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This Isn't What It Looks Like
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Cass finds herself alone and disoriented, a stranger in a dream-like, medieval world. Where is she? Who is she? With the help of a long-lost relative, she begins to uncover clues and secrets–piecing together her family’s history as she fights her way back to the present world.
Meanwhile, back home, Cass is at the hospital in a deep coma. Max-Ernest knows she ate Time Travel Chocolate–and he’s determined to find a cure. Can our expert hypochondriac diagnose Cass’s condition before it’s too late? And will he have what it takes to save the survivalist?
FINE PRINT & ETC.
Do not read this book standing up. You may fall down from shock. • Do not read this book sitting down. A quick escape may be necessary. • Operating a moving vehicle or any kind of heavy machinery while reading this book is forbidden. It might distract you from the plot. • Prolonged exposure to this book may cause dizziness and, in extreme cases, paranoid delusions or even psychosis. If that is your idea of fun, by all means keep reading. If it's not, then this isn't your kind of book. • Use of this book for other than the intended purpose is not advised. While it may seem like an ideal projectile, the makers of this book cannot guarantee your safety if you throw it at someone. There is always the possibility that that person will throw it back. • You should not read this book if the cover has been tampered with or removed. If you suspect that your book has been deliberately altered by your enemies, you should report it to the makers of this book. However, they will probably think you are crazy. Under no circumstances should you consult a doctor. He will definitely think you are crazy. • The contents of this book may appear to have shifted over time. Do not be alarmed. This is a natural occurrence that affects all books and does not necessarily mean that your book has rewritten itself. Then again, it might have. • Remember, nothing in this book is what it looks like.
*AS YOU WILL DISCOVER, I HAVE NUMBERED THIS AND SEVERAL OTHER CHAPTERS NEGATIVELY, SO TO SPEAK. ALAS, I CANNOT TELL YOU WHY WITHOUT GIVING AWAY TOO MUCH. BUT IF YOU HAVE STUDIED INTEGERS, YOU MAY WELL BE ABLE TO GUESS. YOU KNOW, FOR EXAMPLE, THAT A NEGATIVE NUMBER IS A NUMBER WHOSE VALUE IS LESS THAN ZERO, AND THAT THE “HIGHER” THE NEGATIVE NUMBER IS, THE LOWER ITS VALUE. THUS, WHEN YOU ORDER TWO NEGATIVE NUMBERS IN SEQUENCE, THE HIGHER OF THE TWO ALWAYS COMES BEFORE (HINT, HINT) THE LOWER. NEGATIVE TEN COMES BEFORE NEGATIVE NINE, AND SO ON, UNTIL YOU GET TO ZERO AND THINGS TURN NORMAL—MORE OR LESS.
How shall I put this? I must choose my words carefully.
(I know how you are. Always ready to jump on my mistakes.)
Somewhere, at some time, a girl walked down a road.
I say somewhere not because the where is secret, although it is.
I say some time not because the when is secret, although it is.
And I say a girl not because her name is secret, although it is.
No, I use these words because the girl herself did not know where she was.
She had woken standing up. With her eyes open.
It was a very strange sensation. Like materializing out of nowhere.
Her fingers and toes tingled. The tips of her ears burned (whether from heat or cold she wouldn't have been able to say).
Sunspots lingered in her eyes, blurring her vision. But when she looked up she saw there was no sun. The sky was cloudy.
Had she fainted? Did she have a concussion? (She knew that confusion and blurred vision were symptoms of concussion, but she couldn't remember how she knew it.) She touched her head, but she found no injury.
Gradually, the sunspots disappeared and her vision cleared. She looked around.
She had no idea where she was.
She seemed to be in the countryside, but of what country wasn't immediately apparent. There were fields to either side of her, but they were dry and empty. Trees dotted the landscape but in no obvious pattern. There were no signs of life.
Be systematic, she told herself. If you retrace your steps, you'll figure out where you are.
But she couldn't remember a thing that had happened before she was where she was. It was as if she had been born a moment ago.
Who am I…?
The realization that she didn't know her own name came over her belatedly, like a chill you don't notice until you see your breath clouding in the air.
She felt uneasy but not exactly frightened. Real amnesia, she knew (although she couldn't remember how she knew it), was exceedingly rare. Most likely, her memory would return in a moment.
