For generations, for nearly a century, the Rofotou family had been gathering the pieces of a puzzle that they believed would unlock some grand secret of the universe, or some extravagant treasure, or at least some profound piece of wisdom. But I didn’t know anything about that before a dark-haired woman named Red came knocking on my door one day. I didn’t know why she asked to see my old dream logs. And I certainly didn’t know what any of it had to do with Mrs. Highweather.
“Thank you for seeing me, Mister Mitraisea,” the woman named Red Rofotou said as she swept into my office.
She’d contacted me because she said her family had been doing research into the once-popular children’s book series called Mrs. Highweather’s Charming Adventures. My recent attempt to publish the “lost book” in the series had caught their attention. I wasn’t the first, of course. There were a few sad souls in the world (like my husband) who’d never heard of the singular Mrs. Highweather. But so many people had read the stories or been read the stories when they were children that it was one of those “cultural touchstone” things that strangers in the street would have in common. And all of those people knew the story of the missing book.
It took almost two decades for all eleven books to be published. But there were supposed to be twelve…maybe. Part of the charm and quirk of the series was that the books were released out of order and at irregular frequencies. Book One did come first, but a year after that, the publisher released Book Eight, then almost five years later, Book Two, and so on. Outside of that quirk, the numbering didn’t seem to matter. Each book was self-contained. A single adventure with no connection to the adventures that came before or after it. So there was no way of knowing until all the books were published that one seemed to be missing. Only eleven books were published, yet one of the books was labeled Book Twelve. And there was no Book Nine. The publisher claimed—and always claimed thereafter—that the books had been mis-numbered, but they never made any correction to the numbering when the books were reprinted once, then twice.
The author could not be asked because there were multiple authors all working on the series, all having given up any rights of authorship to the books. The author credited on the books was Mrs. Highweather, the fictional nanny who cared for the rambunctious fraternal twins in the book series.
So it became one of those conspiracy theories that there was a missing book out there, one that the publisher didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t release, for some reason that they didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t divulge. Over time, writers who were enthralled by the stories would give a go at drafting a lost adventure and calling it Book Nine. They would send it to the publisher and never hear any word back. These writers would share these stories in different ways, self-publishing, or just reading to their own kids, or—when the time and technology arrived—posting them online. But there were always those who persisted in sending their drafts to the publisher.
I never thought I’d be one of them. And I certainly never thought that my book would be the one the publisher accepted.
I was wrong about that first part, but right about the second.
I got a rejection letter back far more quickly than I thought I would. Only a week had passed.
And I thought I’d be one of those parents who would read their kid a homemade fan fiction about Mrs. Highweather.
Then Red Rofotou came knocking. And she had her own story to tell.
“We follow up on all submissions,” Ms. Rofotou said as she handed me her card.
“Do you work for the publisher?” I glanced down at the card. It was thick cardstock with a velvety texture and dark maroon color. And it wasn’t a business card. It was a calling card.
“No,” she said. “Are you familiar with my family name?”
The name did sound familiar.
She waved a hand and the stack of gold bracelets on her wrist clinked against each other. “We’re well-known in business circles and elsewhere, here and there. I’m sure you can look into us yourself if you’re inclined. But I’m here about something that we’re not well-known for, because we’ve gone to efforts to keep it quiet, for the most part.” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a manuscript. She set it on my desk and I saw that it was the story I’d written, or rather, the story I’d transcribed. “We have always been interested in the Highweather book series, and particularly in finding the lost adventure.”
“The ninth book?”
She nodded and then smiled what seemed an almost embarrassed smile. “This will sound foolish to you maybe, or at the very least, farfetched, but a lot time ago, one of my ancestors was told by one of the anonymous writers of the series what the true significance of the books was—or is. That person divulged that the books contained a great secret for one who was clever enough to decipher the message contained within them.”
I frowned a little. “Like a…hidden code?”
“Yes, and of course, there were those who tried to crack that code using every means available. But all were unsuccessful, and all the while, we wondered if this missing book was the key. The decoder, if you will.”
“That certainly sounds fascinating.”
Red Rofotou chuckled softly. “And by ‘fascinating’ do you mean ‘ridiculous?’”
I shrugged. “Who am I to judge?”
