“Zoe, be quick! We have a lot to clean,” said 11-year-old Chloe to her sister.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m also doing my share of cleaning this dusty attic,” replied Zoe, the younger of these two bright little girls.
Chloe was 3 years older to Zoe. She had long, blonde locks of hair and bright eyes that reflected her smartness. She could be depended upon to take her decisions wisely. Zoe, on the other hand, was quite the opposite of her elder sister. She was a cheerful and chirpy child with a very kind heart, but was known for being careless.
That day, their mother had asked them to clean the rarely visited attic. There were boxes in every corner and a thick layer of dust had settled on them. After an hour of cleaning, Zoe came across a big box. As she opened it to clean it, she found an old piece of paper inside.
“Sis, look what I’ve found!” exclaimed Zoe. At first, Chloe wasn’t interested but because of her sister’s continuous persistence, she decided to look at it.
The paper was old and dirty with black patches of ink on it. There was a little bit of mould growing at the bottom. It was yellowish in colour and smelt unpleasant. “Oh! It must have been kept here many years ago,” said Zoe. On the top right corner of the paper, a very unique symbol was seen. It looked very complicated to draw as it had lines and curves from all directions.
In the middle of the paper, there was something written in illegible cursive handwriting. There were patches of ink on it, which made it very hard to read. It took the girls some time to figure out what was written on the paper but with some effort, they figured it out.
“Like they say, a pen is mightier than the sword.
The answer lies in something precious which you can open and close. Its words are packed with wisdom and it opens a whole new world once you step into it. To discover the secret, you must first be the seeker of this wisdom and travel into its world,” read Chloe.
“I don’t get it, answer to what?” Both the girls looked at each other, confused. “Maybe somebody was just writing on the paper because they were bored,” said Chloe.
“But why something so mysterious and creepy?” Even Chloe thought that it was weird. Both the girls were freaked out by then. “Should we tell mother about this?” asked Zoe.
“No let’s not worry her before we know more about this paper,” replied Chloe. The girls finished cleaning the attic quickly, took the paper to their room and kept it safely in their study table drawer.
“Let us study that paper tomorrow. I’m super sleepy now sis,” said Zoe. Chloe couldn’t fall asleep. She kept tossing and turning in her bed.
Determined to uncover the secret, she got up and pulled out the paper after making sure that her sister was soundly sleeping. Switching on the reading lamp, she began studying the paper. Chloe read out the lines from the paper again and wondered what they meant. “Its words are packed with wisdom, you can open and close it, it is precious”.
Chloe kept reading this line again and again, but couldn’t understand it. She decided to go to sleep but before doing so, she read it one last time. “I got it! I finally got it!” Chloe had cracked the riddle. She was very pleased with herself. She resisted the temptation to wake Zoe up and kept the paper on her side table. Although she was extremely excited with her discovery, she had a long day cleaning, and soon fell fast asleep out of exhaustion.
She slept till late the next day. As she rubbed her eyes open, she remembered what had happened last night, and grabbed hold of Zoe in excitement. “I understood what the riddle means. Last night when you were asleep, I read the riddle at least 20 times and got it!”
“And you didn’t think of waking me up then? Wow this is exciting! Tell me, what does it mean? It still makes no sense to me.”
“The answer lies in a book. Think about it, you can open and close it, it is precious and its words are packed with wisdom. Also, reading takes us into a whole new world.”
Zoe was very impressed by her sister. They gave each other a high five, something they usually did when they were happy. The two girls were delighted that they understood the riddle but there was still one more question to solve.
“There are thousands of books in the world, how do we know which one to look in?” asked Zoe.
“I don’t know, but maybe we could go to the library and start going through some old books there,” replied Chloe.
Later in the afternoon, the girls went to the public library, adjacent to their house. Chloe brought her pink handbag which she would carry almost everywhere.
“Maybe we should ask the librarian where the old books are kept,” suggested Zoe.
