Chello Stringfellow

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The Adventures of Chello Stringfellow

A Fantasy for the Not-Quite Adult

Not a day goes by that thirteen-year-old Chello Stringfellow doesn’t wish her sister was still alive. But when a magical, tea-obsessed stranger enters her life and grants her wish, things start to go terribly wrong, and Chello learns the price she must pay for his services. Now she must find a way to turn her not-so-dead sister back into a memory before the stranger leaves forever, taking the souls of her living family with him.

Prologue

Dear Tori,

A lot has happened since the last time we saw each other. The Flood completely wrecked our house, so we had to live in a hotel for a while. Later we moved in with Aunt Rose and Uncle Tillman. Ina hated it there (of course!), so now we are living in Grandpa Stringfellow’s old house – you remember, the one with the rats and the broken toilet and all? But don’t worry, Uncle Tillman fixed it up for us. Dad helped as much as he could, but he doesn’t get around so good since he was hurt in The Flood. It’s been a whole year and he still has to spend a lot of time just sitting down.

At night the rats scruffle around in the cellar, and its kind of lonely up here on the hill with no other houses around (well, there is a crazy old lady who lives nearby), but I try not to care about any of it, because we are as far away from the river as we can get and still be living in Thief River Falls.

Right now I’m in my room, which is upstairs at the front. It has a big window seat where I sit and look out over the town and the whole valley. It’s beautiful in the morning when the fog lays in the valley like a big old fluffy pillow.  The only bad is that they put Ina’s electric sign – which they saved from the old house – up on the front of this house, and it blasts so much purple light into my room that I think I’m sitting inside Barney’s stomach. (and he has a bellyache and needs to fart. Ha Ha.)

Aunt Rose made me promise not to tell Ina — which I wouldn’t anyway — but at night when you see the sign from out on the highway, you can’t see that it says INAMORATA’S DRIVE IN OF TRUTH – WHY WALK WHEN YOU CAN DRIVE IN TO THE FUTURE? Instead, all you see are the big purple letters I D I O T! I know Ina’s your monster mom, but me and Aunt Rose think it’s seriously funny!!!

I guess I should tell you about the family. The twins miss you as much as I do. Clara sometimes wets the bed and Corey pulls her hair out — and Clara’s, too! They fight all the time and they think it’s funny to get me into trouble with Ina. We just had their 8th birthday party at Chuckie Cheese in Newington. I’ve definitely outgrown that stuff, but still it was fun.

Dad says he’s doing okay, but I don’t know. He misses you and writes songs about you – some of them are really sad.

Ina makes me do all of the chores! Clara and Corey are old enough to help. I still have to babysit them, plus take care of Dad and cook the dinners. Dad says Ina loves me, but we both know what a big fat lie that is!!! The only good thing about her is that she had you. Well…marrying my Dad was a good thing too, because otherwise we never would have got to be sisters.

But this is really bothering me. If she’s such a good syskick psikic psykic, how come she didn’t know about The Flood? How come she didn’t see what was going to happen to you and me and Dad, and get us out of the house? She is a BIG FAKE!!! Of course, the stupid people who pay her to tell their fortunes don’t know that. Even out here in the boonies, she’s busier than ever.

Aunt Rose was right. She said I would feel better if I wrote this letter. Maybe I do feel a little better now. Maybe I will stop having the bad dreams. She also said that writing a letter would bring closure. Whatever that means. What I really want is to BRING YOU BACK. I know it’s not possible, but wouldn’t it be great if it was?

Well, it’s pretty late and my hand is ready to drop off from writing. I guess I will stop for now. If I address this letter to Tori Bhakti Stringfellow In Care of Heaven, do you think the post office will deliver it to you? Probably not.

With lots of love XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Your sister 4-EVER,

Chello Anne Stringfellow

CHAPTER ONE: A Few Months Earlier

“What do you think?” Henry asked Ina as they stood staring up from the road that ran in front of the house. Chello hated the way her father’s voice simpered whenever he addressed her stepmother.

Ina’s shrewd black eyes flashed as she considered the gravel drive curving beneath the portico. “In one side and out the other,” she said at last, her voice deep and rich and made for easing $100 bills out of other people’s pocketbooks. She fluttered her perfectly manicured, purple-painted fingernails first at one end, then at the other end of the driveway that curled around a sad patch of scorched lawn. “Just like at the station.”

Standing nearby with Aunt Rose but trying to make herself invisible, Chello hoped Ina would refuse. She didn’t like the gloomy old Grandpa House with its boarded-up windows, sickly-looking yard, and rusting iron fence that surrounded it all like a prison. And it was far enough away from town that she would never get to see her friends except at school.

Down below the hill on which the house stood was the town of Thief River Falls. Wriggling through it like two ugly snakes were the highway and the river, one gray with a dirty white line running down its middle, the other a mottled, sinister shade of green. The flood-scarred riverbanks on both ends of the falls that roared at the center of town were like wounds that refused to heal, like the ones inside Chello’s head that broke open every so often and oozed blood and pus into her thoughts. That’s when the bad dreams would start up.

“It’s zoned for business, can you believe it?” Ina said, starting up the drive, high heels crunching the gravel. “With the right permits, I’ll be back in business in no time.”

“Just like before the flood,” Rose said, giving Chello’s straight brown hair an affectionate tug. Buck up, kid, the tug said. Henry and Ina gave Rose sharp looks. They never talked about what had happened. At first Chello had wanted to, since she had experienced the terror and excitement of the rushing flood waters crashing into her house, but their hurt looks and stony silences had taught her to keep silent, too.

Henry followed Ina, his limp worse than usual today. Like a broken puppy dog, Chello thought. “We can put the sign up there,” he said, pointing to the flat, columned roof that spanned the drive at the front of the house. “Tillman will wire it up for you.”

“Yeah! Tillman can wire it up!” Clara, one of the twins, chimed.

“I want xBox in my room!” Corey, the other twin, added.

Tillman came from around the side of the house, smiling, but with his eyes trained to the house’s stone foundation, looking for faults. “Sure, and everyone gets hot and cold running ice cream in their bathrooms,” he said.

“Ice cream in the bathroom? Really?” Clara said with wonder. Her less-gullible twin jabbed a sharp elbow into her ribs. “Ouch! Stop that, Corey! Mom!”

“Hey, girls…” Henry tried sweetly, while Ina, as always, remained oblivious to their squabbling.

“He’s only kidding, you dope,” Corey said, glaring at Tillman. “I will get xBox, right?”

“Keep tormenting your sister and find out,” he replied.

Chello was not listening anymore. The determined look on her stepmother’s face said that this would be their new home, and Chello figured her life, what was left of it, was more than likely over.

CHAPTER TWO: Through the Mouse Hole…Almost

The time was as stickery and slow as the muggy hot August afternoon. Chello gazed up at the birdhouse-shaped clock hanging askew beside the mantel, imagining that an invisible finger was holding back its ancient filigreed hands. The little clock doors would never open and the cuckoo bird would never pop out to sing ever again.

But even while the present time had stalled out, her summer vacation had flown by, and, in fact, was almost over. Soon she would be starting the eighth grade. ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ is going to sound pretty lame this year, she thought, unless something comes along to chase the boredom away.  A year ago, a flood had sent her house tumbling into the Thief River. That was definitely not boring.

Except for moving into her grandparents dilapidated old house that the twins simultaneously at the same time had named the Grandpa House, she hadn’t done a fun thing all summer. That didn’t mean that she hadn’t been busy. Since turning thirteen last February, her stepmother Ina had made sure that she always. had a long list of chores to do. It had been her job to make dinner nearly every  night. Chello liked to cook…and if the dancing thing didn’t work out (as it had every possibility of not)…she’d be a chef someday and have her own restaurant at the ocean, maybe on North Beach. Yet the bloom had worn off that rose once Ina got wind of it.

