She rolled over and opened her eyes. “You’re already dressed.”
“Got a phone call early this morning. I need to go.”
The room was filled with light, filtered through white gauze curtains. What time was it? “Where are you going, this time?”
“Long, long ago, when Rome was only a wolf pup.”
“What if you don’t come back?”
“I always come back, don’t I?”
That was fair, he did always come back. Even after dying.
“When will I hear from you?”
“That, I can’t tell you. But I’m taking my magical cell phone with me.” It was, indeed, a magical cell phone. Once, he had called her from the Pleistocene. He reached down, brushed her hair back from her face. It was spread across the pillow. He felt a pain in his chest – a feeling he was still getting used to. Sometimes he wished it would go away, but it was a necessary price for this – the light, coming through the curtains and falling on the old oak of the bed, polished by many hands, the rows of books in glass-fronted shelves, the woman on the bed, curled into the coverlet.
“Listen,” he said, sitting beside her, then leaning on his elbow and tracing his finger over her cheek. “Can you do me a favor? Try not to make me such a jerk.”
“It makes for a better story.” She smiled up at him, and he could not help leaning down to kiss her.
“All right, then. Make me as much of a jerk as you want. If it’s for the story’s sake.”
“I’ll try to improve your character, by and by.”
He never said goodbye, he just left. It was one of their rituals. He would walk through a door, any door, and then he was gone.
After he was gone, she got up, walked into the next room, and sat down at her desk. She looked out the window for a moment. It was spring, and across the lawn the crocuses were in bloom. The forsythia would be blooming soon. There was Cordelia, watching something. Yesterday, the cat had left a baby mouse on the doorstep. She picked up her pen, looked down at her notebook, wrote something. Crossed it out, wrote something else: The Second Key.
“There were two keys,” said Professor Mandragora. “Mrs. Moth took one of them, but we never told her about the other. That’s what Leonora wants to find.”
“Where did you put it?” asked Matilda.
“Your aunt took it home with her over the holidays. She told us that she hid it somewhere in Tillinghast House. The safest place she could find.”
“And you never asked her where, or used it again?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well,” said Professor Mandragora, “for the rest of that semester, we were all forbidden from seeing each other. And the next semester we learned how to travel to the Other Country ourselves. We didn’t need it anymore. We didn’t exactly forget about it, but we went on to other things. Like the dragon we put on the roof of the school, junior year. We would have been suspended for that too, if we’d been caught. And Tillinghast House seemed as safe a place to leave it as anywhere else. But now you’re going to have to find the key. It’s too dangerous to leave in Tillinghast House with Sitgreaves there.”
“Why do we have to find it?” asked Emma.
“Because Matilda is the only one who can get into that house without arousing Leonora’s suspicions. I can’t go, she’d remember me right away. But Matilda is supposed to visit her aunt, right? Darnation, look at that!” She was pointing to a large clock on the laboratory wall. It had thirteen hands, telling the time in thirteen different time zones, and it indicated the phases of the moon. “It’s almost three o’clock. I’m supposed to be teaching a class in a few minutes! Tell me when you find the key, girls. Just look where Matilda would have considered safest.”
She rushed out of the laboratory, still in her white coat and with her goggles on her head. From the hallway, we heard, “It’s the other way, Professor!”
“Well,” I said. “I guess it’s up to us, hunh?”
“We need a plan,” said Mouse.
“What we need is ice cream,” said Matilda. “Ice cream first, then we plan. And I know the perfect place.”
As we left, we waved goodbye to Herbert the reanimated alligator. He looked sad, as though he wanted ice cream too.
While walking toward the ice cream shop, we passed a group of students sitting on the library steps. It was only later, as I was enthusiastically finishing a scoop of pomegranate chip on top of a scoop of chocolate (my favorite combination, and perfect when they start to melt and you can mix them together), that I realized the student in the hooded sweatshirt who had stared at us so intently had looked awfully familiar.
Author’s comment: So what happened was that Tollie, Matilda, Emmaline, and Leonora were using the first key to get into the pantry at night, for some cake that was being kept there until the next day. That’s how they got caught. They never told about the second key because they thought it would get them into even more trouble, although to be honest I think Mrs. Moth had her suspicions. After I wrote the last section, I found that I needed a second key, because the first key had to get them into trouble, and there had to be a second key still out there for Sitgreaves and Leonora to look for. Why do I write such complicated plots, which always make me have to go back and rewrite earlier sections? I don’t know, but I do. And by the way, in case you were wondering, Anatolia Mandragora teaches at MIT.