Ms. Rofotou inclined her head. “You, you are potentially the author of that missing book. That remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the publisher shared your cover letter with me. You mentioned something about getting the idea for your story from dreams?”
I smiled. “And now it’s my turn to divulge a ‘fascinating’ fact. I didn’t get the idea from a dream. The whole story was pieced together from actual dreams I’ve had.”
Ms. Rofotou raised her brows. She leaned forward a bit. “Really?”
I had forgotten about my dream logs, even though I still had them stored in a sealed cardboard box.
I didn’t find them when I went up to the attic to go searching for old childhood books to read to my daughter, Stella, someday, when she was old enough to understand words and their meanings. What I did find were the Highweather books, yellowed pages, cracked spines, curled corners of covers, and all. I started reading them, and reminiscing about sitting next to the heater during winter breaks from school, just reading until my mom actually shoved a sandwich between my face and the book. And I realized that there was something familiar about the books, some other connection to my childhood and youth. It was something I had written down in my dream logs.
I’d started keeping a log of my dreams when I was eleven and continued writing until I turned twenty-two.
I had thought that dreams were something more than the brain processing information. At various times during those eleven years, I’d had a different theory about why it was important to remember my dreams. I had believed dreams were the conduit for aliens to communicate with humans, or that dreams were a different plane of existence where human beings lived out their lives just as they did when waking. But they would mostly forget those dream lives when they woke into this life. Or I thought that dreams were our minds wandering out into the universe and learning new things, and bringing back that information in a way that our minds could understand.
So I wrote my dreams down, without fail, whenever I remembered them. During times when I wasn’t so sure about my notions concerning dreams, I would still write them down by the force of habit. It was almost as if I developed a superstition about having to write the dreams down, or else something bad would happen.
I went searching for those dream logs and found them. I flipped through them. It didn’t take long for me to find something that surprised me, but then delighted me. I’d had several dreams during the course of that decade about a twin brother-and-sister team going on adventures.
I decided to write a Highweather book by putting those specific dreams in order so they told one coherent story. I got an English teacher friend to edit the manuscript. And I sent the book to the publisher with Mrs. Highweather credited as the author, and the book marked as Book Nine.
“Sending it out and being part of the whole ‘author of the missing book’ was for me,” I said. “But the work of putting the story together, that was for Stella.”
Ms. Rofotou smiled and nodded.
I peered at her. “So you think there’s a secret message in these kids’ books? It’s not anything…evil, is it?”
Ms. Rofotou took a breath. “I don’t believe so. But if there is, it would be best we find out, so we can prevent any disasters.” She folded her hands together and rested them at the edge of my desk. “There have been numerous guesses over the years. Obviously, after all the effort my family has gone through for almost a century now, we believe it will be worth it. Some have thought the books are a key to some great treasure trove of gold and jewels. Others have thought that the books when translated will provide prophecies of the future. Others have wondered if the fact that the code is hidden in books is itself a clue and that they will lead to a library of lost volumes. Still others have believed it would lead to the fountain of youth, or a utopian city, or a gateway to another dimension.” She paused and sighed. “I don’t know what it will be. My favorite guess is that we’ll find detailed knowledge about technological and medical advances to help us solve our many universal problems.”
“That all sounds, well, overwhelming.”
Ms. Rofotou smiled, but said nothing.
“So if you already have my manuscript for Book Nine,” I said, “what more could I do for you?”
“These dreams logs of yours, may I see them?”
I gulped, and all of a sudden my face grew hot. It was as if she’d just asked me to take all my clothes off.
She leaned back and held out her hand. She’d obviously noted my discomfort. “I could make copies. I don’t need the actual notebooks.”
And she had obviously misunderstood the reason for my discomfort.
“It’s just that they’re like journals, diaries. They’re private.”
Her brow furrowed and glanced down at the manuscript. She placed a hand on it. “But you’ve already shared them.”
“Yeah, some of them. The ones I chose to share. And I did a lot of revising and editing. Why do you think my dream logs would help you anyway?”
“They might contain some information about this story that you chose to leave out, or maybe didn’t recognize as being important. But it might be important to us.”
I glanced down at the copy of my manuscript. “Look, I don’t know anything about this conspiracy theory around the Highweather books—“
“It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a secret.”