She decided the best thing was to walk.
The walking was not easy. There were no signs or streetlights to guide the way. The road was not paved, and it was riddled with rocks and tree roots and mud holes.
She stumbled more than once, but she trudged forward. What else was there to do?
An hour passed. Or maybe two. Or was it less?
She didn't see anyone else. Until she did.
Ahead of her, just a few feet off the road, a little boy was climbing a big tree. Like a cat, he made his way on all fours out onto a long branch. Like a cat, he got stuck.
His cries grew louder, but nobody came.
I wonder if he'll recognize me, the girl thought. He could be my little brother for all I know.
"Don't worry, I'll get you down!" she shouted.
If the boy heard her, he showed no sign. "Father!" he kept yelling.
An old hemp rope lay beneath the tree. The remains of a swing. The girl picked it up, then automatically started to climb the old and twisting tree trunk. As if it were the natural thing to do. As if she had rescued many other children before.
Remember the Three-Point Rule, she told herself. But she couldn't remember how she knew the rule.*
"You shouldn't climb up trees if you're too scared to climb down," she said when she came close to the boy.
He ignored her, continuing to yell for his father. It certainly didn't seem as though he recognized her.
"Are you deaf? I'm trying to help…."
The boy's shirt—little more than a rag—had caught on a branch. As soon as the girl started to untangle him, the boy jumped in fright—and almost fell out of the tree.
She gripped him tight. "Careful—"
He screamed, "Goat! Goat!"
At least that's what it sounded like.
"Calm down—you're OK."
She gave him a pat of reassurance, but his cries only grew louder and more hysterical.
"I'll get you down, no problem."
Expertly, she tied the rope to the tree. A Buntline Hitch Knot, she remembered the knot was called. But she didn't remember how she knew the name.
She tugged on the boy's shirt collar. He clung to the tree branch, refusing to move.
"Is there a goat down there? Is that what's scaring you? Don't worry, it won't hurt you. Goats don't eat people. Tin cans, tennis balls, maybe—but not little boys. Not usually, anyways." She smiled to show she was joking, but he didn't smile back.
Eventually, she coaxed him down by gently placing his hands on the rope—then forcibly pushing him off the branch.
"Pretend it's a fire pole!" she called after him.
He slid down the rope, a look of terror on his face.
As soon as his feet hit the ground, the boy bolted.
"You're welcome," said the girl under her breath.
In the distance, a man—presumably the boy's father—waited. He wore a plumed hat, dark vest, and big, billowing sleeves. He looked like a musketeer.
He must be an actor, thought the girl. Maybe there is a theater nearby.
The boy was still crying about the goat as he jumped into his father's arms.
The girl waved. But the man didn't acknowledge her.
Gee, people are really friendly around here, thought the girl.
Shaking her head, she returned to the road—and stepped right into a puddle.
She grunted in annoyance.
As she shook water off her foot, she looked curiously at the puddle. The muddy water reflected blue sky and silver clouds and a flock of birds passing by.
But there was one reflection she could not see: her own.
Not goat, she thought.
Max-Ernest arrived at the hospital at exactly 7:59 p.m.
A nurse waved cheerily from behind the front desk. "Hi, Max-Ernest! Just in time, as usual."
Visiting hours ended at eight. If he got there any later, he wouldn't be let in since he wasn't part of the patient's family. At least not the way the hospital defined it.
Max-Ernest waved back halfheartedly.
"C'mon, honey—let's see you turn that frown upside down. Don't forget—"
The nurse pointed over her shoulder to a poster of a puppy wearing a red clown nose. LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE!
Max-Ernest gritted his teeth and forced himself to smile.
That doesn't make any sense, he almost said. How can laughter always be the best medicine? What if there's a medicine that would save your life—like penicillin? Wouldn't that be the best? And what if you have a broken rib? Or lung cancer? Or asthma? Laughter would make it worse, not better. And whose laughter are we talking about, anyway? Your own or somebody else's? What if somebody is laughing at you instead of with you—is it still medicine then?* How 'bout that? Oh, and by the way, dogs don't laugh. Some scientists think that gorillas and chimpanzees laugh. But not dogs. Not even puppies with clown noses…!
