Maybe she’s changed the locks,” I said helpfully.

“No, it’s got to work,” Ben said. “Here, let me try.” So I held the flashlight and he tried the key, and of course it slid in right away and turned and then we were in. 

“Don’t even say anything,” I told him.  A short hallway led to the office itself.

“Esme,” Ben said, kneeling down.  “This is where you’re going to keep watch, okay? You stay right here in the door and keep an owls-eye lookout down both directions of the corridor.  If you see anything or hear anything, do your best black-capped chickadee whistle, just like you did in the car.  Rowan and I will be right here in the office at the end of this hall, but it might take us a few minutes to find your Granny’s Page.”

Esme took her job seriously. She pursed her lips, to be ready just in case. 

The beam from the flashlight revealed bits and pieces of the room as we tried to get our bearings.  Bookcases full of books. The heft of a large desk, placed against the window.  A framed certificate or diploma on the wall, the glass reflecting a tiny circle of light back to us.

There on the desk, its corners held down by velvet-covered paperweights, lay a piece of thin silk.  My heart jumped.  “Ben, there it is!” I said, a little too loudly.

I pulled the silk gently back and shone the light down.  There was nothing there.  Just the wood of the desk.

“Oh no! It’s not here!”

“Shh.  Stay quiet.  It’s all right, Rowan.  Let’s keep looking.  Here, give me the flashlight back.  Let’s look in this.”  He opened the drawer of a large filing cabinet in the corner.

“Ben, it might take hours to look through all those files!”

“It’s the only thing I can think of to do.”

I felt my way along the bookcase to the corner of the room, then along the back wall behind the door.  Suddenly I felt another table under my fingertips, and then a familiar thick paper.  “Ben!  Over here!  I think I found it!”

He turned quickly and shone the light right in my eyes, so I was blinded for a second.  “No, down here.  On this table.”

Sure enough, the flashlight picked out the familiar shapes of the letters and the tree, the eagle and the girl.  I smiled at her, then knelt down, took the spaghetti jar out of my backpack, and quickly rolled up the Page inside it.

“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered. Ben grabbed my hand to help me up, and then something strange happened.  I remember thinking how strong his hand felt as it grasped mine; we were looking right at each other, our faces so close I could feel his breath lightly on my cheek, and neither of us said anything for one-two-three beats of my heart.  Then he closed his eyes and shook his head, the way you shake water out of your hair in the summer when you’ve just surfaced in the swimming pool, and suddenly things were almost back to normal, Ben grinning and saying, “We did it! Hey, Esme, we’re coming!”

But he kept his hand on mine for a fraction of a second longer, and when we let go, we were different somehow, in a way I can’t really explain.

Esme was jumping up and down in excitement. 

“Sweet.  Let’s take the key back to the secretary’s office and get out of here,” Ben said, and we ran along the corridor, which no longer seemed quite so long or quite so dark, and clattered down the stairs.

Esme stood lookout again and Ben held the flashlight as we entered the secretary’s office. I put the key back and was just closing the desk drawer when I heard a strange noise.  At first, I couldn’t figure out what it was, because it seemed so out of place.  Then I realized: Esme was whistling, as quietly as she could. Ben and I ran back through the door into the hallway where she was waiting. 

“Quick,” she said.  “I heard something.  Coming from that way.” She pointed down the corridor towards the door we had come in by. Sure enough, to our horror, the door slowly opened, and silhouetted against the night sky outside were two figures.  They glowed strangely red in the dim light of the Exit sign.  Neither one was Professor Applebaum.

We stood frozen to the floor.  Then Ben turned off his flashlight, and we started running in the opposite direction from the door, back towards the stairwell.