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Beyond the doors, p.1

Beyond the Doors, page 1

 

Beyond the Doors
 

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Beyond the Doors


  Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom

  TO PHOEBE AND GRIFFIN

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2017 by David Neilsen

  Cover art and interior illustrations copyright © 2017 by Isa Bancewicz

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Crown and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Visit us on the Web! rhcbooks.com

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

  ISBN 9781101935828 (trade) — ebook ISBN 9781101935842

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

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  Contents

  Cover

  Other Titles

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Copyright

  Prologue

  Act One: Inserting the Key

  Chapter One: Zack Is Mistaken

  Chapter Two: Janice’s Suspicions

  Chapter Three: Sydney Throws a Fit

  Chapter Four: Alexa Is Overly Optimistic

  Chapter Five: Zack Notices Something Odd

  Chapter Six: Janice Isn’t Sold

  Chapter Seven: Sydney Finds Some Doors

  Chapter Eight: Alexa Meets a Monster

  Chapter Nine: Zack Injures a Stranger

  Chapter Ten: Janice’s Less-Than-Brilliant Idea

  Chapter Eleven: Sydney Finds THE Door

  Chapter Twelve: Alexa Has a Secret

  Act Two: Turning the Knob

  Chapter Thirteen: Zack Reluctantly Follows

  Chapter Fourteen: Janice Remembers Something She Learned in School

  Chapter Fifteen: Sydney Gets a Chill

  Chapter Sixteen: Alexa Sorts it Out

  Chapter Seventeen: Zack Opens a Door

  Chapter Eighteen: Zack Is Mistaken

  Chapter Nineteen: Sydney Picks a Poor Time to Snort

  Chapter Twenty: Alexa Goes Exploring

  Chapter Twenty-one: Zack Uses Bad Grammar

  Chapter Twenty-two: Janice Has a Sinking Feeling

  Chapter Twenty-three: Sydney Meets Another Monster

  Chapter Twenty-four: Alexa Remembers

  Chapter Twenty-five: Zack Learns an Unhappy Truth

  Chapter Twenty-six: Janice Beats a Hasty Retreat

  Chapter Twenty-seven: Sydney Feels Left Out

  Chapter Twenty-eight: Alexa Screams Real Loud

  Act Three: Opening the Door

  Chapter Twenty-nine: Zack Drops the Bomb

  Chapter Thirty: Janice Gets Cozy with a Foot

  Chapter Thirty-one: Sydney Readies a RAGE

  Chapter Thirty-two: Alexa Dips Her Toe

  Chapter Thirty-three: Zack Makes the Tough Call

  Chapter Thirty-four: Janice Plays the Hero

  Chapter Thirty-five: Sydney Goes for Broke

  Chapter Thirty-six: Alexa Has Another Secret

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Edward Rothbaum was in a grumpy mood.

  He was currently late for a very important meeting with three very important people (and one not-so-important person) who had traveled all the way from Argentina to see him. He had been looking forward to this meeting for months and had practiced what he was going to say in front of his closet mirror three times. The key to this meeting was the poster boards he’d spent the past four weekends creating. They were very impressive poster boards, and they made a very convincing case. Armed with these poster boards, Edward was confident that the meeting with the three very important people (and one not-so-important person) would be an unqualified success.

  Unfortunately, upon the arrival of the Argentineans, Edward had discovered that he had left the poster boards at home.

  Which was not good.

  He had apologized backward and forward to the three very important people who had traveled all the way from Argentina for this meeting. He had even apologized to the not-so-important person. Then he’d set up all four of them on laptops to play Minecraft, ordered everybody pizza, and rushed home to collect his work.

  All this had conspired to put him in a very grumpy mood, and as he pulled into his driveway and got out of his car, he slammed the car door shut with just a little extra oomph in a halfhearted attempt to feel better. Three steps later, Edward’s guilt over being unnecessarily cruel to the car door reared its ugly head, and an unpleasant feeling of shame was added to his grumpy mood. The guilt wormed its way into the small, honorable, pacifist side of Edward’s brain and chastised him over his selfish assault on the innocent car door. It pointed out—quite rightly—that the door could not reasonably be blamed for Edward’s plight, and therefore had not deserved to be slammed with such vigor. The much larger and much grumpier side of his brain told the guilt to stuff it because he was having one of those mornings and taking it out on the car door had made him feel just a little bit better.

  The guilt tucked its tail between its legs and fled.

  Edward reached his front porch and fumbled in his pocket for the keys, all the while shaking his head and muttering angrily about his forgetfulness. “Dingbat! Dolt! Doofus!” Edward berated himself alliteratively as he turned the key to unlock the door. “If this meeting doesn’t go well…”

  He shuddered to think what might happen.

  He stepped inside and slammed the door closed with even more force than he’d slammed the car door a moment earlier—mainly because it was a bigger door and so could withstand a bigger slam. The lowly spark of guilt in his gut attempted to raise its head and reprimand him for all of this sudden violence toward members of the door family, but the rest of his brain growled at the guilt, causing it to slink away in fear again.