“Well then I don’t know anything about this secret. This is the first I’ve heard of it. So I’m afraid I’m another dead end in your search.”
Ms. Rofotou straightened in her chair. Her hands unfolded and one of them grasped the edge of my desk as she leaned toward me. “Mister Mitraisea, if you truly believe that, then I’m happy to tick you off my checklist of leads to follow. The quickest way for me to do that is if you’ll allow me access to your dream logs. There’s no need for you to be embarrassed by anything that might be written in them. I assure you, nothing would shock me.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What if you’ve been searching for some grand treasure or the ultimate utopia all these generations, and you end up finding out that it was nothing but some bored publisher’s joke?”
“You’ve had the dreams, Mister Mitraisea. Dreams about these two children. You of all people must perceive that there is something else going on with those books, or at least, you must be curious.”
“I had those dreams because my mom used to read me the Highweather stories when I was a kid. They weren’t my favorite, but they were comforting, especially when I’d had a bad day at school or something.” I folded my arms and sat back in my chair. “As for my privacy, I only have your word on that, and forgive me, but I don’t know you, so I don’t trust you.”
She pressed her lips together. “Would you at least be willing to continue talking to us—to me? Maybe if I shared what my family knows and why this is so important to us, you would come to understand why we are so passionate about this issue. And maybe you would come to know us well enough to judge our trustworthiness.”
I hesitated. “I can take it under consideration. But only if you leave my loved ones, colleagues, acquaintances, and anyone else you think has some connection to me out of it.”
A few days later, around lunch time, I received a call from my husband.
Morgan was on parental leave, and had been out with Stella to run a quick errand. They had only been out of the house for thirty minutes. When they got home, the door was locked, and nothing appeared to be disturbed or stolen, except that a few things were tidied that he knew had not been tidied before he left for his errand. And the curtains in the kitchen above the sink were drawn. We never drew those curtains.
He immediately left the house and called me to ask if I was at home. I told him I wasn’t and asked what was going on. He told me he thought our place had just been broken into. He had the baby, so he didn’t want to take any chances looking for intruders. He went to a neighbors’ house, and called the police.
I rushed home. Nothing obvious had been stolen or damaged. I didn’t even think to look for my dream logs until the police were long gone. But once things had calmed down a bit, I remembered my meeting with Red Rofotou. I went up to the attic, to the box I’d recently opened. It was empty. All my dream logs had been taken.
I didn’t bother amending our statement to the police. They weren’t going to waste time tracking down a stack of old diaries.
Instead I pulled out that velvety maroon calling card.
“You have my property,” I said. “I demand you return it.” I impressed myself a little with how calm I kept my tone. It was the morning after the burglary, but I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before.
“Please remain calm, Mister Mitraisea,” Red Rofotou said.
Do I not sound calm? I wondered, feeling decidedly not-so-calm.
“One of my impatient cousins committed the crime,” she said. “I was not aware until shortly before you called, but I will ensure that your logs are returned to you as soon as possible.”
“Well that’s convenient,” I said. “You’ve probably made copies anyway.”
“Yes, I believe it was their intention to steal your logs, make copies, and then replace them before you noticed. Their efforts at thievery were clumsier than they expected.”
I shook my head and blinked slowly. “I don’t care about any of that. I asked you not to violate my privacy, and then you snuck into my home and violated my family’s safety.” I stopped. I felt my heartbeat getting faster. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and rubbed my forehead. “You know what? Keep the logs. I hope they have you all spinning your wheels, so you never harass me or anyone else again.”
I hung up.
I marched into the kitchen where my husband was attempting to feed our daughter.
He looked up at me and raised a brow. “Looks like you had a great talk with old Red.”
Stella burbled in agreement.
I released a deep sigh and inhaled. “I could use some air if you two are up for a walk.”
“I’m paranoid now,” I said when we were halfway through a walking trail in our neighborhood park. “I wanted to talk to you in a public place, in case they’ve bugged our house or something.”
Morgan stopped walking. “What?”
I took a few steps and turned. I had the baby. She was asleep. In the back of my thoughts, I wondered if she could be dreaming. I wondered what a baby could have to dream about.
“They don’t have all of my journals,” I said. I tipped my head toward the walking path. We started walking again.
