Work had been an endless slog of back-breaking effort, mind-numbing sameness, and cranky customers.
Same as always.
But it was only Tuesday night, and Greg felt like it should have been Friday three weeks ago when he pulled into the driveway to the new house.
Well, new to him and his family. Truth was, the rental was rundown enough that he’d have to work on the place most of the weekend just to make it feel livable for Janie and Ellie. Old man Jones sure wasn’t going to pay for any of the repairs, but at least the price was right.
Maybe someday, they could save enough money to buy their own place. By then, maybe Greg would have a better job, too.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
It all seemed like pipe dreams as Greg climbed out of his broken down car and trudged toward the back door. His joints ached, and he moved like his grandfather. Thirty-three was too young to be feeling like this, right?
Maybe a little dinner and a bath would soothe his body, set his mind free of the day.
He was ten feet from the house when a rustling to his left startled him, and he turned in that direction. He had never lived in the country before, and he still felt uneasy with the sounds that scurried all around the modest homestead, especially at dusk .
“Hi, Daddy!” Ellie busted through a row of overgrown hedges that lined a side of one of the old outbuildings. She threw her arms around his legs, and he staggered back a step to keep his balance.
Greg hugged his daughter. “What are you doing out here in the dark, sweetheart?” he asked.
She looked around. “It’s not that dark,” she said, then lowered her voice. “Besides, I found a secret passage!”
“You did?” Greg could hear his voice, weary and flat. It wasn’t how he wanted to be, to feel.
“I sure did! C’mon, Daddy, I’ll show you!” She tugged at his hand, and pointed back toward the bushes. “It’s right over there.”
Greg stood firm. “Now, Ellie … it’s getting late, and I’m tired. Besides, we need to get inside for dinner.”
“It’ll just take a minute, Daddy. Plus, you have to meet Billy!”
With that, Ellie dropped Greg’s hand and ran back toward the shrubbery , then disappeared into the foliage.
Greg sighed and dropped his shoulders. He couldn’t leave Ellie outside — Janie would tan his hide. And they didn’t know the area yet, not really. He couldn’t be sure it was safe for his daughter to play outside alone.
So he plodded the twenty feet to the side of the old building and bent down to look under the hedges, already heavy with waxy green leaves even though April was just halfway through.
“Ellie, come out of there.” No answer. “C’mon, Ellie. I mean it. Come out of there now, or you’re going to be in big trouble.” Silence. “Ellie?”
Greg’s fatigue faded as adrenaline washed over his body. He had just seen his little girl disappear into these bushes, and now there was no sign of her. Where had she gone?
Without another thought, he dropped to his knees and crawled under the shrubbery. It was dark and musty, and the ground was cold. He looked to his right, and he could see light where the building — and the bushes — opened near the back door to the main house. Ellie wasn’t there.
To his left, the bushes formed a tunnel that faded to deep gray, and then black. He could only see a few feet in that direction.
Greg turned left and crawled as fast as he could. “Ellie! Ellie! Where are you?”
The bushes rounded the corner of the building, and Greg followed them to his right, beginning to feel foolish but also a little desperate. Why wasn’t Ellie answering him?
One more corner, and Greg was staring down the long, black corridor formed by the back wall of the building and the raggedy bushes. Amazingly, a circle of light shown out of the middle of the expanse, leading into the structure itself.
“Ellie?” Greg called again, crawling as fast as he could.
After a few seconds, he knelt in front of the bright ring, trying to see inside. But all he could see was white light.
“Come in, Daddy. I have it all set up!”
It was Ellie’s voice.
Greg crawled through the hole.
Greg had never considered himself much of a tea drinker, but he had to admit Ellie made a mean cup.
And the china was like none he’d ever seen before, sparkling and rainbow-colored, almost glowing in the soft but brilliant light of the summer kitchen. He barely remembered the building from the day they came to look at the rental, but then, outbuildings hadn’t been his focus.
He had to wonder, though, why anyone would put so much effort into such an old structure — electricity, fancy Victorian wallpaper and furniture, thick curtains.
And where was the calliope music coming from?
“Isn’t my tea room grand?” Ellie asked.
Greg smiled. There was no denying it, no matter how strange it seemed. “It certainly is, Ellie.” He took another sip of tea. “But, honey, why don’t you just come in through the door rather than crawling around under the bushes.”
He glanced over at the wall where he had entered. There should have been a hole leading outside, but a cozy fireplace stood crackling in its place. A happy collie lay curled and slumbering in front of the hearth on a rope rug.
“It doesn’t work that way, Greg,” a young man’s voice said.
Greg looked to his right. Billy the Rabbit sipped his own cup of tea and winked at Greg.
“That’s right, Daddy. You have to use the secret passage!” Ellie scolded.
A floorboard popped under Greg’s foot, and he followed it with his eyes from the mahogany foot of his chair all the way to the varnished and intricately carved door of the building. A sliver of light opened in that front wall, and the sound of old metal grinding against itself screeched in his ears.
Janie stuck her head through the open doorway.
“What are you two doing in here?” she asked, brushing a cobweb out of her face.
“We’re just having a tea party, aren’t we, Daddy?”
The gloom of evening settled over the dusty room, and Greg looked from his wife to his daughter. Ellie sat on an old milk crate holding a cracked and soiled plastic teacup. He held its match in his own hand.
He looked to his right. A tattered old stuffed rabbit, stuffing spilling from a ripped leg, lay on his side atop a wooden box. Another cup stood in front of him.
Greg glanced to his left, searching for the collie, but knew what he’d find. A jagged hole tore through the old plaster wall.
He smiled and stood. His legs didn’t feel so tired anymore.
“Yes, indeed. We’re having a splendid tea party, dear. Care to join us?”
He raised his cup in a toast and motioned to the empty crate on the other side of Ellie.
Somewhere off in the distance, a calliope sang.