The two girls walked into the doors of the library. Zoe held the paper tightly, as they approached the weird looking librarian. The librarian’s name was Mr. Harper Hegins, but he hated it when children would call him that. He was a funny looking man with a tremendously long beard. He wore round specs, and had very small teeth. He had an annoying habit of always talking to himself loudly. Most children were afraid of him because he always looked serious. He had an ugly looking mug which said Serious Always Wins in big blue letters, and he loved it dearly. He would always drink his evening coffee at 5:30 pm in that mug.
While Zoe hid behind her sister, Chloe mustered up the courage to ask, “Could you tell us where the very old and ancient books are kept, please?”
Mr. Harper pointed to the left with his long, thin finger. As the girls turned around, the paper fell out of Zoe’s hand. Before she noticed that it was missing, Mr. Harper picked it up and opened it. He let out a shriek so loud that it caught both the sisters’ attention and they came running back to him.
“Oh that’s ours Mr. Librarian. We were…um doodling on a paper,” said Zoe quickly.
“Oh, I don’t think so. This is an ancient piece of paper and it belongs to the library,” Mr. Harper said, refusing to give them the paper no matter how much they pleaded. He took the paper and left for his desk. The girls were disgusted, angry and upset.
“How can he take our paper like that?” asked Zoe.
“ It’s your fault. You dropped the paper. Why are you so careless?”
“Everyone can make mistakes. Why do you have to make a big deal out of everything instead of solving the problem?” Zoe argued.
The girls had a small quarrel and sat quietly on a sofa in the library.
After a long silence, Zoe finally said, “So should we go home now and forget about this paper thing?”
“It’s our paper! We can’t just let him steal it. Let’s try to get it back somehow,” replied Chloe.
The girls came up with a plan, and were soon ready for action. Zoe went to Mr. Harper and said that she needed help finding the fiction books column. Mr. Harper doubted Zoe, but as a librarian, it was his duty to help her.
As Mr. Harper left with Zoe to help her find the fiction books, Chloe quickly went towards his desk and started searching for the paper. She couldn’t find it anywhere. As she heard footsteps approaching her, she was disappointed but also determined. Her eyes fell on Mr. Harper’s mug, and she grabbed it quickly and hid it in her bag before Zoe came out with Mr. Harper.
It was exactly 5:30 pm. Mr. Harper’s alarm beeped, reminding him that it was time for his coffee. Shooing the girls away, he sat down at his desk and reached for his coffee mug. He looked furious when he couldn’t find it. “Where’s my mug? I know you girls have something to do with this. Give it back this instant!”
As Zoe looked at him in surprise, Chloe said confidently, “If you want your mug, give us our paper first.”
Mr. Harper was fuming with anger, he knew he had been cornered by these two little girls. But he loved his mug more than anything else in the world. Muttering under his breath, he gave the girls their paper back in exchange for his mug. It was a funny sight to see him caressing the mug as he filled it up with his evening coffee and took a heavenly sip from it.
Zoe gave her sister a high five, beaming at her with pride in her eyes. She handed the paper to her elder sister as she knew that Chloe would handle it better.
As the girls turned to leave, Chloe looked at Mr. Harper and said, “You know Mr. Harper, you could have just bought another one. There are many for sale in the roadside shops outside, but anyway, thanks for the paper.”
“You girls are going to pay back for this,” said Mr. Harper getting as red as a tomato or even redder as he watched the girls head towards the old books section.
When the girls reached the old books section, they stared at the huge shelves stocked with books.
“You go check the shelves on that side and I’ll check the ones on this side,” said Chloe to her sister.
They both searched for almost half an hour but found nothing helpful. Zoe had almost given up when she spotted a book with the similar strange symbol on its cover. It was a leather bound hardcover book with a quite unique dust cover.
At first, Zoe couldn’t believe it. She took the book down from the shelf and looked closer to make sure that it was the same symbol.
“Sis, sis come here quick!” cried Zoe.
