The day was decidedly sinister.
But not in a charming Sinister-Winterbottom way. If it was a Sinister-Winterbottom way, it might be a day that puttered around the yard building battle robots with built-in cookie ovens, like Mr. Sinister-Winterbottom.
Or it might be a day that painted wild murals of storm-tossed seas populated with tentacled friends while its cookies baked in the battle-robot oven, like Ms. Sinister-Winterbottom.
Or it might be a day with its nose against a phone screen while a frown creased its impressively expressive black eyebrows, like Wilhelmina Sinister-Winterbottom.
Or it might be a day that ran at full speed, the wind whipping its hair, grass lashing its bare shins, screaming joy and delight and something close to anger, like Theodora Sinister-Winterbottom.
Or it might be a day that gazed pensively out the car window at the blurring landscape, wondering what it was heading toward and what might possibly go wrong there because it couldn’t imagine that everything would just be fun and pleasant and nothing would go wrong, like Alexander Sinister-Winterbottom.
Well . . . on second thought, this day was rather like Alexander Sinister-Winterbottom.
Heavy clouds pressed down on the atmosphere, looming closer than clouds ought to loom, as though they were worried about the day, too, and couldn’t keep it to themselves. They scooted closer and closer to the earth, peering down at the massive aqua car drifting at alarming speed down a lonely road.
“Pretty dark for noon,” Alexander said, unable to swallow the tight lump of worry stuck in his throat. He loved storms--from his own house, curled up on the window seat, with a mug of hot cocoa and a good book, and his mother humming somewhere deep under the house while his father scrambled to get all the battle robots into the garage. But he didn’t have his window seat, or hot cocoa, or a good book, or his parents. And he still didn’t know why he and his siblings had been banished to spend the summer with their mysterious aunt Saffronia.
Theo repeatedly bonked her head against the cold glass of the car window, like the world’s worst drum. She hated long car rides. She couldn’t read without getting sick, so she usually listened to an audiobook, but there was no stereo, just a weird old radio you had to adjust by twisting knobs. Aunt Saffronia seemed happy to keep the knobs between stations. The maddening white noise of static filled the car. Every once in a while, Theo could swear she heard voices whispering in the static, just barely too quiet to understand.
Which made her mad, because there was already so much she didn’t understand right now. Why had their parents woken them in the middle of the night and dumped them on Aunt Saffronia a week ago? Why hadn’t their parents at least called since then? Why did she feel both angry and sad at the same time, when she didn’t want to feel either, and why did these big feelings make her buzz like she was filled with a hive of angry bees?
Holding her head against the window made her skull vibrate and her teeth chatter. It was as close as she could get to moving while stuck in a car, so she pressed her forehead harder against the glass. This drive seemed like it had lasted forever.
Had they even gone back to Aunt Saffronia’s house after leaving Fathoms of Fun Waterpark? Theo glanced at Alexander. He wasn’t in his swimsuit, and they were both totally dry. They must have gone back to their aunt’s house, showered, and changed. But . . . Theo couldn’t remember doing any of that. They had been in the car at Fathoms of Fun, and now they were in the car going somewhere else, and her brain couldn’t connect the dots about what had happened between.
“Weird,” she muttered, bonking her head once more against the window.
Alexander didn’t need to know what Theo thought was weird. Everything was weird, and he didn’t like it, and his stomach hurt with all the not-liking he was doing regarding all the weird they were experiencing.
In the passenger seat, Wil, age sixteen and therefore four years older than twins Alexander and Theo, and therefore permanently claiming shotgun in the unfair way older siblings always do--as though a few extra years on earth put them first in line for everything, forever--paused her frantic typing on her phone when a message popped up.
“Edgar,” she said, a dreamy smile breaking the intensely focused expression on her face.
“Edgar?” Alexander and Theo said at the same time, perking up. Edgar was a lifeguard at the water park they had just left after a week of fun.
Well . . . after two days of fun. Before the two days of fun were several days of wily Widows, menacing mustaches, terrifying tunnels, and lingering in libraries. Most of their time at Fathoms of Fun had been rather stressful and occasionally scary, thanks to an evil fraternal twin and her henchman. But it ended on a rush of reuniting the real Widows and restoring the park to its Gothic glory. And since it all ended happily, the three Sinister-Winterbottoms only felt happy when they thought of it.
