Here’s the first chapter from Sophie and the Magic Flower. Thought you might like to read it. Enjoy! You can also read well into the third chapter on “Look inside the book” on Amazon.com.
Sophie perched on a branch of a gnarled ponderosa pine at the cemetery’s edge. With her back pressing against the trunk, she hugged her right knee while swinging her left leg like a pendulum—tick-tock, back and forth. Her fingers picked at the tree bark, prying off bits. She flicked each one to a large stone near the roots, hitting it every time. The gum in her mouth had lost its flavor. Still, she kept turning it over and around with her tongue, from one cheek to the other and back again. A bubble grew from her lips. She let it swell, then popped it to start over. Her tongue reeled it in, and round it went again. Squish, squish. Playing with her gum didn’t make her forget the tight knot in her chest, but she needed to do something.
Like a dwarf, the tree stood beside tall Douglas fir and blue spruce, and its crooked branch cradled her like a loving mother’s arm. From her perch, she looked onto the roof of the nearby caretaker’s shed. Beyond the shed, the majestic peak kept watch over the town and its small cemetery. Her eyes followed a straight line to Mom and Dad’s grave and then to Tommy’s.
A chilly gust clipped the last yellow leaves from the few aspens that grew among the evergreens. The wind brought the smell of snow and tugged on Sophie’s clothes as if wanting to pluck her off the tree, too. She hugged deeper into Mom’s old leather jacket, watching Trudy stomp across the cemetery and plow over the hard, frozen path toward the tree.
“Kind, komm out of that tree!” Trudy called.
Sophie raised her gaze away from the small casket over the open grave. She blinked a few times into the gray clouds gliding over the pale November sun and let her gaze settle on the peak.
“Kind, komm now,” said Trudy. “The funeral is starting. You will be all dirty and scratched up. You won’t look nice.” She threw up her hands. “And why those pink sneakers? To Tommy’s funeral?” She stopped a few feet away and looked up.
“Who cares?” Sophie threw Trudy a withering look, which grazed her foster mother’s hat and face. Sophie pressed her lips together, biting down hard, the gum tucked away in her cheek.
“That is not true,” said Trudy. “Everyone will care. Tommy would have cared.”
“But he’s gone, right?” The he’s got stuck in her throat. Yeah, Tommy would have cared. For a little boy of five, he had been way too fussy about being clean. She shook her head, tightening her lips and her grip on the branch.
“We cannot change it anymore.” Trudy sounded all choked up. “But we can say our last good-byes.”
Sophie cast a furtive glance down, but only for a moment. Trudy’s pleading look almost melted her heart—almost, like she cared.
Sophie pressed her lips into a thinner line, pulling her upper lip down, which made her sore red nose hurt even more. She wasn’t a crybaby, but somehow her nose kept running, and she kept wiping it with the cuffs of Mom’s jacket.
Trudy tugged a lacey white handkerchief from her suit pocket and dabbed her eyes, then blew her nose like a trumpet. The two thin black feathers on her hat quivered in the cold wind and gave a quick jerk when she swung around and stomped back to the grave where neighbors, teachers, and friends had arrived and gathered at the grave.
“Why do you not listen to your mother?” a deep, raspy voice asked.
Sophie startled, swayed, and dug her fingers into the rough bark but lost her grip and toppled from the tree. She fell back, sucked in air, and prepared to hit the ground hard. But something cushioned her fall, and she landed gently as if dropping onto a soft pillow. A strange smell laced the air. She sat and twisted to look behind her.
A six-feet-plus old man stooped in the shadow of the caretaker’s shed. His light blue eyes twinkled strangely. His disheveled white hair and beard hung past his waist and framed his wrinkled face. He wore a hooded cloak over a long, gray tunic, and his right hand’s long bony fingers shone white on the cloak’s indigo sleeve. Something wasn’t right. He clutched his left arm with its end wrapped in a white cloth with dark brown stains. She’d bet those stains weren’t from spilled hot chocolate.