Within a few seconds, Chloe was beside her looking at the book with excitement. The title read The History of Our City. She immediately opened the paper and compared it with the symbol.
“It’s exactly the same. Good job Zoe!”
The girls were speechless with this discovery.
“Now we need to find out the connection between the paper and the history of our city,” said Chloe.
“Let’s borrow the book so that we can read it nicely at home,” Zoe suggested.
The girls had to encounter the furious Mr. Harper again, but within a few minutes they were on their way home with the borrowed book. They took it straight to their room and locked the door before sitting down to study the book closely.
As they flipped through the pages, Zoe said, “I don’t understand, there is nothing about the paper. It is just a story about the history of our town.”
The girls were really disappointed. It was a dead end.
“It can’t be a coincidence. That symbol is very unusual. There has to be something in this book. Let me check again,” Chloe said.
She went through the pages patiently, one by one, searching for the clue and found nothing.
Zoe took the book next and kept flipping the pages in anger. Her sister told her that it was useless, but she kept on going. While doing so, the dust cover of the book came out and fell on the floor.
“Hey, don’t tear the book. We have to return it to the public library in one piece, remember?” said Chloe.
As Zoe bent down to pick up the dust cover, she exclaimed, “Woah! There is something written on this.”
Now that you have found the book and the paper, you have completed half the task. To find my secret hidden box, you must follow this map. Go find the box. I have hidden it specially for you.
By Mr. William Tom.
Besides this strange message, was a hand drawn map with brief instructions.
“Wow!” Zoe sat down on the floor with the dust cover in her hands.
“It’s him! William Tom was our grandfather’s name. He wrote this letter!”
The girls found this super creepy. But they proceeded to study the map.
“It’s a map of our house! That’s the staircase. The attic. And look, there is a room which we have never seen!” exclaimed Chloe.
Zoe jumped up in excitement. “Cool, a secret passageway in our house that we didn’t know of!”
“The map shows that this secret room is hidden somewhere in the basement,” said Chloe.
Eager to find the secret passageway, the girls walked into the basement.4 They were looking for a hidden handle on the wall somewhere as instructed in the map. It took them a while, but finally Chloe found a very small door-knob like handle. “A little help here Zoe! I think I found it. But it won’t budge!”
The girls pulled the handle with all their might but the handle was stuck. After several attempts, the handle finally budged and the girls heard a strange screech behind them. Terrified of what was happening, they held each other’s hand and turned around to see a small opening in the wall.
Giving each other a comforting look, they decided to enter the passageway. It was a bit dark but there was just enough light for them to make their way inside.There were cobwebs on the ceiling, and the floor was very dusty. The girls had butterflies in their stomachs, as they saw a staircase straight ahead at the end of the passage.
The stairs took them to a small room where a very unpleasant surprise awaited them. Their jaws dropped open with shock, and they looked at each other with confusion.
“Mr. Harper! What are you doing in our house?” exclaimed Zoe.
The librarian stood there staring at them with shock. He was holding a box in his hand. Before they could stop him, he tried to run away. But Zoe was smarter than him and she picked up a log lying at the corner of the room and threw it in his way. He tripped over it and fell down, along with the box. Chloe quickly picked up the box and moved away from him. Before any one of them could say anything, they heard noises coming from the staircase, and Lo and behold! Their parents walked in looking extremely confused. The girls ran towards them and hurriedly explained everything.
Their parents asked the girls to move aside as they went towards Mr. Harper who was still lying on the floor, perhaps injured from the fall he had. It was then, that their dad, Mark, said the most shocking thing in the world, “Henry, my brother! What are you doing here? It’s been so long!”
“That’s because I never wanted to see you again, Mark!” replied Mr. Harper.
As he helped Mr. Harper get back on his feet, Mark said, “Ahh! You are still the same, even after all these years!”
“Wait!! What’s going on here? Why are you calling Mr. Harper, Henry? And did you say brother?” Chloe asked, bewildered.