Of course, Wil felt a little more than happy when Edgar texted her.
And who could say what Aunt Saffronia felt? Her face was still oddly indistinct, as though seen through several panes of thick glass. Her gaze never seemed to focus on what was around her. Except for right now, as she turned and stared at the antique brass stopwatch Theo still wore around her neck.
“Umm,” Alexander said.
“Aunt Saffronia?” Theo added.
“You should be watching the road!” Wil said, which was sharp criticism coming from a girl who never looked up from her phone.
“I should?” Aunt Saffronia tilted her head, her long black hair moving in slow motion, as though she were trapped underwater.
Theo had a strange moment of wondering if Aunt Saffronia really did need to watch the road, though. The car was still going perfectly straight, as though it was steering itself. But that was impossible. A car so old that it didn’t even have a good stereo certainly couldn’t have a self-driving option . . . could it?
“Please keep your eyes on the road!” Alexander squeaked, a hundred different ways the car could crash all crashing through his head.
Aunt Saffronia laughed, a sound like wind chimes. Not tinkling, bright metal wind chimes, but old chimes, made of wood, so they just sort of brushed and clacked against each other. “Silly boy,” she said. “If my eyes were on the road, that would really scare you. I’ll keep them in my head.” Then she paused, turning ever so slowly to look straight out the windshield. “Unless children like that sort of thing?”
Alexander and Theo exchanged a baffled look. Though they were twins, they were hardly mirror images. Theo had brown hair, cut short so she wouldn’t have to worry about brushing it. It was pushed back from her forehead by a headband that made it stick up wildly, rather hedgehoglike in appearance.
Alexander’s hair was also cut very short, but not so short that he didn’t have to comb it. He still combed it, very carefully, every morning, and often several times during the day. Like Theo, he had brown eyes, and freckles across his nose. Unlike Theo’s, his knees were not covered in bruises and scars, and also unlike Theo, he had managed to spend an entire week at a water park and not get sunburned at all. His white skin was still very white.
Theo, meanwhile, scratched her shoulders, where a sunburn nagged at her.
Wil was also not sunburned, her brown skin perfectly protected since she spent most of the time at the water park doing the same thing she did with most of her time everywhere else: gazing at Rodrigo, her beloved phone. Though, increasingly, it looked like what Rodrigo’s small screen showed her didn’t make her happy. Already the smile at a text from Edgar was gone, replaced with a frustrated frown as she idly tugged on one of her many long braids. If their father were here, he would gently remind Wil not to pull her hair.
But their father wasn’t here, so Wil’s hair had no one to look out for it.
“Where are we going?” Theo asked. “And when will we get there? And when are our parents coming to get us?”
“And aren’t we going to stop at the house to pick up our things? Or is this just a day trip? Or are we going to meet our parents?” Alexander couldn’t help but sound hopeful at that last question.
Unfortunately, Aunt Saffronia was very good at only hearing the questions she wanted to hear. “We aren’t finished yet.”
“With the drive? Or the vacation?” Alexander asked, desperate for some sort of clarity. All he remembered about being dropped off with Aunt Saffronia was that it had been in the middle of the night. His mom was trying hard to sound cheery, but her eyes were worried, and his father had been hastily packing several of his most impressive robots. They had also, for some reason, lit a lot of candles in a circle. And that was it.
Since then, the only contact they’d had with their parents was a letter left in Alexander’s luggage. His mom had a way of packing that was like magic--every time Alexander opened the suitcase, he found exactly what he needed, whether it was an extra pair of board shorts, or his softest sleep shirt, or extra floss, because cavities never take a summer vacation. So when Alexander had found the letter from his mom, he’d thought it was what he needed: Answers. Explanations. A scavenger hunt that would end with his being reunited with his parents.
Instead, he had found a letter telling him to be cautious, Theo to be brave, and Wil to use her phone. All it had said about Aunt Saffronia was that they should listen to her, except when they shouldn’t. And something about gathering tools. Which seemed weird, since they weren’t at home with their dad, who was forever losing his robot-building materials.