Sophie stared, then looked back to the grave. Trudy’s name sat on the tip of her tongue. It would be easy to call for help. Nope, she could look out for herself.
“She isn’t my real mother.” She stood and brushed herself off.
“Ah, that explains it.” He didn’t say what he meant but smiled, showing teeth with gaps between them.
“Who are you?” she asked and stepped back. Her eyes lingered first on the gappy smile, then dropped to the stained cloth, and returned to the grave. The scene turned watery and she blinked.
“Ah, the pain.”
Sophie eyed the mangled arm.
“Sorry about your arm.”
“Oh, I do not mean this.” He winced when he lifted the arm a bit with his right hand.
Sophie looked away. If she stared too long at that stump, she would be sick, or worse, feel sorry for him. She wanted to do neither, but curiosity nudged her.
“What happened, I mean, to your arm?”
The man stepped from the shadow and stopped behind the tree so that the people at the grave couldn’t see him. He shifted and adjusted his injured arm, wincing again while he watched the mourners.
Over by the grave, Trudy greeted Miss Wolcott, Tommy’s kindergarten teacher. They hugged, held each other, weeping. Over the hill, the high school marching band stumbled into practice. The tuba’s boom used to be funny, but now the boom rhymed with doom and gloom.
“I think she would like you to join her,” said the old man, not answering her question.
“How’d you know what my foster mother wants?” Sophie glanced at him.
Leaning back, swaying a bit, the old man studied her out of eyes much like her own. Dad had always said they were like a beautiful summer’s day, but with storm clouds in the distance. The old man’s eyes flickered afraid and desperate like her own.
“She seems to care,” he said and jabbed his chin Trudy’s way.
“What the heck do you know?” Sophie raised her brows. “She just cares about rules.” Sophie wiped her nose. “And she is a control freak.”
The old man sighed. “Rules are good to have.”
“Of course, some rules are a bit strict.” He gave her another gappy smile.
She hated it when adults pretended to understand. They were much more honest when they yelled.
Sounds drifted toward her. Mourners’ voices mingled with the band’s music. Adults talked in choked voices. Children cried their lungs out. The wind whooshed through it all and snatched the voices and music away. Here and there, a lonely snowflake zipped past.
“I feel for you, child. It hurts to lose,” the old man said, “but perhaps I can help.”
Sophie eyed the wrapped stump. “It’s not the same.”
They watched another family arrive. Dianne and her parents drove up and parked the car. Her friend searched the cemetery until she spotted Sophie by the pine. She made a step toward her, but Dianne’s dad grabbed her arm and shook his head.
“Someone else seems to like you.”
“Yeah. Right.” A shaking sigh rushed past her lips. Yeah, she would like to be with Dianne. “Maybe I’ll see what’s going on over there.”
“Well, then you should climb back into the tree.” He smiled again, wider, more gaps showing. “The view would be more satisfying.”
Sophie frowned and backed around the trunk, keeping it between her and the man. He stood taller than anyone she’d ever met. Pretending to be brave, she hid her fear in a frown, but she was ready in case he tried anything.
More people arrived and circled the grave. Was Tommy really in there? Earlier, she had stood beside the open casket in church, numb, gazing at his tiny still body. Trudy had pulled her away, saying Sophie was too young to see a dead person. Well, Tommy was her brother, wasn’t he? Or had been anyway.
“Go on, join them.”
Sophie shook her head. “He’s gone now anyway,” she whispered and sniffed. “What’s the point?”
“The point is, child, that you have one last opportunity to say farewell.”
Sophie said nothing and blinked a few times. What the heck did he mean? She never got a chance to say good-bye. And now? Now, it was too late.
“What I mean is this.” He cleared his throat but the rasp stayed. “If you help me go home, there will be an opportunity for you to speak with your brother one last time.”
Sophie’s head jerked up.
The old man nodded. “Yes, there is a way to see your brother once more.”
“How?” Sophie wrinkled her nose and squinted at him, searching his face for the truth.
The old man took a deep breath.
“There is a small catch,” he said.
