The Willoughbys

Page 4


The Willoughby children, startled by her command, all pinched their noses.

She looked at them. "Good," she said. "Now do that when you walk past my room. Otherwise you will breathe in phenolmethylcarbamate, and then you will die horribly. Writhing in pain.

"You may release your noses now," she added, noticing that they were still pinching. She spooned oatmeal into the boys' bowls and put them on the table.

"I have no wish to notify your parents of your deaths. Now eat your oatmeal. It has lots of soluble fiber."

"We disdain oatmeal," Tim told her.

"Starve, then," the nanny said.

"I like it if it has raisins," Jane said in a small voice, looking away from Tim's glare.

"I will add raisins tomorrow morning," the nanny said. "Thank you for mentioning that. I appreciate suggestions."

"Raisins are actually turds," Tim announced. Surprisingly, the other children paid no attention.

"Maybe a little sprinkling of brown sugar?" Barnaby A said to the nanny, after tasting his.

"Possibly. I'll give it some thought," she told him.

"Brown sugar is actually—" Tim began.

"Pipe down and eat," the nanny said.

"Oh my goodness, Nanny, you interrupted!" Jane said nervously. "Tim will take away some of your points."

"Points?" Nanny asked. "What are points?"

The children fell silent. They glanced apprehensively at Tim, who was sulkily moving his spoon around in his oatmeal.

"Well," Barnaby A began, "we each start out in the morning with fifty points. Then Tim takes points away if we interrupt—"

"Or whine," Jane added.

"Or argue, or obfuscate, or dawdle, or ... I forget the rest," Barnaby B said.

"What happens at the end of the day, after the points are tallied?" Nanny asked with interest.

"Winner gets hot water in the bathtub," Jane said, "and losers have to use the leftover water. It's cold by then. And has soap scum." She gave a little shudder.

"Winner stays up as late as he wants," Barnaby A added. "Losers go to bed at seven."

"And can't read in bed," Barnaby B added sadly.

"Also," Jane began to say, "the winner—"

Nanny held up her hand in a STOP gesture. "I know all I need to know," she announced. "You each started out this morning with fifty points?"

The children nodded.

"Have you lost any yet?"

"Yes," Jane said. "I lost four points for yawning when I woke up. It was bad form."

"I lost nine for being a weakling and using my asthma inhaler," Barnaby A said.

"I broke my shoelace," his twin added. "That was five points off for clumsiness"

"Look at your bowls," Nanny commanded. They all did. Surprisingly, three of the bowls were empty.

"Three of you have eaten all of your oatmeal and so I am giving you three each twenty extra points.

"You," she said, glaring at Tim, "are deducting twenty for not even tasting yours."

Hastily Tim took a bite of oatmeal.

She relented. "All right," she told him. "You may have five points back. And the rest if you finish it." Tim frowned and began to eat.

7. The Melancholy Tycoon

Let us turn our attention now to a mansion some distance away from the Willoughbys' tall, thin house. This is the Melanoff mansion, on the porch of which the Willoughby children had not long ago left a baby in a basket.

Mr. Melanoff—called Commander Melanoff for no particular reason except that he liked the sound of it—lived in squalor. Squalor is a situation in which there is moldy food in the refrigerator, mouse droppings are everywhere, the wastebaskets are overflowing because they have not been emptied in weeks, and the washing machine stopped working months before—wet clothes within becoming moldy—but a repairman has never been summoned. There is a very bad smell to squalor.

Squalor has nothing to do with money. Squalor happens when people are sad. And Commander Melanoff was very sad.

He had made a vast fortune by manufacturing candy bars. His factory still existed, and the money kept coming in because people bought his hugely successful confections by the millions. But Commander Melanoff never went to his office anymore. He stayed in his squalorous mansion, where he moped and sulked.

He scowled as he ate his stale toast each morning, and he whimpered into his unheated canned soup at lunch. Each evening he dropped tears onto the pizza that was delivered to his porch by prearrangement, and each night he went to bed between his unwashed sheets and sobbed into his stained pillow. His mustache, once bristly and important-looking, was now dingy from grime and stiff from dried-up nose drippings.

He was sad because he had lost his wife. He had not actually been very fond of her. But it was sad, nonetheless, to be wifeless. She had been a dull but tidy and meticulous lady who had kept the house in perfect—almost too perfect—order. The commander's true, deep, unending sadness was because he had lost his only child, a small boy, while mother and son had been enjoying, without him, what had promised to be a lovely holiday. Their private railroad car had been buried by an avalanche near an Alpine village six years before, and crews of workers had been digging ever since through the towering piles of snow but had not yet uncovered the wreckage. For a long time Commander Melanoff had received a daily message about the progress of the search.

SEVEN INCHES TODAY BUT A BLIZZARD HAS HALTED OPERATIONS FOR THE TIME BEING, one message had reported.