“A chef? Do you want to turn into a blimp?” she said in that smirking tone reserved just for Chello. “Go ahead, see if any man will want you then.”

Chello didn’t quite understand the part about the man, but she’d watched enough Food Channel shows to know that Ina was probably right about getting fat. She could barely stand to admit it, and resolved to never let Ina in on any of her ideas in the future. Which meant she’d have to stop confiding in her blabbermouth dad. Sweet and lovable, but a blabbermouth!

Chello was supposed to be washing the parlor windows this afternoon, but the hot sun streaming in past the grunge had made her sleepy. It had been in the 90s all week and the room hummed with heat. The only thing keeping her awake was the plinkety-plinkety-plink of her father Henry’s piano. It was a reassuring sound, and she loved hearing him play, even when his fingers were absently searching the keys for a new melody, like now. She plopped down on the sofa that she’d been standing on to reach the upper window glass and rested her head on its broad back, which smelled faintly of lavender-scented cats. She began to fingerwrite on the dirty glass.

THE BOARDOM OF CHELLO she boldly scrawled, suddenly imagining herself crowned by a fur-trimmed Viking helmet with massive curling horns protruding from both sides. Chello Stringfellow, Queen of the Boars. Wait a minute. Do boars even have horns? She decided that they did not, and imagined two giant curving tusks instead.

For a while, exploring her grandfather’s old house –Victorian, Aunt Rose had called it – had kept her entertained and boredom-free. The moving in had taken no time at all – Uncle Tillman and Aunt Rose had brought in the Stringfellow’s few pieces of furniture, Ina had fussed with her psychic-reading parlor equipment, Corey and Clara had stood at the top of the cellar steps screaming echoes down into the dark, while Chello, her Dad, and her friend Robert had brought in the smaller household stuff, although there really wasn’t much of that. Most of her family’s belongings – clothes, musical instruments, photos, toys, computers, dishes, books, beds, dressers, sister – had all been swallowed up in The Flood.

The tall ceilings of the The Grandpa House amplified the smallest of sounds, and its narrow staircases going up to the bedrooms and down to the cellar creaked with every step. The family stayed away from the cellar because of the rats that could not be eradicated. No one but the rats had live there since her grandfather had passed away five years ago, and they were mightily disinclined to leave. Chello didn’t remember, but Aunt Rose said the place had been nearly falling down in Grandpa’s day, too.

The house was fixed up now. It seemed an impossible thing to do, except that it was Tillman doing the fixing. Chello imagined him as a sort of blond-haired wizard of electricity, even though he’d ruined it for her by saying that electricity was pure science, and that magic, even if it did exist, which it didn’t, had nothing to do with it. Chello adored her uncle, but was unwilling to concede that the world was not a magical place, full of magical things. Electricity, she decided, would be the magical science.

After their old house (which had once been a gas station) had been wrecked, Chello and her family had moved in for a while with Tillman and Rose, her father’s brother and sister. Tillman had taught her to cut wires and solder lumps of metal to build wire-frame people, and she had picked it up so quickly that now, whenever she visited, she was allowed to use the tools in Tillman’s shop, even if he wasn’t around. Rose said that with her smarts and clever hands she should be an electrician like Tillman. But Chello wanted to be a dancer –  like her real mother.

Unfortunately, while she was good with her hands, she had two uncoordinated clubs where her feet were supposed to be. And she didn’t have any of her father’s musical ability, either. His songs never made him much money, even though most of them were very good. Even Ina had said so, and she never complimented anyone on anything.

Ina. For all her famous psychic abilities, she wasn’t all that good at knowing things about her own family. She hadn’t forseen the terrible flood that destroyed their home and mangled and drowned her daughter Tori. But the people who came from as far away as Boston to have their fortunes told at Inamorata’s Drive In Of Truth didn’t know that. They had started coming to the old Sinclair service station on River Street when Chello was five years old. The station’s covered drive-through had given Tillman the idea to wire up a two-way video, speakers, and credit card reader so that Ina could read fortunes to customers in their cars. They loved the concept, and her business had tripled almost overnight.

Then everything was wrecked in the flood and the family went to live with Rose and Tillman. Chello could have stayed there forever, but Ina insisted on her own place. They looked for another closed-up gas station, but the closest one was twenty miles farther north. That’s when Tillman suggested the old Stringfellow place.

“It’ll be better for the kids, too,” Henry had said, although it was doubtful that Ina knew or even cared about the difference between a cinderblock-walled room in a converted gas station and a real bedroom in a real home as the proper place for four growing girls. Three, now that Tori was gone.

****

Chello had fallen asleep on the sofa. By the time she reopened her eyes, the room’s shadows had moved considerably and Henry’s piano had gone silent. She lay there, trying to see slowly enough to catch the movement of the long, dust-filled shafts of light chasing their shadows up the flocked wallpaper walls.

Maybe, she thought, I’m not bored enough. But it sure feels like I am.

A sudden skittering of white near the fireplace grate caught her eye. Happy to be intrigued, she sat up to see what it was. A mouse, now running along the baseboard. It stopped, and with tiny, quick movements, sniffed the air. Then it ran on, hugging the wall like a ball of furry glue.

Chello had read somewhere on the Internet that mice never shared the same house with rats. If that was true, where’d this one come from? Could it have hitched a ride in the move from Rose’s? Rose belonged to an animal rights group, and she was always rescuing animals from labs and other places and bringing them home to live with her. The police called it breaking and entering, but Chello thought it was awesome.

The mouse scurried around the corner and into the hallway to the kitchen. Chello sprang from the sofa in pursuit of her prey, the window cleaning all but forgotten.

The Pine-sol scented kitchen was half the size of the school cafeteria, with ancient appliances and hardly any work surfaces except for the big farmhouse table at the middle of the room. Chello ran in, her eyes darting about the crazed linoleum floor. She’d almost given up the mouse for lost, but then it suddenly darted beneath the pantry door. She raced across the kitchen and pushed through the swinging door into a narrow room of elegant, glass-fronted cupboards and cherrywood cabinets. Colored light filtered down from a stained glass window near the ceiling.

She stopped in her tracks, almost losing her balance. The mouse was poised motionless on its haunches in front of a narrow door that Chello had never noticed before. It sniffed the air expectantly, its shiny necklace bead eyes fixed intently. Chello had the creepy feeling that it had been waiting for her to enter the room. Then it suddenly assumed a less weird, more mousy posture and skittered under the door. Chello went to the door and flung it open. Inside was a broom closet. An odd sort of broom closet; more like a little hallway. Narrow and deep, it was empty except for a pull-string dangling from the ceiling, an old straw broom, and a flashlight secured to a bracket on the back wall.

“That’s dumb, Grandpa,” she said as she stepped in. “Normal people put flashlights near the door where they can get to them if the lights go out!”

The door suddenly swung shut behind her. She fumbled for the string that dangled from the ceiling and pulled. A bare bulb flicked on, casting a dirty yellow light that barely reached the floor. “Geez,” Chello said, unimpressed. “I bet Edison himself put that bulb in!”

She checked to make sure that the door hadn’t been zombie-locked (like in a movie she’d recently seen on T.V.). It checked out, so she took the flashlight from the wall.

“Come out little mouse wherever you are,” she sang, flicking the flashlight switch. To her surprise, an intense saber of light shot out the end. She carved the air with her new lightsword, turning a few pirouettes, then got down to business. She played the beam around the floor, looking for the mouse or the hole it had gone into.

But there was no mouse, no mouse hole, not even a crack in the wall to hint at where it might have gotten off to.

“Rats!” she said with disappointment, then laughing, corrected herself. “I mean mice!”

She waited, listening intently for any mousy scratchings coming from the walls, but all she could hear was the muffled sound of an electric motor whirring somewhere in the house. She flicked off the flashlight, clipped it back on the wall, and turned off the overhead light. She left the closet, disappointed.

CHAPTER THREE: Chellorella

Chello went back into the kitchen. The clock on the wall said it was time to start making dinner. Had she been chasing that mouse around all afternoon? It didn’t seem possible, but Chello figured the clock had no reason to lie.

She took an onion out of the refrigerator. The house had not cooled down one iota and the chill air felt so good that she left the door open. From the cupboards she retrieved spices and garlic, then peeled and chopped the onion and the garlic and fried them in a big pot. She opened cans of tomato sauce and poured them into the pot and added some dried oregano and basil.

Henry was playing again, running madly up and down the keys, and the sauce started boiling like a Yellowstone mudpot, right in time with his playing. Chello tapped her foot and swiped her sweaty brow.

Suddenly she heard what sounded like stampeding buffalo on the stairs. The twins, Claranette and Cornette, came running into the kitchen. Clara’s face was red with anger.

“That Henry!” she complained, as both girls skidded to a stop next to Chello, who has stooped to look inside a cabinet for the spaghetti noodles.

“His name is ‘Dad’,” she said, rummaging.

“Mom calls him Henry,” said Corey, coolly.

There were no noodles in the cabinet. “You’re not Mom,” she said, straightening.

“Doesn’t matter,” Clara snapped. “We call him Henry, too.”

“Whatever.” Chello went into the pantry, the twins trailing like pesky little shadows.

“We were playing a game,” Clara said, as if that explained everything.

“In our room,” Corey clarified.

“Then Henry, he has to start making all that piano racket. Again!” said Clara. Her small bare foot smacked the floor to emphasize how utterly annoying it was.

“He’s composing,” sneered Corey.

“Now we can’t finish our game!”

“And it’s so hot!”

“Really hot!”

Chello couldn’t find any noodles in the pantry, either. “So go down into the cellar and play,” she suggested, going back into the kitchen. “It’s cool down there.”

“Ew!” the twins screamed together. “Spiders!”

Chello smiled to herself. No one had told them that something far worse than spiders lived in that cellar.

The twins went to stand in front of the open refrigerator. “What’re you making?” Corey wanted to know.

“I don’t care,” Clara said. “Whatever it is, I’m not eating it.”

“But it’s your favorite,” Chello coaxed. “Spaghetti.”

Clara looked slightly relieved. “Can I have ketchup, no sauce?” she asked.

Chello knew better than to spoil it by saying that ketchup and tomato sauce were pretty much the same thing. “Sure you can,” she said. “But we  need spaghetti noodles.”

“Duh,” said Corey. “That’s what you have when you have spaghetti. Spaghetti noodles!”

Chello shirt-sleeved the sweat from her brow again. “We don’t have any,” she said. “We’re all out.”

“Go to the store and get some,” Clara said.

Chello pulled her lower lip. “The store’s too far to walk to,” she said. She could have walked to the mini-mart at the bottom of the hill where the road met the main road to town, but that would take at least half an hour. No way was she going to call Ina on her cell phone and ask her to bring some on her way back from wherever it was she went on Wednesday afternoons. She smiled sweetly at the twins. “Why don’t you two go next door and ask Mrs. –” She paused to recall the name of the lady who lived in the cottage on the other side of the tangled no-man’s-land that separated the properties.  “–Peacock if you can borrow a box of spaghetti.”

“No way!” the twins chimed.

“She’s creepy,” said Corey.

“Her dog is butt-ugly,” said Clara. “And he bites!”

“He does not,” Chello said automatically, wondering if he really was a biter.

“You’re the Chellorella,” said Corey. “It’s your job to go.”

“The what?” Chello turned around, the stirring spoon dripping sauce onto the floor.

The twins giggled conspiratorily and wiggled the tips of their fingers together.

“That’s what we call you,” said Corey, revealing the big secret to their inside joke.

“Since when?” Chello said.

“Cook the dinner, Chellorella!”

“Get the noodles, Chellorella!”

Chello seethed as the twins danced across the kitchen together, repeating their taunts in singsong. If she let them see her anger, they would never stop. She turned to the stove and stirred the sauce more vigorously than was necessary. When she refused to react, the twins grew bored and stopped. They stood next to her, one on either side, and Chello knew they were just waiting for her to do or say something so they could tattle to Mom. Chello liked to avoid making her stepmother angry, and it seemed like the teensiest thing could set her off. It hadn’t been like that when Tori was alive.

“I want to stir,” Clara said.

“All right,” Chello said, an idea popping into her head. “If I let you stir, do you think you can watch the sauce while I go next door?” It was a bad idea, but not as bad as not having dinner when Ina walked in the door.

“I can!” said Corey. She reached behind Chello and gave her twin a shove.

“Quit that!” Clara shrieked.

“Both of you quit,” Chello said firmly, “or nobody gets to stir.”

The message received, the twins glowered but obeyed. They stood mute with their hands at their sides, clenching their matching pink shorts.

“Ok, let’s see who goes first,” Chello said. “Eenie meanie miny moe…” pointing her finger back and forth between the two girls.

“She’s the eenie meanie!” Corey said, poking a finger in Clara’s face.

“Am not!” said Clara, poking back, but missing as Corey ducked out of the way.

“Are too!” said Corey, sniggering.

“Then you’re the miny moe!” Clara screamed.

Chello took two clean wooden spoons from the drawer and rapped them sharply on the edge of the stove. “Hey!” she said, then handed the spoons to the twins, who grabbed them eagerly.  “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said, and remembered to turn the burner to low. “Stir the sauce once or twice, and don’t let it burn.”

“I won’t,” Clara promised.

“Me neither,” added Corey.

Chello hurried out the back door and crossed the driveway to the no-man’s land and the overgrown path that led to Mrs. Peacock’s cottage.

****

The cottage was tiny amid an unkempt lawn edged with profusions of flowers and bushes and the jungly no-man’s-land that Chello had just burst out of. She ran over the lawn to the back of the cottage and a pergola covered with a purple-flowered vine, busy with bees. An air conditioner hummed noisily in the window by the door, dripping water onto the cement patio.

Even before Chello knocked Mrs. Peacock’s alert terrier was yapping and frantically tap-dancing at the door. There was a shuffling and a sound like something crashing to the floor. The door edged open and Mrs. Peacock peered  out at Chello through sparkly red-framed glasses and screen door mesh. The terrier squeezed past her barring leg and launched himself at the screen door.

“Freddy!” boomed Mrs. Peacock in a voice that belied her fragile-looking frame. “Stop that! Silence!” She brushed the dog back from the door with a slippered foot. He disappeared behind her red tartan bathrobe and even stopped yapping. “Yes?” she said to Chello, brushing back a wisp of yellowish-gray hair with an air of having been interrupted at an inconvenient time.

“Hello, Mrs. Peacock,” Chello started. “I’m Chello Stringfellow from across the way.” She pointed in the direction of the Grandpa House.

From behind, Freddy whimpered.

“Oh! Hello dear!” said Mrs. Peacock with a brightening expression. “Have you come to see my collections?”

Collections? “No, not today,” Chello thought to say. “I was actually wondering if I could borrow some spaghetti. We’re all out at my house and the sauce is on the stove.” She hoped Mrs. Peacock would sense the urgency in her voice and respond accordingly.

Mrs. Peacock’s crookedy, drawn-on eyebrows arched high over the top of her glasses. “I understand thoroughly,” she said, pushing open the screen door. “Come in, dear, come in.”

Chello went in and was instantly relieved by the cold air inside the house.  “Thanks, Mrs. Peacock,” she said, shutting the door behind her. “This is nice in here. Our house is boiling.”

Freddy’s toenails tapped excitedly as he led the way into the kitchen. Mrs. Peacock cinched her bathrobe and padded after him. “Goodness,” she said once they were in the kitchen, “you’re making spaghetti? Wouldn’t a nice cold fish be better?”

“Probably,” Chello said, holding back a gag. “But today is Wednesday. We always have spaghetti on Wednesday.”

“Well of all things,” remarked Mrs. Peacock. “Why on earth would you do that?”

“I don’t really know,” said Chello, wondering herself. “We just do.”

Mrs. Peacock nodded knowingly. “Tradition,” she said and opened a cupboard. “It’s your family tradition.”

“What’s that?” said Chello.

“Traditions at all levels of human society ensure the continuation of shared cultural beliefs and practices,” Mrs. Peacock said as she rummaged in the cupboard. “Did you know that, dear?”

“I do now,” said Chello, wishing Mrs. Peacock would please hurry up.

Mrs. Peacock retrieved a large can from the cupboard. “Is this what you want?” She handed the can to Chello.

Chello stared at the label. Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs in Tomato Sauce it read. “This isn’t really what I wanted,” she said.

“No?” Mrs. Peacock said, raising her crookedy eyebrows again. “Are you a vegetarian, dear?”

“Yes, no, I mean, I need dry spaghetti noodles, the kind you boil in water,” Chello explained.

“Oh, well. Haven’t got any of that, ” Mrs. Peacock said. “You might as well take it, yes, go on, I really can’t stand the stuff. I imagine it’s been on that shelf since Noah wore short pants.”

Chello really didn’t want the Biblical can of spaghetti, but she also didn’t want to offend Mrs. Peacock. She sensed impending doom, forced to admit to herself that dinner was not going to be on time tonight, or ever. She could hear Ina yelling now.

If only Dad could drive; if only I was sixteen.

“Thank you, Mrs. Peacock,” said Chello as she turned to leave.

“Chello Stringfellow,” said Mrs. Peacock.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“It’s an unusual name.”

“Lots of people say that.”

“Well, I don’t doubt it.”

Chello was suddenly glad to have a reason not to rush out the door and into the wrath of Ina. “My Dad is a composer, ” she explained. “He named me after the musical instrument. My little sisters, too.”

“I knew your grandfather,” Mrs. Peacock said, her voice softening. “He was a Stringfellow, you know.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know,” said Chello.

“If he was still around, he’d say, ‘You ready for that storm that’s comin’, Chello?'” Mrs. Peacock said, graveling her voice to imitate Grandpa Stringfellow. “‘You best remember to close up your windows before you go to bed tonight, because it’s goin’ to be big one.’ He had a real weather elbow, that man.”

“Why would he say that?” Chello asked, wondering if the old lady was losing it.

“Because of the storm that’s coming.” Mrs. Peacock sighed and patted Chello’s arm. “Poor thing, you’re a tad slow, aren’t you?”

Chello had not heard about a storm. She had chased Rose’s mouse into the closet, and then the time slipped by strangely fast and then it was time to start dinner, and then there were no spaghetti noodles in the house. “I’m not retarded, Mrs. Peacock,” she said defensively. “I was just busy today. How big is the storm supposed to be?” Something cold and uncomfortable was leaking into her stomach.

Mrs. Peacock looked up at the ceiling as if she could see the sky beyond it. “Exceedingly large, I should imagine,” she said. “High winds with thunder and lightning, of course.” She didn’t know it, but she was punching Chello’s panic button hard and fast.

“Are you sure?” Chello gulped.

Mrs. Peacock pursed her lips. “My dear, I’ve been putting Tiger Balm on my elbow” – she touched her left elbow to indicate which one – “for two days now. Of course I’m sure. Have you seen my collections?”

The abrupt change of subject caught Chello by surprise. “What?” she said, her fallback response for just about everything. She was thinking of driving rain slashing across bedroom windows, of great cracks of thunder and of lightning with the power to split the night in two.

“Come,” said Mrs. Peacock, giving her plaid bathrobe another cinch. With Freddy in the lead, she shuffled out of the kitchen and into the living room. Chello knew she needed to get back, that she’d be in worse trouble if she didn’t.

She followed Freddy and Mrs. Peacock into the living room.

The drapes in the room were drawn tight. Except for a small, lighted lamp in one corner, the room was dark and gloomy. The tall glass cases lining every wall and a musty odor reminded Chello of a museum. She peered inside the nearest case and was surprised to see that it was full of dead insects, mounted inside shallow, velvet-lined boxes. Next to each box was a label with words that she couldn’t pronounce. Some of the bug boxes looked very old.

She looked at Mrs. Peacock who eagerly waved her forward, so she went around the room, moving from case to case. Many of the insects were familiar to her; butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, bees, and dragonflies; but there were some that she had never seen before. She lingered at a box of striped and colorful insects with tiny black eyes on either side of a very long snout. She liked their cute padded feet and the metallic sheen of their backs.

“Family Curculionidae,” said Mrs. Peacock, who was following Chello like a shadow. “One of the Coleopterans. They’re weevils, dear, also called snout beetles.” She adjusted her red glasses, sparkly even in the gloom. “There are over sixty thousand species of weevils. Did you know that?”

Chello shook her head. She felt as if she should have known it, but she didn’t pay as much attention in school as she should have, either.

“Making them one of the most successful animal species in the world,” added Mrs. Peacock.

Chello didn’t think bugs were animals, but she wasn’t going to argue with an old lady who kept what must have been several thousand dead bugs in her living room. “That turquoise one with the black stripes is really beautiful,” Chello said, pointing to the one she liked.

Mrs. Peacock squinted. “Eupholus magnificus from Indonesia.” A sudden smile lit her face. “You’re right, Chello, he is a beauty.” She padded across the room to a dainty, antique desk that Rose would have gone nuts for. Freddy stood at Chello’s feet, watching his mistress with intense interest as she retrieved something from the desk drawer and returned.

“I want you to have this, Chello Stringfellow,” Mrs. Peacock said, handing a silver, oval-shaped object to Chello.

Chello put the can of spaghetti under her arm and took the object. It was a locket, a big silver thing with purple colored gems and one of the turquoise youfuhwhatchee weevils embedded in the clear resin of the lid. She flicked the latch and opened the lid. The weevil’s underside was now visible. The locket was the most awesome thing Chello had ever seen.

“You see?” said Mrs. Peacock. “There’s room inside to store your memories.”

“My memories?”

“In many parts of the world, weevils are a symbol of remembrance,” said Mrs. Peacock. “Of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that esoteric tidbit.”

“So how do you put a memory in it?” Chello said, deciding to forgo asking what esoteric tidbits were.

Mrs. Peacock’s face crinkled. “You have to really want to do it, first of all,” she said. “And second, the memory has to be an important one. You don’t want to be cluttering it up with things like Freddie’s favorite dog food or what year you graduated summa cum laude, now do you?” She tapped her temple. “That would be the Gourmet Beef Entree – although at his age he should keep to the Lite Turkey Entree – and the year was nineteen-fifty-five.”

“Mrs. Peacock?”

“Oh,” Mrs. Peacock said, looking suddenly sheepish. “To put the memory in, open the locket and hold it in your hands and say three times, ‘Weevil, weevil, I summon you double, keep this memory safe from trouble.'”

It sounded completely weird to Chello, and she wondered how memories could possibly get into trouble, but she loved the locket nonetheless.

“Are you sure you want to give it to me?” she said.

Mrs. Peacock just smiled, then gave her elbow a rub. “The weather can be so bothersome, don’t you think?”

Chello tensed at the reminder that unsettled weather was on its way, and she suddenly imagined that she could hear Ina yelling. “I really have to go, Mrs. Peacock,” she said abruptly. “Your bugs are very nice. And thank you so much for the locket. I’ll think of a good memory to put in it.”

She gave Freddy a pat on the head, then hurried for the back door with the can of ancient spaghetti and her new locket in hand.

“Insects, dear. They’re called insects,” Mrs. Peacock called. “My bugs are in this case over – “

But Chello was already out the door.

6261 words.

Cheryl Lassiter © 2012