Oh, sure, there was always a catch. That’s the adult’s way of coming up with reasons as to why and what and never really keeping their word anyway. Her eyes strayed back to the casket, but for a second, hope rushed to her heart. And for a crazy moment, she thought she would to do whatever she must if it meant she could see Tommy again, only once, and tell him she was sorry.
“The small catch is you must find an artifact that will help me to go home,” the old man continued like she hung on his every word. “On the way there or back, if you pay attention, you might see your brother.”
Sophie tuned him out. The guy was crazy. That’s all.
The pastor from Trudy’s church arrived. The service would be starting soon, like it had three years ago when Mom and Dad died. The big fist in her stomach twisted; the lump in her throat grew, choking her, making her cough.
The raspy voice continued, “You must go through the portal in the forest, past the gate over to the right, and run along the passage toward the light at the other end.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, but instead watched the people by the grave. She wanted to run and be close to the people she knew, but at the same time, the hurt in her heart kept her in place. Her feelings tumbled into an angry mish mash for not knowing what to do.
Out of habit, Sophie reached for her hair to twist it, but her hands came away empty. Why had she been so dumb? Now, she regretted having cut her hair to annoy Trudy. She dropped her hands and raised her shoulders so that only her fingertips peeked from the cuffs. Mom’s jacket, still too big for her, had large pockets holding all the stuff she cared for: her cell phone and a charger, Dad’s Swiss Army knife and his old wallet, Tommy’s old teddy bear Mom had knitted for him, and a supply of gum that would last for several weeks. Mom had always said, “You can make things last if you don’t indulge.” She would remember that. In the old wallet, she had money stashed away, money she had stolen. She shouldn’t steal, but she had to have some money if she wanted to run away with Tommy. Now Tommy was gone.
Hand in her pocket, she fingered the page from Trudy’s parenting magazine. The advertisement said the adoption agency promised to bring parents and children together in a loving home. That’s what she wanted. That’s what she would get, right after the funeral. She would run to the adoption agency and ask for a new family.
“Child, are you listening?”
“’Course.” The man sounded nuts.
He chuckled, then turned serious. “Listen, child,” he urged. “I must return home to prevent something terrible from happening, but I cannot do so without your help.”
Sophie peeked up to his face, down to her sneakers, then up again, and finally lingered on his arm and the stained sleeve.
“What happened?” She hugged herself, grabbing her upper arms, and pointed with one finger.
“I lost my hand defending my life.” He shifted his arm and winced again.
“Someone cut it off?” Sophie backed up more, stumbled, and tripped over a root. Catching herself with her arms, she landed on her butt.
“Sophie, kind, komm over here!” Trudy beckoned her. “Um Himmels Willen, get up. You’re getting dirty.”
Sophie hugged her knees and ignored Trudy.
“What…?” Sophie twisted around. The man was gone. The same strange smell mingled with the cold air. Over by the grave, Trudy exchanged a few more words with the pastor.
“There is little time, child,” the raspy voice said.
Sophie jumped. His voice came from somewhere close behind her, but she could see only the shed and the trees.
“Where are you? And what’s that smell?”
“Sage,” he said. “Child, listen. You must go through the portal in the forest. Look to your right between the trees.”
Sophie looked past an old gate’s rusty wings hanging more off than on its hinges and past the undergrowth between the Douglas firs. Way back within the trees, something weird shimmered and flickered like snowflakes twinkling in the sun.
“Once you are through the portal, you must run. Do not stop. You hear? You must keep running as fast as you can toward the light at the other end.”
“What about my brother?”
Trudy stomped toward Sophie, her black shoes leaving scuff marks in the layer of snow that now dusted the ground.
“Sophie, komm here. Please!”
Sophie leaned forward. She was not going with her. No way.
“At the end of the passage, you will emerge into another forest,” the old man said. “A path leads to the city of Gwern-cadarn-brac where you must go to Council Hall, and…”
“Sophie!” Trudy huffed like a steam engine without the steam across the cemetery. Sophie giggled.
“Child, are you listening?”
Was that man crazy?
“Sophie!” Trudy lumbered to a stop close to her.