“After the family’s first visit, I looked them up, and I started doing my own sleuthing. Flipping through the Highweather books, and my journals, to see if I could decipher anything. I thought I only dreamt about Highweather and the twins when I was a boy. But when I was writing my version of Book Nine, I checked all my journals, just in case. Sure enough, I didn’t find any mention of Missus Highweather beyond my first logbook, when I was eleven, and already kind of too old for the stories. But I found eleven pages from my last logbook, when I was twenty-two, that described a dream about two fellow college students who I shared a few classes with—not in real life, just in the dream. In the dream we’d been childhood friends, and they were trying to pull me into some scheme they were into. And I wrote down that I thought they might be related to each other, not brother and sister, but cousins maybe. It sounded vaguely like the twins from the Highweather books. I was going to just take pictures of the pages, but it got tedious, so I tore out the pages and kept them with me in my work backpack.”
“So they didn’t get those pages.”
“No, the pages have been with me for days now. I never numbered the pages of my log. And I didn’t have a dream every day, so I didn’t have an entry every day—“
“You’re not one of those kinds of people who would write something like ‘May eleventh and I had no dream this day?’”
“No, listen. I’m worried that they might figure out there are pages missing from that logbook. Or they might just think there’s a missing journal somewhere and come looking for more. I’ve been wondering if I should call up Red and tell her I have the pages, and I’ll give them to her if she gives me some assurances that they’ll forget I even exist.”
“After what happened, would you believe any assurances she gave?”
“I don’t know. Not really. Even if she’s on the up and up, others in the family aren’t. These pages are leverage. I just don’t know how to use that leverage.”
“So our buddy Red gets what she wants and you get to worry that there are surveillance bugs in our house? Why should they be rewarded for what they’ve done?”
“Then what? I have them on me now. Should I burn them?”
Stella was being fussy. We both stopped and checked on her. Fearing she was reacting to our tension, Morgan and I both calmed down. We succeeded, but Stella persisted in being fussy.
“Can’t wait till she gets to the age where she’s throwing spaghetti at the wall,” I said.
Morgan smiled as he bopped her nose with his finger. She smiled back at him. “Those pages belong to you,” he said. “You decide what to do with them.”
“But that decision will affect all of us.” I sighed and glanced down at Stella. She beamed at me, her cheeks puffing up, a dimple showing in one of them. “The dream was kind of boring actually. My two college buddies—the ones that seem like the twins from the stories all grown up—they said they were taking me to a party. But when we got there, it was a tea party, hosted by Missus Highweather. Suddenly my buddies disappeared and it was just me, wearing an itchy tie. I sat down and noticed there were place settings for ten other people. The only thing that interested me was a plate of chocolate cookies in the middle of the table. But they were out of reach. Most of my description of the dream was writing down all the details of the party—the tablecloth, patterns on the teapot, the hat Missus Highweather was wearing, that kind of thing.”
“Eleven guests, including you,” Morgan said. “Eleven pages. Eleven books. Eleven years old when you started logging your dreams.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that pattern. And it’s been ninety-nine years since the first Highweather book was published. A multiple of eleven and nine.”
“Nine, the missing book.”
I nodded again.
“So you think the family believes this is an important time, maybe the time for their mystery to reveal itself? Do you think that’s why the family seems so desperate now even though they’ve been waiting and watching for almost a century?”
“It would make sense.”
Morgan took a breath. He glanced at Stella, then back to me. “All right,” he said. “So what do you want to do?”
I was not particularly good or bad at puzzles and riddles. But I wanted to at least try my best to crack the code—if there was a code—of the Highweather books. For all I knew, those eleven pages I still had from my dream logs were insignificant. For all I knew, Red Rofotou and her family had found nothing in my dream logs and had moved on to other potential leads. Even after a year had passed without us hearing from a Rofotou, I didn’t quite believe they had moved on. I had a gut feeling that those eleven pages and the dream written on them were significant in some way.
But I didn’t succeed. And I don’t think the Rofotous did either. I had a feeling that if they did, it would be a worldwide top news story.
Eleven years passed.