Alexander sighed, feeling squeezed by impending stormy doom. Aunt Saffronia wasn’t going to tell him anything. She was just like most adults, barreling through the world, never explaining the baffling things going on around them.
Theo didn’t give up on answers so easily. Maybe if she broke the sentences down, one question at a time, it would help Aunt Saffronia. Sometimes if a teacher gave Theo too many instructions at once, she couldn’t figure out which task to do first, so she ended up doing none of them and instead building an elaborate tower out of pencils, glue sticks, and erasers. Her mom was really good at helping Theo organize her brain, which only had one speed: fast.
But she would slow it down to try to get answers from Aunt Saffronia.
“Where are we?” Theo asked.
“In the car.” Aunt Saffronia sighed worriedly. “They told me you children were bright, that you could do this, but sometimes I wonder. It’s a lot to ask of any child, much less one who can’t understand when she’s inside a car.”
Theo resisted the urge to tug on her own hair. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere,” Aunt Saffronia said. “We’re already here.” The car stopped abruptly. It had been moving so fast that the landscape was a blur, and now it was stopped, and none of the three children could remember the jolt, or even the gradual slowing. But that was quickly forgotten by the alarm they felt at what they were reading. Usually reading was a pleasant task for Alexander and Theo, but it didn’t feel pleasant as they looked at the sign in front of them:
WELCOME TO THE LITTLE TRANSYLVANIAN MOUNTAINS
WE ARE DYING TO MEET YOU
“Is it just me,” Alexander said, “or does that sign seem--”
“Ominous?” Theo suggested.
“Vaguely threatening?” Alexander added.
“Unaware that ‘welcome’ and ‘dying’ don’t belong together?”
“Just what we’re looking for,” Aunt Saffronia said. She pointed. Beyond the welcome sign was another sign.
“?‘The Sanguine Spa,’?” Wil read, flicking her big brown eyes up just long enough to see the words.
“?‘An all-inclusive family destination,’?” Alexander read. That line made him sad, because how could it be all-inclusive for families if their whole family wasn’t included?
“If I see so much as a single raisin, I’m revolting,” Theo grumbled. She had been denied churros at the water park, and threatened with raisin-meat pies. This trip should be full of good food to make up for last week, but she couldn’t imagine a spa having churros. Spas were for relaxing, and relaxing was grown-up speak for doing things that were healthy and boring. Theo didn’t want to eat nutritious food, or talk about her feelings, or sit quietly with her thoughts. That sounded awful.
“Go on,” Aunt Saffronia said. “You’ll be staying here for the week. That should be enough time. And remember: look closer. We need you to look closer.”
“But we don’t have our stuff,” Alexander said. He definitely would have remembered stopping at Aunt Saffronia’s house and repacking for another trip.
“Yes, you do.”
“Oh,” Theo said, staring down at her feet. Next to them, somehow unnoticed before now, were their suitcases. Wil hefted her bag without question, climbing out of the car.
Aunt Saffronia, however, didn’t move.
“Wait, aren’t you coming?” Alexander found their aunt confusing and a little unnerving, but if he didn’t have his parents, he’d at least like adult supervision. Alexander loved adult supervision. It made the world make sense, made everything feel safer, made him certain all the necessary paperwork was going to be filled out correctly.
The back car doors opened. “How does a car without a working radio have a self-driving option and automatic doors?” Theo mused aloud as she tumbled out onto the gravel road, glad to be free.
Alexander stayed in his seat. “You’re really not coming?”
Aunt Saffronia shook her head. “It’s not my realm. I cannot do this task. Only you can.”
Alexander slowly climbed out. He stood next to Theo, who was bouncing up and down with impatience, and Wil, who was staring at Rodrigo.
Aunt Saffronia leaned out her window. They couldn’t remember her rolling it down. She stared past them, to a narrow trail winding through the woods. It didn’t look like an entrance to a spa, but then again, the Sinister-Winterbottom children had never been to a spa before. “Remember,” Aunt Saffronia said. “You need to look closer. And watch each other’s necks.”
“Don’t you mean each other’s backs?” Wil muttered, annoyed.
But Aunt Saffronia was already driving away. A bend in the road swallowed her car, and the Sinister-Winterbottom children were once again left alone, watched only by the looming trees.