"Well . . ." Alba stalls. "I don't . . . I mean, I was just walking around town, not going anywhere, and then . . . and then I just found myself here." Nervous, she scratches the back of her neck, tugging at short spikes of black hair, hoping she doesn't look as messy as usual, then realizing she probably looks even worse. "I didn't mean to knock on your door, it just sort of . . . happened."
"Take a sip of chocolate," Peggy suggests. "It'll help to clear your head."
As the thick liquid slips down her throat and into her belly, Alba starts to feel warm and soft, as if the kitchen has just hugged her. And, after a few minutes she isn't scared to tell the truth anymore. At least a little bit of the truth. So, where should she begin? History. Love. Trust. Betrayal. Heartbreak. Alba shifts the words around in her head, wondering what to hide and what to reveal.
By the time the last of the hot chocolate has gone, Alba has told Peggy about failing her MPhil and ending her career. She has carefully, deliberately omitted the single most important piece of information, the thing that slots it all together.
"So I can't stay in college any longer, and I can't go home," Alba says, though she stops short of explaining why. "So I was wandering the streets in the middle of the night."
In the ensuing silence, the spices circle the kitchen, even stronger than before, and although Alba can't see the smells, she can hear the hum of her mother's song again in the back of her head. It rocks her like a lullaby.
"You can stay here," Peggy says, "for ninety-nine nights, until the seventh of August, just before midnight. And then you must go."
"Sorry?" Alba wonders if the hot chocolate was spiked with rum because she's suddenly light-headed. "But I couldn't possibly . . ."
"No rent, no bills. Your room will be your own, to do with as you like." She smiles, and Alba can almost hear the old woman's papery skin crinkle. "But take care of the house, and it'll take care of you."
"Well, I . . ." A thousand questions crowd Alba's mind, so she asks the first one that comes to her lips. "But why ninety-nine nights?"
"Ah, yes," Peggy says. "Well, I think because it's long enough to help you turn your life around and short enough so you can't put it off forever."
"Oh, okay," Alba says, thinking it'll be impossible to pick up the pieces of her shattered life in such a tiny amount of time, let alone get it all back on track.
"Oh, it is possible," Peggy says. "I can promise you that. And you won't have to do it alone. That's the whole point of being here. The house will help you. It's all yours, except for the tower, which is only mine. And you can never go there. That's my one rule. Do you understand?"
When Alba nods, it's clear to them both that she's staying, even though she hasn't yet said yes. But how can she say no? A secret tower. How deliciously intriguing. It reminds her of another fairy tale. When Alba first saw the house she thought of Rapunzel, then Sleeping Beauty and now Bluebeard. Alba smiles. She loves fairy tales.
"If you stay I can promise you this," Peggy says. "This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing you think is the worst thing that's ever happened? When you leave, you'll realize it was the very best thing of all."
After showing a sedated, sleepy Alba to her bedroom, Peggy shuffles along the corridor toward the tower, creaks up her own stairs and hurries into her kitchen to find a pile of glittering presents and a cake. An enormous, three-tiered extravaganza, iced with thick white chocolate cream, decorated with sugar flowers and scattered with fresh ones: red and yellow roses, wisteria, sunflowers, bluebells and buttercups. Just as Peggy knew it would be, just as it has been every year for as long as she's lived in the house. Along with the cake, the kitchen is decorated with a rainbow of balloons, streamers and a banner emblazoned with the words
Excerpted from The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag. Copyright © 2013 by Menna van Praag. Excerpted by permission of Pamela Dorman Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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