But, and this will surprise you if you know anything about him, Max-Ernest didn't say a word. He just kept gritting his teeth and headed for the third elevator on the right.
The one marked PICU.
Every time Max-Ernest saw those four letters, he made up new meanings for them… Primates Invade Curious Universe… Penguins, Icelandic, Carry Umbrellas… Pick Icky Cuticle Up… Purple Insect Crawls Underground… Principals In Colorful Underwear… People I Can't Understand… and so on. But the word-play was simply an old habit, a mental tic, rather than a way of amusing himself. Not even the thought of principals in colorful underwear could make him laugh now, whether laughter was the best medicine or not.
He knew too well what the letters stood for.
PICU: Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
Perhaps the least funny place on the planet.
Max-Ernest had a lot of experience with hospitals.
His childhood had been one long battery of medical tests. Skin tests. Bone tests. Eye tests. Hearing tests. DNA tests. IQ tests. (Too much ability, they said, is a disability.) Rorschach tests. Psychological evaluations. Neurological evaluations. Cardiological evaluations. X-rays and CAT scans. They'd tested all his reflexes and tested him for all the complexes. They'd watched him eat and listened to him sleep. They'd measured his dexterity and quantified his creativity. He'd given blood samples and urine samples and even once (though he'd like to forget it) a stool sample.*
That Max-Ernest had a condition, everybody was certain; but what the condition was, nobody knew. The only thing the experts agreed on was that the main symptom was his ceaseless talking. Of course, it didn't take an expert to tell you that.
A funny thing had happened recently, however. Funny weird, that is. Not funny funny.*
Max-Ernest, the talker, had stopped talking. Not entirely. But almost. Most of the words he uttered now were single syllables—like yes or no—and they came out in little grunts, hardly recognizable as language.
It wasn't so much that he couldn't talk. There were still plenty of words in his head, and he could still push air out of his lungs and move his lips and tongue. It was just that talking had become a tremendous effort. Even more of an effort than it used to be for him not to talk. Words used to come out of his mouth in a nonstop torrent; shutting them off was like trying to dam a river. Now, suddenly, the river had switched direction, and talking was like trying to swim upstream when it was all he could do to swim in place.
This new condition, this unwilled silence, had fallen over him ten days ago. The day Cass had gone into the hospital. The day she had fallen into a coma.
"Not a coma like you're thinking," the doctor had hastily explained when she saw Cass's mother react to the news, almost falling into a coma herself. "Not a coma like you see in the movies. Cass's brain is very active. And she seems to be going in and out of REM cycles. She's simply… asleep. In all likelihood, she'll wake up very soon."
Still, Max-Ernest knew, a coma was a coma. Even if it wasn't a coma coma. Even if you called it sleep. After all, sleep was not not a coma. Max-Ernest had looked up the word in a dictionary: coma meant "deep sleep" in Greek.
His silence was very frustrating for the people around him. Especially for Cass's mother and for the doctors and nurses who were trying to figure out what had happened to Cass. Max-Ernest admitted he'd been with Cass when it had happened, but whenever anybody asked him just what exactly it was, he would shrug or look off into the distance.
Without her coming right out and saying so, it was clear Cass's mom thought he was hiding something. "Why is it Cass is always with you whenever—?" she started to ask at one point, but she didn't finish her question. "Are you sure you didn't—?" she started to ask another time, but she didn't finish that question, either.
She hadn't wanted to allow Max-Ernest in the hospital room, but Cass's grandfathers had intervened and reminded her that Max-Ernest was Cass's best friend.
"Cass would want him here—you know that," said Grandpa Larry. "And the poor boy feels bad enough as it is—look at him."
"Besides," said Grandpa Wayne, "maybe the sound of his voice will wake her up."
If only it were that simple! thought Max-Ernest. Then he would force himself to start talking again, no matter how hard it was. If he thought it would help, he would never stop talking. Not even to eat or sleep. Not even to breathe. He would take his old condition back a thousand times over if it meant curing Cass's. He wanted his friend back more desperately than he'd ever wanted anything in his life.
Tonight, Cass's mother was leaving early. Everyone at the hospital agreed it was time for her to get some sleep.
When she passed Max-Ernest in the hallway, she grabbed his wrist. Her eyes were red with tiredness.
"Max-Ernest, please, when are you going to…?"