“At Council Hall,” the old man raised his voice, “you must…”
Trudy craned her neck. “Who is that talking?”
Sophie shrugged and glanced over her shoulder into the shadows. The sage smell tickled her nose. She sneezed.
“Sophie.” Her foster mother jammed her fists onto her hips. “I’m talking to you.” Sophie’s right hand curled around the smooth, round surface of a stone, the perfect size to fit her hand. Acting on their own, her fingers closed.
Trudy took another step forward. “Komm, now!”
No, I won’t. Searing hot pain, fear and anger surged through Sophie. “I’m not going with you!” she yelled. “You’re horrible! It’s all your fault! I hate you!” She jumped to her feet. Her hand lashed out. The stone flew across the short distance separating them, and thud! hit Trudy in the forehead.
Sophie’s jaw dropped. She stared.
Trudy did, too, for a second or two, then her eyes rolled up and her body folded like a big stuffed doll. Blood trickled between her eyes down her nose. Her head snapped back, and the hat with those ridiculous feathers rolled away like a loose tire.
What had she done? Sophie slapped a hand over her mouth. Oh. My. Oh no! What am I going to do? I didn’t mean to.
A woman at the graveside screamed. Sophie started left, then right, and swung around. Where was the old man? Gone, probably. High tailing it so he wouldn’t be caught here. Sophie dashed toward the old gate, arms pumping at her sides. People yelled, coming after her. With two long strides, she jumped past the rusty wings and ran into the woods. Earlier, the shimmer had been a little flicker, but now the setting sun peeked through the clouds, and she could barely make out any flickering between the trunks. Had she imagined it? She slowed down, unsure. Branches cracked behind her in the woods. Someone came after her. She had to get away. Had the old man told the truth? Was there really a portal into another world? No time to wonder now.
With her arms extended in front of her, Sophie ran toward the shimmering light. As her hands touched it, a white light flashed, blinding her. She fell forward into a gray world. Fine sand filled the spaces between her fingers. The sage smell was mixed with the stink of singed hair and scorched flesh.
Eigil gasped. For the entire conversation, he had hoped but not believed he could persuade the girl to help him. Her distrust had even masked the heavy pain shining in her eyes. Well, she had not wanted to help, but now she was on her way, and with good fortune, the precious few things he had managed to convey would prove beneficial to her at the right time.
“May the light brighten your path, child.”
His shoulders slumped and his regret stung. A child. He had to rely on a child. Given the few choices he had, he should still have handled it differently. Perhaps the child would have a better chance than the men and women visiting the burial ground, although he worried about her pale face and red hair. Those features would not help her in Nugateris.
Eigil raised his head. The mourners hurried toward the injured woman on the ground. Blood spread over her face and she lay quite still. Pity surged through him, not so much for the woman but for the girl. Perhaps now she would have no one to return to and no reason to come back.
Two men bent over the woman, and after examining her, one man jumped up and started after the girl.
No! The man could not enter the portal nor stop the girl. Eigil could not permit it. He winced as he let go of his left arm and hurried after the man. Extending his right hand toward portal, he summoned his power. In a rush, the magic’s warm tingle flared in his belly, surged up through his chest and shoulder, and down his right arm where it quivered in his fist. He breathed its strong sage scent enveloping him at the same time. His conscience would not let him harm the man, but stop him he must.
The man reached the gate’s rusty wings and pushed through it, heading past the first trees. For a moment, the setting sun emerged from the clouds and cast the forest into a brilliant and blinding light.
In a straight line through the trees and above the man’s head, Eigil released his power and let it hammer into the portal. The magic flashed purple and steeped the air with sage. With a white flare, the portal answered and threw the man back. He sat, shaking his head as if to clear it. Then the curtain of clouds closed once more. A gust snatched a few shimmering threads and took the sage scent, leaving the forest dark and silent.
Eigil retreated into the shadows. Well, he had stopped the man, but his success only brought the one result farthest from his mind—he had closed the portal. Now he could not return home, and without help, neither could the girl.