“Let me explain everything once we get out of this dingy place,” Mark said to his daughters as he led everyone back into their home.
When everyone settled down at the dining table, Mark shared a long tale of the estranged brothers.
“Me and Henry are brothers, and were inseparable as kids. When I travelled abroad for higher education, we gradually grew distant. But it was your grandfather’s death that separated us for good. You see, your granddad had a prized possession, a customised gold watch. After he passed away, we couldn’t find the watch anywhere. Henry blamed me for stealing it and I believed that he took it. Being short tempered didn’t help us as we got into a terrible argument over the precious heirloom that both of us wanted to keep as a reminder of your granddad’s generosity. I had to leave again, but when I came back after a few months I didn’t find Henry anywhere.” Turning to Mr. Harper, Mark said, “I looked everywhere for you brother. Where were you? Why didn’t you come back to our house all these years?”
“I couldn’t forgive you for stealing the only cherished item I wanted to get from father. You were away studying abroad, but I took care of him day and night when he fell sick. I deserved that watch which you took away without even asking me.” Mr. Harper said in a sad tone. The girls felt sorry for him for the first time and wondered where was the gold watch which had created such a huge trouble in the lives of these brothers?
“I wish I had it because I would have given it to you in a heartbeat. I regretted losing my temper that day. I guess both of us were emotional over father’s death and didn’t know how to express our feelings, so we ended up fighting over the watch. I am sorry brother.” Mark stood up to hug Mr. Harper, who reluctantly hugged him back and said, “I guess you are right. I’m sorry too.”
After a few minutes of patching up between the two brothers, Zoe asked, “I just don’t understand, how did you end up in that room Mr. Harper?”
“I got there from my library,” said Mr. Harper. “When I saw the book you borrowed, I recognized the symbol from the letter. The symbol is special to us brothers. Your grandpa would take us to the library and he would teach us how to draw it. So I went to the place where the book was kept. No one had borrowed it for years. I found a little handle hidden on the wall behind that shelf, which opened a secret passageway that led to your house. Just when I reached the secret room and found a strange looking box, you girls turned up and spoiled everything.” The girls looked at him but he smiled back and said, “But I’m glad you did turn up there because thanks to you both nosy girls, Mark and I ended up together again, just like old times.”
“Hey, but what’s in that box? Why did grandfather go to all this trouble to hide the box in that secret room?”
Everyone looked at the box lying on the table and Mark carefully opened it. Inside it, they found a picture of their grandfather, some gold coins, a very old- fashioned pen, and the gold watch! Mark picked up the watch and gave it to Henry. Both brothers stared at it in shock. They felt ashamed of themselves.
“We blamed each other and fought for nothing, didn’t we?” Mark said. “We wasted so many years being mad at each other over a materialistic possession. Instead of creating a difference between us by giving this watch to one of us, he took it away to show us that materialistic happiness doesn’t exist.”
“Poor granddad didn’t know that this act of his would in fact cause more trouble in your lives.” Chloe mused out loud.
“It’s not his fault. I guess he had more faith in our brotherly bond than we did. We should never have wasted so much time to patch up. We disappointed him,” Mr. Harper said, shaking his head.
“I agree. But better late than never, huh brother?” Mark said as he hugged Henry. They kept the watch away and spent some time together. The girls went up to their room and sat down in silence. It had been a really long day.
“I’m glad we found grandpa’s old box,” Chloe said.
“We had lots of fun finding it, didn’t we sis?” Zoe said. “We make a good team. Let’s keep on looking for more adventures, shall we?”
“Let’s not ever let anything come between us, like it did for Dad and Mr. Harper,” Chloe said.
“Of course. High five for that?” Zoe raised her hand and the girl gave each other the loudest high five ever.
// This fictional story has been penned by 10-year-old Sanjam Kaur and has been selected for publishing on our platform from the weekly submissions //