  Edward took two very serious steps in the direction of his study and was poised for a third when all at once he froze, foot raised. His extra-keen “Dad” alarm was ringing. Something was wrong. He mentally went over his parental emergency checklist.

  • Was one of his four children currently lying helpless on the floor in front of him? No.

  • Did the furniture appear to have been oddly sorted, labeled, and boxed up in one of the tidying binges of his eldest daughter, Janice? No.

  • Did he smell anything oddly unappetizing coming from the kitchen, implying that his son, Zack, was yet again experimenting with food? No.

  • Were there signs of massive destruction and/or unnatural horrors leaking out from the room of his middle daughter, Sydney? No.

  • Was a large number of small, helpless, and inevitably cute animals scurrying across the floor courtesy of his youngest daughter, Alexa? No.

  Stumped, Edward absently loosened his collar and shuffled his jacket off his shoulders before the answer came to him. It was hot. Too hot. One of his children must have toyed with the family’s YourHappyHome smart thermostat again.

  “Man,” he moaned. “That took me an hour to set up.”

  His children were always doing little things like that. Adjusting the thermostat. Leaving dishes in the bathtub. Filling up the DVR with episodes of Say Yes to the Dress.

  Just trying to get my attention, he told himself, parroting what the therapist had drilled into his head last month.

  If he was being honest, he didn’t
mind the little pranks his children were constantly playing on him. It showed they still cared, for which he was grateful. After their mother left six years earlier, Edward hadn’t been sure he’d be able to raise four kids alone. Even though he wasn’t technically a single parent (she’d promised to come back eventually), he might as well have been one. He thought he’d done an okay job so far. At least they seemed to be turning out more or less normal.

  More or less.

  But they won’t turn out as well if my meeting tanks and I lose my job and we lose our house, his inner alarmist warned. The rest of him agreed, and he focused on getting his mind back on the task at hand—finding the missing poster boards and returning to work before the three very important people (and one not-so-important person) finished the pizza, got bored with Minecraft, and booked a return flight to South America. He entered the hallway and strode determinedly toward his study and the waiting poster boards. Three steps in, however, he stopped, his foot once again hovering inches above the floor.

  “Huh,” he managed to utter.

  In front of him was his familiar hallway, off of which were five familiar bedrooms, one familiar bathroom, and his familiar study. This time he didn’t need his “Dad” superpowers to notice something was wrong. His eyes informed him just fine on their own.

  The doors were missing.

  Every door in the hallway was gone. He walked up to the doorway leading to his study and inspected the unexpectedly empty doorframe, running his hand up and down the edge. There were no signs of struggle or damage. The doors had not been violently ripped from their hinges. A freak, indoor tornado hadn’t suddenly twirled its way down the hallway and carried them off. Somebody had simply unscrewed the hinges and removed the doors. As further proof, there was a small pile of screws lazing about at his feet. Screws that had until quite recently been employed to attach his study door to the hinges on the doorframe but that now were shamelessly lying down on the job.

  “Huh,” he mumbled again.

  Who would do something like this? And why? A quick scan of his study showed no signs of anything else having been touched or taken. A second scan spotted the poster boards he’d come home to retrieve. The house had not been robbed. Nothing was missing.

  Except the doors.

  Who steals doors? he wondered. Is that a thing?

  As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t blame any of his children for this. It was too odd to be a prank. Too…specific. Wiping beads of sweat from his forehead, he walked back out into the hallway and inspected the other doorless doorways. Every door had been cleanly unscrewed and removed, leaving a tidy little pile of screws on the floor.

  It was very weird.

  Something else began nagging him, something urgent. It set off flashes of warning within his mind. However, for better or worse, raising four kids by himself had given Edward the ability to ignore most anything, and the oddity of the missing doors demanded his every last kernel of thought. Where they had been taken, he didn’t know. Who had taken them, he didn’t know. Why they’d been taken, he couldn’t imagine. He was even still having a little trouble believing they’d been taken at all, despite the evidence currently not staring him in the face.

  With effort, he tore his attention away from the mystery of the doors, ignored the increasingly important something trying to get his attention, and concentrated instead on his pressing mission. He told himself to focus as he wiped the back of his hand against his surprisingly sweaty cheek. He needed to grab the poster boards and return to work before one of his Argentinean guests was killed by a Minecraft Creeper.

  He was about to turn and head back to his study when his increasingly freaking-out subconscious finally reached through his obliviousness and slapped him in the face. Smoke. He smelled smoke. And he was hot. Very hot. Far hotter than he’d get from a poorly adjusted thermostat. His face was now absolutely dripping with sweat, and, for the first time, his ears acknowledged hearing a looming crackle and sputter—a disturbing sound, which he suddenly realized he’d been hearing ever since he’d entered the house.

  He turned around to find the hallway engulfed in flames.

  The door to Mrs. Gizznulf’s sixth-grade class creaked open with all the subtlety of a polka-dancing zombie. In response to this unexpected distraction, four students gasped, seven looked over with eager excitement, three jolted awake, and eight remained asleep. Only one student attempted to block out the eerily squeaky interruption and actually pay attention to what Mrs. Gizznulf was saying, certain it would be on an upcoming test. Seated ramrod straight in the third row two seats from the window, Zachary Rothbaum jotted down the teacher’s every word with enthusiasm rarely seen in an eleven-year-old. Because he was focused with laserlike intensity on his task, it took Zack a few seconds to realize anyone had entered the classroom, which was unfortunate considering he was the reason the door had been forced open twelve minutes before the lunch bell in the first place.

  “I apologize for the intrusion, Mrs. Gizznulf,” Nurse Hibble announced meekly, poking her head through the partly open doorway just as much as was absolutely necessary. “I’m afraid I must borrow Zachary Rothbaum.”

  Mrs. Gizznulf growled, something she tended to do when either bothered or hungry. Nurse Hibble flinched and quickly withdrew her head from the classroom. “His presence is required in the main office,” she called out from the safety of the hallway.

  Every head in the classroom turned toward Zack at the same time, twisting in perfect unison with the precision of a Broadway chorus line. He tried not to squirm under the undivided attention of his entire class, but having forty-five eyes staring at him at once (two each for twenty-one students and Mrs. Gizznulf, plus Tom Gillogily’s non-glass eye) caused his sweat glands to dribble irritating beads down his forehead.

  Now what’s she done? he thought. He held no fantasies that Nurse Hibble was here because of anything Zack had done or said or stepped in or eaten. Whatever the issue, it wouldn’t be about Zack.

  It would be about Sydney. As usual.

  “Ahhhhh, Zaaaaack. You’rrrrrre wannnnted innnn the oooofficcccce,” purred Mrs. Gizznulf in a particularly thick version of her unidentifiable South American accent. A number of Zack’s classmates whimpered and sank lower into their seats, as the strength of her accent was known to be directly proportional to the size of the English teacher’s irritation.

  Aware the safest way to avoid her wrath was to leave the room as soon as possible, Zack closed his notebook and quickly shoved everything on his desk into his backpack. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, standing and heaving the bag over his shoulder.

  He marched down the aisle of the suddenly silent classroom and managed to leave the room without hearing the sniggers and giggles one might expect to hear during a student’s march of shame. This was partially due to Zack, who was moderately popular and could hold his weight on the playground, and partially due to Mrs. Gizznulf, who had demonstrated on more than one occasion her fanatical devotion to corporal punishment.

  Mrs. Gizznulf ran a tight ship.

  “What’s she done this time?” he asked Nurse Hibble as they trudged down the hall. “Is the other kid okay?” While each infraction was unique, most generally involved Sydney leaving some sobbing fourth-grade girl holding a tissue to a bloody nose. With their father working and unable to get away on short notice, and Janice now in middle school, Zack was generally called upon when his excitable sister got in trouble. About every month or so, he was summoned to the office to deal with her after her latest scuffle.

  As they passed the faculty lounge, Zack realized Nurse Hibble had yet to respond to his question. Worried this meant his sister had done more damage than usual, he tried again. “The other girl’s okay, right?”

  Again, silence, this time mixed with a quickening of Nurse Hibble’s steps, so that Zack found himself almost jogging to keep up. Something was definitely wrong.

  “Nurse Hibble?” he asked, hoping the third time was the charm.

  It w
asn’t.

  She stopped in front of the door to the main office, placed a hand on the knob, then paused and looked back at Zack. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Then, as Zack’s face twisted into worried confusion, she pulled the door open and ushered him inside.

  Stepping in, he found Sydney sitting against the far wall, dazed and miserable. She was obviously upset, so whatever had happened must have been serious. Still, there didn’t seem to be any blood on her clothes, which was a good sign.

  “Sydney,” he sighed. “Dad is gonna be pissed if you got in another fight.”

  In response, she unexpectedly buried her face in her hands and sobbed in a way he’d never seen. Internal alarm bells immediately clanged in his skull.

  “Sydney, hey, I didn’t mean that. It’ll be okay. We’ll come up with a good story—I promise. Sydney?”

  A throat cleared behind him. He whipped his head around to hear the grim details from Nurse Hibble but stopped midwhip when he caught sight of Janice standing against the wall, tears running down her face. In her arms was their youngest sister, Alexa, pulled from her first-grade class.

  Without knowing why, Zack’s stomach tightened and his tear ducts readied a deluge.

  “Janice?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

  Again, the throat cleared. “Thank you, Nurse Hibble. You may go.”

  Principal McCarthy stood in his office doorway, wearing his most serious face. Behind him stood a tall, thin, chinless Latina woman with tears carving gullies down her cheeks.

  “What’s going on?” Zack asked the room. The weeping woman let out a pitiful moan as Principal McCarthy stepped forward to drape an arm over Zack’s shoulder.

  “Mr. Rothbaum,” he said in his best “you’re not going to want to hear this” voice, “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible accident.”

  Janice stared at her father, lying motionless before her on the hospital bed, a series of tubes and wires connecting him to various machines and letting everyone know he was still alive. She tried to hold in the tears but was not overly successful. He seemed very peaceful and calm, and not at all like someone who had quite recently been caught in a terrible house fire, suffered severe smoke inhalation, and fallen into a coma.

 
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