Then she let go, as if she didn't have the strength to ask the question. She walked away, shaking her head.
Max-Ernest opened his mouth for a second, then closed it without saying anything.
Cass's mother was right; he was hiding something. But even if he'd been at liberty to speak, even if he hadn't taken a sacred vow of secrecy, even if he'd risked all and told his story, nobody would have believed him. The truth was so incredible, so outlandish, so utterly bizarre, he would be branded as a liar, or delusional at best. So what was the point?
It was better not to say anything at all.
There was a vending machine next to Cass's room.
Max-Ernest fumblingly fed a dollar into it and selected the largest and plainest chocolate bar available. He proceeded to eat the bar so fast, a passerby might have thought it was his first meal in weeks.
As he ate, he made a peculiar sound—part hum, part groan—that he made only when he was eating chocolate. A sound he couldn't control any more than his urge to eat chocolate in the first place.
"Hmmgh… hmmmgh… hmmmmgh…"
Hardly hesitating, Max-Ernest bought three more chocolate bars and wolfed them down in as many bites. Then he bought a fifth bar and put it in his pocket for later. He looked into the machine, considering a sixth bar, but the machine was alarmingly empty-looking. At this rate it would run out of chocolate bars in less than a day.
The thought filled him with a sense of panic. Ever since he'd discovered he wasn't allergic, Max-Ernest had been feasting on chocolate in quantities that would have astonished all but the most voracious chocolate eaters. Ten bars a day on average, if you had to count (and if you know Max-Ernest, you know he always had to count). What would he do, he worried now, if the hospital's chocolate supply was not replenished?
How could he continue to visit Cass without the rich, ripe, dark, deep, zippy, zesty, wicked, wonderful, delicious, delightful, delectable, and even electable (if he could vote), vibrant, vivacious, seductive, addictive, oh-so-very-attractive, nourishing, flourishing, rather ravishing, beautiful, buttery, sometimes bittersweet but never bitter, gorgeous and worth gorging on, berry-ish, cherry-ish, meaty yet fruity, elemental yet complex, mellow yet electric, soothing yet energizing, earthy yet heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth pleasure of chocolate?*
He would have to plan ahead and carry chocolate with him—that was the answer to this particular dilemma—but the thought did nothing to reassure him. Normally, Cass was the plan-ahead person. Whenever they went on a mission for their secret organization, the Terces Society, Max-Ernest could count on Cass to pack her famous "super chip" trail mix, which contained a portion of chocolate chips so generous that the trail mix invariably melted into a big chocolaty clump. Alas, he had never tasted the trail mix because of his supposed allergies. It was something he'd been looking forward to. But now…? His panic was replaced by a wave of sadness.
Would his survivalist friend survive? Cass had spent her entire life preparing for disasters of one kind or another. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Not to mention the extinction-level events. Giant meteors. Global warming. Nuclear war. And here she was, done in by such a piddling thing? A mere trifle—indeed, a mere truffle. Had she trained all those years for toxic sludge only to succumb to toxic fudge?*
Yes, chocolate was the culprit.
Cass's doctors had not been particularly surprised to find traces of chocolate in Cass's stomach—she was a kid, after all—and had quickly dismissed it as a possible cause of her condition. Chocolate allergies were very rare, they said. And they hardly ever induced such severe reactions.
Max-Ernest could attest to that last point. His allergy, at any rate, had turned out to be a phantom. Nonetheless, he, and he alone, knew that it was a bite of chocolate that had brought on Cass's coma.
Not just any chocolate, of course. Not chocolate like he ate every night from the hospital vending machine. Not chocolate chocolate.
No, this was extra-chocolaty chocolate.
Extremely dark, that is. The darkest chocolate of all time.
Chocolate made with the legendary Tuning Fork—the magical (there was no other word to use, although it made Max-Ernest wince to think it) cooking instrument of the Aztecs.
Time Travel Chocolate, as Cass and Max-Ernest had come to think of it.
Chocolate that sent the eater back into her ancestral past. (Although whether or not Cass had in fact gone back into the past was debatable. After all, her body was still in the present. It was her mind that was gone.)
As the Secret Keeper, Cass held knowledge of the Secret—the very secret that the Terces Society was sworn to protect—buried in her ancestral memory.
The wicked master chef, Señor Hugo, had made the chocolate specifically for Cass so she would reveal the Secret to Hugo's colleagues, those cunning alchemists known as the Masters of the Midnight Sun. (The Masters believed the Secret was the key to immortality and they would stop at nothing to uncover it.)*
The first time Cass ate the chocolate, she'd been tricked into it and had only escaped giving away the Secret by the narrowest of margins. This last time, Cass had eaten the chocolate voluntarily—and against Max-Ernest's explicit advice, as he often reminded himself—in order to learn the Secret herself.
As far as they knew, only a specially prepared antidote—a mysterious milky-white substance whipped up with the Tuning Fork—could bring her back to present-day reality. Cass had left the Tuning Fork with Max-Ernest so he could administer the same antidote the second time around.
But it didn't work. She had eaten too much of the chocolate. Or he had made the antidote incorrectly. Or he had waited too long to give it to her (only five minutes, though it seemed like five hours). Or… Max-Ernest could think of dozens of things that might have gone wrong.
Before he could try again, Cass's mother had unexpectedly arrived at Max-Ernest's house to pick up Cass. As soon as she saw Cass lying unconscious on the floor, she called an ambulance—and she'd barely left her daughter's side since. Max-Ernest never had another chance to be alone with Cass.
Tonight was different. Tonight, Max-Ernest was determined to give her the antidote once more.
Not for the first time since Cass's collapse, he wished their friend and fellow Terces member Yo-Yoji were there to help. But Yo-Yoji was back in Japan for two months with his family. Yo-Yoji had tried to persuade his parents to let him stay with Max-Ernest, but of course he wasn't able to tell them the real reason he didn't want to leave the country. Any mention of the Terces Society was strictly forbidden.
They'd e-mailed each other from time to time, encrypting their messages, naturally, with their usual keyword code. (Hint: keyword = first part of Yo-Yoji's band name.) But the e-mails had only made Max-Ernest feel more isolated. The last one from Yo-Yoji had been particularly discouraging:*
Euen, gust jnttfmc u hmow f wfjj ln obbjfmn bor a wh. Lakpfmc w tdn 'rnmts om Kt Bugf so eae iam bfmfsd tdat pojjutfom stuey bruk jast yr. You hmow tdn rujn—mo njnitromfi motdfmc fm maturn. (Mot nvnm kusfi!!! Aaarcd—Suihacn!) Wfjj idnih u out soom as F'k laih. Dopn Lass oh ly tdnm.
Stay cool, yo. Y-Y
\m/ (>.<) \m/
It was up to Max-Ernest to do the job alone.
For a moment, after he entered Cass's room, Max-Ernest just stared. At the tubes going in and out of her. At the jagged green line on the monitor measuring her heart rate.
Eyes closed, lips still, her face was so expressionless she could have been anyone. Only the big, pointy ears were indisputably Cass's. They twitched every once in a while as if to reassure Max-Ernest that, yes, in fact, this was his friend lying in front of him.
"Hi… Cass," he said. Speaking was such an effort that his voice came out in monosyllabic squeaks. "It's… me… I'm… here."
He exhaled, relieved that the talking part was over. Then he pulled an ancient two-pronged instrument—the Tuning Fork—out of his jacket pocket, located a pitcher of water, and went to work.
Absorbed in his task, Max-Ernest didn't notice his friend's lips forming the word ghost again…
If I am a ghost, I must be dead.
The girl glanced down. To the rest of the world she might have been transparent, but to her own eyes her limbs looked solid. There was nothing she could see that indicated a death, whether recent or long ago. No sign of accident or bodily trauma. No evidence of decay or flesh-eating maggots. She looked nothing like the walking dead in a horror movie.
She tried holding her breath. Logically, a dead person should not need to breathe, but she soon found herself coughing for air.
She jumped up to see whether she would float or even fly—
Alas, the laws of gravity were in full effect.
(Actually, it didn't hurt very much. Her exclamation was an instinctive reaction to a slight twist of her left ankle as she landed.)
As for her surroundings, they looked lifelike enough, even if she didn't recognize where she was. If this was some kind of otherworldly limbo, it wasn't what you'd imagine. There were no spooky wisps of fog. No lost souls wandering the streets.
She certainly didn't feel
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2011
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers