"Twelve," said Mo.
"Twelve? My word!" Dustfinger pushed his dripping hair back from his forehead. It reached almost to his shoulders. Meggie wondered what color it was when it was dry. The stubble around his narrow-lipped mouth was gingery, like the fur of the stray cat Meggie sometimes fed with a saucer of milk outside the door. Ginger hair sprouted on his cheeks, too, sparse as a boy's first beard but not long enough to hide three long, pale scars. They made Dustfinger's face look as if it had been smashed and stuck back together again.
"Twelve," he repeated. "Of course. She was . . . let's see, she was three then, wasn't she?"
Mo nodded. "Come on, I'll find you some dry clothes."
Impatiently, as if he were suddenly in a hurry to hide the man from Meggie, he led his visitor across the hall. "And, Meggie," he said over his shoulder, "you go back to sleep." Then, without another word, he closed his workshop door.
Meggie stood there rubbing her cold feet together. Go back to sleep. Sometimes, when they'd stayed up late yet again, Mo would toss her down on her bed like a bag of walnuts. Sometimes he chased her around the house after supper until she escaped into her room, breathless with laughter. And sometimes he was so tired he lay down on the sofa and she made him a cup of coffee before she went to bed. But he had never ever sent her off to her room so brusquely.
A foreboding, clammy and fearful, came into her heart as if, along with the visitor whose name was so strange yet somehow familiar, some menace had slipped into her life. And she wished so hard it frightened her that she had never gone to get Mo and Dustfinger had stayed outside until the rain washed him away.
When the door of the workshop opened again she jumped.
"Still there, I see," said Mo. "Go to bed, Meggie. Please." He had that little frown over his nose that appeared only when something was really worrying him, and he seemed to look straight through her as if his thoughts were somewhere else entirely. The foreboding in Meggie's heart grew, spreading black wings. "Send him away, Mo!" she said as he gently propelled her toward her room. "Please! Send him away. I don't like him." Mo leaned in her open doorway. "He'll be gone when you get up in the morning. Word of honor."
"Word of honor no crossed fingers?" Meggie looked him straight in the eye. She could always tell when Mo was lying, however hard he tried to hide it from her.
"No crossed fingers," he said, holding both hands out to show her.
Then he closed her door, even though he knew she didn't like that. Meggie put her ear to it, listening. She could hear the clink of china. So the man with the sandy beard was getting a nice cup of tea to warm him up. I hope he catches pneumonia, thought Meggie . . . though he needn't necessarily die of it. Meggie heard the kettle whistling in the kitchen and Mo carrying a tray of clattering crockery back to the workshop. When that door closed she forced herself to wait a few more seconds, just to be on the safe side. Then she crept back out into the hallway.
There was a sign hanging on the door of Mo's workshop, a small metal plaque. Meggie knew the words on it by heart. When she was five she had often practiced reading the old-fashioned, spindly lettering: Some books should be tasted
but only a few
should be chewed and digested thoroughly.
Back then, when she still had to climb on a box to read the plaque, she had thought the chewing and digesting were meant literally and wondered, horrified, why Mo had hung on his workshop door the words of someone who vandalized books. Now she knew what the plaque really meant, but tonight, she wasn't interested in written words. Spoken words were what she wanted to hear, the words being exchanged in soft, almost inaudible whispers by the two men on the other side of the door.
Copyright (c) 2004, Scholastic Books Inc. Reproduced with the permission of Scholastic Books
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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