It had now been one-hundred-and-eleven years since the first Highweather book was published. My daughter was now the same age I was when I started my dream logs. She was eleven. And she knew about the Rofotou family and the mystery surrounding the Highweather books. We told her as soon as we thought she was old enough to know. And just as Morgan predicted, Stella started her own dream logs. And she started trying to help us break the code and solve the mystery of the Highweather books, even though I told her there was probably no mystery there to solve.
“Dad,” she said one day at dinner. “I think I know why you haven’t been able to figure out how to break that code in the Missus Highweather books.”
“Because there isn’t one?” I quipped.
“Because you were already a grown-up by the time you first tried. And that Rofotou family, probably only the grown-ups tried. They don’t sound like the kind of people who would trust a kid to figure anything out.” She quirked her brows. “Do they?”
“I don’t know, honey” Morgan said. “It’s been over a hundred years. I’m sure they’ve actually tried everything, including asking kids. They are children’s books after all.”
I peered at her. “So, you’ve got some insight on the eleven pages?”
“I don’t think they matter, Dad. No offense.”
“Yeah, if they did, wouldn’t the Rofotou family have figured it out and been bothering you all these years?”
“I appreciate your confidence,” Morgan said, “and you are bright, but you’re also only eleven. No offense.”
Stella smiled. “None taken.”
“So what are you thinking?” I asked. Stella was usually forthcoming with dozens of crazy ideas, when she wasn’t sure of any of them. But when she was sure, she’d act all coy and cagey, like she was acting now.
“Well, first, I’m thinking the Rofotous might have even figured it out. But they didn’t tell anybody.”
“Why wouldn’t they tell anyone?” Morgan asked.
“Well if it’s treasure or something, they wouldn’t want everyone to know what they had. Because everyone else would want it, and they wouldn’t leave the family alone. Or people might try to steal what they found.”
“Another fair point,” I said. “And that has occurred to me. If so, good for them. So long as they’re not bothering anyone.”
“Well, there’s another reason that maybe they haven’t told anyone.”
Morgan and I waited, our forks hovering between our plates and our mouths. Stella glanced between us and let the silence hang for a dramatic moment.
She resumed her revelation. “Maybe what they found was not that great—at least not great to a grown-up.”
Morgan started laughing. “You’re saying you think that maybe they solved the hundred-year-old mystery and found a plate of brownies at the end of it?” He laughed again.
Stella and I grinned at how amused he was.
“Or maybe a state-of-the-art video game set-up,” I said. “No actually, there are many grown-ups who would find that appealing. And the brownies, come to think of it.”
“But not after searching for a hundred years,” Stella said. “I mean, unless the brownies are magic.”
Her comment resulted in another burst of laughter from Morgan. He wiped tears from his eyes.
I started chuckling too, but I had enough composure to speak. “So the treasure is something that only a child would value. What do you think that would be, my child?”
Stella shrugged. “I don’t know.” She slid her dinner plate aside. She pulled a binder out from under the table and set it on the surface. “But if I’m right about the code being easy enough for a kid to figure out, even a little kid, maybe especially a little kid, then I might be about to find out.” She flipped open the binder and turned to the last page.
“Is that…?” I rose slightly from my chair and looked at the page. “That’s my manuscript, for Book Nine.”
“I’ve never read them in the order they came out,” Stella said. “You read them to me in the order that they’re numbered, and that’s the order I’ve always read them in. I think that’s it. The reading order.”
“You think that’s the code?” I asked. “Stell, I’m sure a lot of people have read the books in the order they came out.”
“But they never read the last one. Book Nine. If the Book Nine you wrote is the real one, then maybe reading it will unlock the treasure, or whatever is supposed to happen.” She cleared her throat. “Do I have both your permission to read the last few sentences out loud at the dinner table?”
I considered her request. “I’m willing to waive the ‘no media at the table’ rule by invoking the curiosity clause,” I said.
Stella grinned, and we both looked at Morgan, who nodded between fits of now-silent laughter.
Stella read the last few sentences of the book I’d written for her when she was just a baby, the book that was never published. And I braced myself to give her a pep talk when nothing ended happening, and a reminder that plans don’t always work and ideas don’t always pan out.
And then the room began to spin.
“It’s about time,” a voice spoke. I’d never heard the voice before, but it sounded familiar somehow.