ONLY TWO INCHES UNCOVERED TODAY DUE TO FOG AND SEVERAL UNFRIENDLY MOUNTAIN GOATS, said another.

The messages had come daily for a long time, then less frequently, but even now, after six years, were still slipped occasionally through the mail slot in his front door. He had stopped reading them years before. Each morning that a piece of mail with a Swiss postage stamp arrived, he whimpered, picked it up, and added it, unopened, to the stack in the corner that now reached an alarming height and had in places been shredded by mice making nests. Sometimes he looked mournfully at the stack and realized that his meticulous wife, had she not been lost in such a tragic way, would have sorted it, arranged it alphabetically, filed it by date and size and perhaps even by the color of the stamp. It made him nostalgic to think about how organized she—he found that he could not recall her name—had been.

But enough about sadness.

Something had happened. And now Commander Melanoff's life, surprisingly, was about to change.

One morning when he plodded into the hall to pick up the mail, he heard a sound from the porch. Of course there were often sounds from the world outside. But this was not the usual sound of squirrels gnawing on the wooden railings or pigeons strutting about on the rotting floorboards. He was familiar with those sounds and had ignored them for years.

This sound was different. It was a piteous wail. Commander Melanoff leaned over and poked open the mail slot with his index finger. He peered through and saw something amazing. He saw a stubbly-haired baby in a basket.

The baby, startled out of her pitiful wailing by the sound of the brass flap to the mail slot opening, looked up and saw a thick, dirty mustache and above it a tear-filled eye gazing down at her in surprise.

She hiccupped and then smiled. Slowly the door opened.

8. A Cryptic Communication

"Look at this," grumbled Tim. "They've survived so far." He was peering at the postcard that had arrived in the morning mail along with several bills and a poignant little note from a grandparent who was hoping to get a glimpse of the four children before they became adults.

He had thrown the rest of the mail away, but he had brought the postcard upstairs to the cobwebbed playroom. Now he was scowling at it.

"Thousands died in an earthquake but they only got bruised," he said with a groan. "We'll never be rid of them at this rate."

"May I see it?" asked Jane politely.

"No. It's too distressing for you."

"Could we?" the twins asked in unison. They cringed, knowing that points were deducted for speaking in unison, but Tim, distracted by the postcard, hadn't noticed.

"Have a quick look," Tim said, and held it toward them.

Barnaby A was an extremely fast reader. Although Tim whipped the postcard away from him quickly, he had been able to read it.

"I don't understand the part about the coal bin," he said.

"What about the coal bin?" Barnaby B asked. "I didn't read that far."

"Yes, what about the coal bin?" asked Jane. "I'm very scared of the coal bin."

Tim glared at her. "Five-point deduction for being a scaredy-cat," he announced. "I'll read the stupid postcard aloud."

"'Dear ones,'" Tim read. "'Though slightly bruised, we have survived quite a lovely earthquake (you may have read the headlines: THOUSANDS KILLED)...'"

"Oh my," Jane said sadly. "I suppose kittens were killed, too. How sad."

"Shhh," Tim told her, and he continued. "'... and next we are off to kayak a crocodile-infested river. Such FUN!'"

"They don't know how to kayak!" Barnaby A exclaimed.

"They never once have kayaked!" his twin added.

"Precisely," Tim said.

"May I ask a question?" Jane asked timidly. Tim, still holding the postcard, nodded.

"I'm wondering," Jane said, "would a crocodile eat a person in one gulp? Or in chunks?"

Her three brothers all thought for a minute.

"Chunks," said Barnaby A.

"Chunks," said Barnaby B.

"Yes, large chunks," Tim said decisively. "Gulping down chunks for the nourishment, but quickly, to avoid the taste. The same way we eat Mother's meat loaf."

"Ate," Jane pointed out. "Nanny's meat loaf is quite good."

Tim glared at her briefly. "Continuing," he announced, and held up the card. "'We hope the nanny is earning her salary,'" he read aloud. "Now this next part," he said, "I don't understand. 'Please hide in the coal bin if prospective buyers come to look at the house.'"

"What are prospective buyers? I'm scared of the coal bin," Jane said again. "Remember when you made me stay down there because I whined, and there were rats?"

"I know! I know what it means!" Barnaby A said eagerly, raising his hand so that he would be allowed to speak.

"Yes, we both know!" his twin said. "We just saw the sign!"

"What sign?" asked Tim.

"Look outside! It's on a window box!"

Tim went to the playroom window and looked down at the two boxes filled with begonias that were attached to the first-floor windows. "I can see there is some sort of sign," he acknowledged. "What does it say?"

"FOR SALE!" the twins announced.

"We're for sale?" Jane asked in surprise.

"No, dodo," Tim said. "Apparently our house is"

"And it says CHEAP!" Barnaby B added.

"So," Tim mused, "while we're getting rid of them, they're getting rid of us."

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