“But why not?” Nat asks, almost in a whisper. “Why won’t you accept me?”
“You’re just not Newspaper Club material… Natalie Niles, was it?” Sieg, the president of the said club, asks. His brown, curly hair sways while he talks, with his bright green eyes giving off a mildly amused look. His black tuxedo makes him look like a child trying on his father’s suits. Despite that, he never falters in his perfect posture, nor his condescending tone.
“Nat,” she corrects. “I prefer Nat.”
“Alright then, Nat. To be a member, you must be passionate to the cause; You must be determined and ready for action. Halloween is coming up, and the Arch Advancement needs perfect articles. That’s just something you can’t do.” He sighs and slumps in his spinny chair while loosening his tie, apparently deciding that she wasn’t worth the formalities. “You may leave now.”
Without a suitable reply, Nat lowers her head to the tile floor, hiding her blue eyes with her short, black hair. She takes one last look at the pitiful office. The room consists of one desk and two chairs. Along the walls, signs of where there were once posters lay hidden, like a lone staple or a single pin. Yet now, the walls are bare with white plaster, and the floors stripped of carpet.
Without another glance, Nat rushes out of the room, leaving a bored president in a lone room.
“So? How’d it go?” A girl with blond hair springs up from her previous leaning position. She has brown eyes and a beaming smile on her face.
“Awful,” Nat replies without time for the girl to respond. She walks down the dark hallway of the fourth floor, towards the city bus.
“Wait up, Nat!” The girl runs up next to Nat and continues, “Aren’t we going to that new restaurant today?”
Today, of all days? Nat thinks. Well, it’s not like I have anything else to do now.
“Yup,” Nat says, blankly. “Let’s go, Rachel.”
“Yay!” Rachel’s yells echo up and down the empty hallway. She jumps up and down like spiders are crawling down her back. She runs down the hallway and over to the descending stairs when she yells back, “Are you comin’ or what, slowpoke?”
* * *
“That one, please!” Rachel points to a picture of rice and chicken in the menu of Chopsticks in Chopping, a new Chinese restaurant that only opened one week before. Rachel and Nat both sit in a small booth in the empty building, while the very confused waitress, holding a small notebook, looms over us.
She smiles politely for a moment like nothing’s wrong, but then she screams something in a different language to the one other person in the building: the cook.
“One moment!” he yells from inside the kitchen, where the sounds of clanking metal and burning ovens continue to grow. The waitress, who looks as angry as the dying oven in the kitchen, stomps over to the cook, leaving Rachel and Nat alone.
“Why did we come here again?” Nat asks the beaming person across from her. “We could’ve just gone to any other fast food place, but you just had to pick this one, didn’t you?”
“Yup!” Rachel chirps.
One moment later, the waitress storms out of the hazardous room and slams down a plate of some sort of fish, yells some insults in an unknown language, and throws two fortune cookies and the check at Nat’s face. She strides back into the kitchen, where many more insults fly.
“This is a nice place!” Rachel admired without a hint of sarcasm, then starts to dig into her fish. “Want some?” she asks, gesturing to Nat’s fork.
“No thanks. I’ll pass.” Nat slumps into the uncomfortable cushion.
“So,” Rachel says in between bites, “what happened?”
“I didn’t get in.” Nat grabs a fortune cookie and starts to crack it open.
Rachel waits for more, but nothing comes. “That’s it? Come on! Being a reporter is your dream, and for a good reason too! If you just go and ask them to let you in again, I’m sure they will!”
“Yeah right. Have you heard the rumors?” Nat’s fortune cookie cracks into a million pieces and falls into her lap as dust. “They only take the top students at the school, and my below-average-Bs aren’t gonna cut it.”
Nat picks up the folded fortune. She unfolds and unfolds and unfolds… “That’s why I could never...be...in…” Nat’s sentence trails off.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” Nat looks down. Instead of a fortune, a colorful map, as big as a plate, lays in her hand. It shows the town, Adair, including the long river that runs in the middle, the forest to the edge, and…
“...my house?” Nat asks herself out loud.
“Let me see!” Rachel whines.
Nat clears the middle of the table and sets the map down. Rachel leans over it, covering it with her long blond hair.
“Move over!” Nat complains.
“Sorry, sorry.” She moves her head back towards her, leaving room for Nat to see.
The map’s parchment is wrinkled with age, with its corners turned up and rips in the side. On the sides, an intricate pattern is drawn with black ink. The map is drawn with different colored pens, including the bright blue river with small, cartoon waves drawn in. The houses and buildings are seen from a bird’s eye view, and multiple locations are labeled: Nat’s house, the restaurant, the forest, Noda High School, and some more as well. A small red “x” is drawn over a very detailed bush in the front of a stranger’s house.
“A treasure map!” Rachel exclaims. She looks up at Nat. “Let’s go!”
“What?” Nat lifts her head and leans back against the cushion. “We just found a map in some random fortune cookie! And now you want to follow it?”
“Exactly!” Rachel bounces with excitement. “Why shouldn’t we?”
“Why should we?”
“Oh come on. You can’t tell me you’re not just a bit curious.” Rachel lifts her eyebrow and smiles.
Despite what her mind is telling her, Nat knows she’s right. She can barely keep her body from shaking with excitement. Plus, what’s the harm? Adair isn’t exactly popular in crime, or in people for that matter. If that’s the case, then who placed this here for them to find it? And where will it lead?
“Fine. Let’s go.”
* * *
After a short bus ride, the two girls arrive at the “x”.
“This is it?” Rachel sighs, disappointed, in front of the small, green bush next to the sidewalk. It’s neatly trimmed with a sign reading “Do not touch” standing beside it. The house behind it looks brand new, with white paint on the sides and a polished brown roof. All the lights are off, but the sun makes the house look like a stylish mansion.
“No! Look!” Nat points to a white, thin figure pinned to the front of the bush. Nat reaches over, snags the thin slip of paper, and retreats to the sidewalk. She looks to the paper to find neatly written words and reads them out loud.
Welcome to the game! I’m glad you came.
But for what’s in store, you must explore.
For on the Maple, you will find the staple.
For in the woods, you will find the goods.
I wish you luck! You may find some bucks!
“Bucks? Does that mean money?” Rachel’s eyes light up. “I’ve been saving up on this really cool poster I want...”
“I doubt it,” Nat replied, turning Rachel’s joy into disappointment. “It’s probably referring to the animal.”
“Yeah.” Nat pulls out the map and points to the horde of trees to the side. “The maple refers to a maple tree, the woods, which is obviously the forest. But there aren’t deer around here…
“Look!” Rachel points to the detailed drawing of a tree with red leaves. “I know that tree. The rest of them still have green or yellow leaves!” Rachel yanks Nat’s arm. “It’s not far! Come on!”
* * *
“Ow!” Nat yelps after Rachel accidentally whips a branch back into Nat’s face.
“Almost there…” Rachel runs up a hill. “Here!”
Nat follows, turns right, and there stands a large tree, with its beautiful leaves falling to the ground, leaving a red carpet. It’s significantly larger than the surrounding ones and requires more space than two combined.
Rachel runs up to the trunk, with Nat close behind, and says, “A buck! Right here! You see?”
Carved into the trunk is a rough drawing of a deer with antlers. Beside it is another piece of paper, just like the last, held up with a colorful pin.
Nat plucks the sheet off the tree and reads off it.
Congratulations! You’re at the second location!
The next one is far, but just follow the North Star.
There, where it chimes… Oh no! Another rhyme!
Don’t you fret, you’ll have Boba Fett.
Don’t go away! There’s only one more to play!
I’ll see you there in my little rocking chair.
But I can only wait until the clock strikes eight.
“So this is the last one?”
“Nope. The one after this one will lead us to… wherever we’re going.” Nat stares at the paper. North Star, Boba Fett, rocking chair… “This makes no sense.”
“Yeah. Why will we have Boba Fett, of all things? I mean, did this guy run out of rhymes, or what?”
“No no no, not that.” Nat paces, biting her fingernails while deducing. “The North Star is the weird one. If we go north, then we’ll just go out of town, so it can’t mean direction. Maybe it means place!” Nat pulls out the small map from her pocket and points to a small building. Neverland is written above it in fancy letters.
“That place?” Rachel asks. “That’s an old toy shop that’s been open for… forever?”
“Think about it! The North Star in Peter Pan leads to Neverland, there would be tons of Boba Fett action figures from when it was first opened, and they probably sell small chairs for children! It’s perfect!” Nat takes out her phone. “It’s 7:13! We’ve gotta hurry!”
“Time limit! Come on!”
* * *
“It’s 7:50! We’ve gotta find it!” Nat exclaims while she jumps off the bus. She and Rachel rush across the street to find the small colorful building. A small sign in front of the shop reads Neverland, and some chimes sing with the wind next to it.
“Come on!” Nat bursts through the, thankfully, already open door. She immediately starts to look for a small rocking chair, as Rachel explains to the owner.
“I’m really sorry, Mister. My friend here is just…really excited to be here and… Yes, yes, I realize the store is almost closing and that… Yes, of course. We’ll just take a second. Thank you.”
“Got it!” Nat holds another small piece of paper in the air, waves it around like a flag, and runs out of Neverland without a second glance.
Rachel looks back to the owner. “Sorry!” She runs after Nat, leaving the stunned owner alone in Neverland. They run for a good block until Rachel tugs on Nat’s arm. “Where are you going?”
Nat suddenly stops and turns toward Rachel. “Sorry! I got a bit too excited…”
“Okay, alright.” Nat clears her throat.
Good job! It looks like you’re not a snob.
Here’s the last one, so you’ll finally be done!
When you’re there, not all is fair.
When you’re not, you’re still distraught.
You have lots of work, but there is a perk!
In the end, you’ll have many friends.
There is here and here is near.
Near there is fun, but for fun there is none.
This may be confusing, but it’s also amusing.
Though I want more, I’ll be in Room 104.
I’ll be at the Den when the bell rings at ten.
Now it is all for the throw of the dice when the usual bell always rings thrice.
Rachel and Nat freezes.
“Can you repeat that, please?” Rachel asks.
“There’s no need.” Nat reads the riddle once again, picking out the facts. “There’s lots of work, so it might be a job. Wait... There are friends there, so people have to be around the same age group, so scratch that. It’s not fun there. It’s confusing. It has numbered rooms, a Den, and there’s a bell.”
They both gasp at the same time. “School!” they yell in unison.
Without saying a word, they dash to the nearest bus stop.
* * *
After thirty minutes, they arrive at their massive high school, and the only high school in town: Noda High. It’s very old, with two small parking lots, one field for all sports, four busses, and two floors.
They dash into the double-door entrance, skidding in the slick hallways, and make a right, heading towards Room 104, without speaking. They turn again, this time to the left. They pass two turns, and make a final right turn until…
“This is it,” Nat says in front of the old, brown door. “What’s going to be in here, you think?”
“Candy. Tons of it,” Rachel says with a straight face.
Nat approaches the door and turns the handle slightly. Unlocked. Goosebumps prickle against her skin like ants. The temperature in the room drops. She turns around, facing Rachel who’s slumped against the opposite wall.
Rachel shrugs and smiles. “It’s your fortune.”
Nat smiles. She turns toward the door, turns the handle all the way, and swings the door open.
Light floods into the dark hallway as the room is revealed to be an abandoned classroom. Tables are lined up against the wall, posters are stacked in the floor in the corner of the room, and the teacher’s desk is piled with boxes of school supplies. On the far side of the room, a whiteboard spreads across the wall. In the middle, a black rectangle split in three spaces vertically is drawn.
Nat walks across the room towards it. Under the three long rectangles, the same neat handwriting says, “Riddle #1” underneath the first one, “Riddle #2” under the second one, and “Riddle #3” with the third one. Underneath that, a little note says, “Magnets to the right. Flip them upside down.”
Following the instructions, Nat grabs the small magnets of zoo animals, and puts the riddles, in order, upside down. On there, the few symbols came together to form words.
Like completing a puzzle, the situation clicked in Nat’s mind.
You made it in!
Be here at 3:15 tomorrow. Sharp.
The Newspaper Club.