I opened my eyes and found that I was standing. I was standing in a clearing surrounded by trees, a forest. Morgan was standing in front of me. He wasn’t the one who had spoken. He still had a fork in his hand. He was looking at Stella who stood between us. They both looked as dazed as I felt, but they also looked all right.
I turned around toward the source of the voice, and my eyes widened.
I immediately recognized the two kids who were now standing before me. And I wasn’t the only one.
“Freddie and Betty!” Stella said.
Elizabeth and Frederick, the Snewt twins. The twins were standing in front of another familiar sight. I recognized every detail. The long table draped with a lace tablecloth, the chairs made of cherry wood, the lime-colored teapot with little blue polka dots. It was the tea party table from my dream. But unlike my dream, there was already a guest sitting in one of the chairs. The dark-haired woman was staring at us with wide eyes, but she didn’t get up.
“I hope you know a way out of here,” Red said. “I’m sick of cheese sandwiches. I’m ready to leave.”
“This is the most vivid dream I’ve ever had,” I said, gaping at the table.
“It’s not a dream, Dad,” Stella said as she stepped beside me. “Or if it is, we’re all having it together.”
Morgan stepped beside me on the other side. “Yeah, I feel like I’m definitely here.” He raised his left arm and pinched the skin on the back of his hand. “And I think I’m awake.”
Stella took a step forward. “We’re inside the story.”
“Of course you are,” a figure swept into our view from somewhere behind us. Another familiar sight.
The woman was wearing the same blue sunhat with a red ribbon that she’d worn in my dream.
“Missus Highweather?” I felt the sudden urge to bow. I bowed my head slightly.
The woman before us smiled. She pulled out a chair and gestured to the seat.
“Don’t fall for it,” Red called from the other end of the table. “Leave while you can, and take me with you.”
I leaned down toward my daughter and whispered. “Stella, do you know how to get out of here?”
Stella shook her head. “No, but if anyone knows, I’m sure it’s Missus Highweather.”
“Maybe we just have to finish the tea party,” Morgan suggested.
“Come, everyone,” Mrs. Highweather said. “Sit and settle in. We need to fortify ourselves before we set out.”
“Set out?” I asked.
“On our last adventure,” Mrs. Highweather said.
“That sounds dangerous,” Morgan said.
Mrs. Highweather smiled then. She stepped toward us, raised a black-gloved hand, and gestured behind us. We turned to see what she was gesturing to.
A trellis archway stood in the clearing now. Through it, I could see our kitchen. It was the view from the doorway leading from the living room to the kitchen.
“It will be dangerous, dear,” Mrs. Highweather said. “So all who wish leave may do so. But you must do so now. It will not be impossible to leave once the adventure is begun. But it will be very, very difficult.”
Suddenly the twins appeared on either side of the archway. Betty gazed into our kitchen. She turned away and looked at us. “Our adventure will be fun, a lot more fun than spaghetti even.”
“Come with us,” Freddie said. “We’ll protect you.”
The twins had their gazes fixed on Stella.
I exchanged a glance with Morgan. We both had a hand hovering over our daughter’s shoulders. I took a breath and prepared to present all the reasons for not going on whatever adventure Mrs. Highweather and the twins wanted us to go on. But before I could speak, Stella began to stride toward to archway.
She reached both hands back a little. I snapped out of my shock and rushed forward, taking one of those hands. Morgan caught up to her too and took her other hand.
At the threshold of the archway, Stella stopped and turned her head. “Let her come with us,” she said, and I followed her gaze to where Red Rofotou was sitting.
Mrs. Highweather smiled. “I’m not stopping her.”
Suddenly, Red Rofotou leapt out of her chair and ran toward us. She hooked her arm through my free arm.
Stella led us through the archway back into our kitchen. I immediately turned and looked through the doorway, but all I saw was our living room.
“Did that just happen?” I asked aloud. I felt the familiar pull of an old habit. The need to find a pen and a notebook so I could write it all down.
But I turned back toward the kitchen. My husband was there. My daughter.
And Red Rofotou.
“Not a dream,” I said.
Morgan looked too dazed to answer. Red was staring at our half-eaten plates of spaghetti.
Stella glanced between Morgan and me. “I know I’ll be punished for what just happened, but can we finish dinner first?” She turned and look down at her plate. “The twins were wrong. Spaghetti is the most fun.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel