Once upon a time ... in a little town called Feilding, there was a twelve-year-old girl called Kaylee Browne.
Kaylee hung upside down from her swing, her mousey-brown hair hung, dangling in the grass. Her head throbbed from all the blood rushing to it. The thick tree trunk beside her flowed down into a maze of branches, with the sky a sea of pale blue with white fluffy clouds peeking between them.
As she gazed vacantly, a strange piece of paper fluttered down between the branches to the grass at her nose. Eagerness and curiosity made her let go of the ropes she’d been holding and she slid ungracefully to the grass, bumping her head quite hard on the ground. She sat up rubbing it, annoyed and crossed her long gangly legs, only to have the wooden swing meet the back of her head rudely with a hard ‘thunk’. She scowled and grabbed it, letting go once it was still.
Tuning out on the sounds of grown-ups shouting from inside her house, she began to read the old pale-brown looking paper.
NEW BOOKSHOP OPENING IN THE SQUARE TODAY. IF YOU FEEL LIKE GETTING LOST IN A STORY AND VISITING STRANGE LANDS, JOIN US.
FIRST BOOK FREE TO THE FIRST THREE VISITORS. WE HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE.
‘Hmmm...’ she said.
Kaylee listened to her mother’s boyfriend, Paul, shouting at her mother, Trish, about the tea-set Kaylee had accidently smashed. It was a gift from him and he suspected she had done it on purpose.
Kaylee wished her father was still around. She still hadn’t accepted he was dead after the explosion in the mine six months ago. They had never found the body after all.
She loved her mother dearly but felt so lost and alone sometimes.
With the old piece of paper still in her hand, she grabbed her backpack from where it lay on the lawn and began walking to town. It was only a small town, so fifteen minutes of pounding the pavements with her red Chucks and she would be there.
She had worked up quite a sweat by the time the quaint little shop came within sight. In a dark, narrow street it stood. It had an old stone exterior and looked squashed in there, like a skinny man wedged between two Sumo Wrestlers on a bus. She’d never noticed it before even though she’d lived in this little town since further back than she could remember.
A little bell somewhere out the back of the shop tinkled as she came through the door and that glorious smell of old books ─ organic compounds breaking down and releasing that intoxicating scent of ancient wisdom, paper, ink, glue and sometimes smoke ─ wafted over her, bathing her in its almond, vanilla and floral deliciousness.
As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she saw ahead of her tall shelves standing in three lines down the centre of the narrow shop, chock full with row upon row of books. She wandered in and gazed around the various spines of the books there. Many books were leather bound, mostly very old and intriguing.
There was no obvious order to separate subjects. Well this is going to be interesting, she mused.
Eventually, she reached up and grabbed the oldest book she could see. She loved ancient books, the ones where you could smell the old leather and the covers were a little cracked and rumpled round the edges, the writing usually in gold lettering and a fancy font.
The title on the cover said Journey to the Five Realms. The book was not overly large but was quite weighty. A musty smell wafted off the pages as she opened it. The first page said:
To find your heart’s desire,
trust in the key of fire...
‘Well, that’s just weird,’ Kaylee muttered to herself. She heard slow shuffling footsteps and looked up to see a hunched old man appear from somewhere out back of the shop. He had sparse wisps of grey hair, which seemed to float on top of his balding crown. Kaylee noticed he walked with a bit of a limp as he made his way towards the front counter ─ a thick dark brown slab, tucked away in the corner to her left.
He gave her the strangest of looks. A smile, but not just a friendly, how are you sort of smile. It was kind of an, I know you from some place, sort of smile.
That is just ridiculous she thought. She was about to say something to him, ‘Ah, excuse m...’, when a small breeze from somewhere out back blew open a few more pages in her book ... revealing a large ancient-looking key.
The key was a little rusty and made from a dark-brown metal, like her mother’s cast-iron pans at home. It sat nestled in a groove cut into the pages of the book, made precisely to fit. The top of it was a beautiful intricate Celtic-knot pattern. No wonder the book had felt so heavy.
‘Can I be helpin’ you at all there, dear?’ the hunched owner asked, causing Kaylee to start as though caught doing something bad. She slapped the book shut and looked up guiltily.
‘Ah, no thank you. I’m quite alright.’ She wanted that book. She couldn’t precisely say why it was so urgent, but she wanted that book, badly. However, she had no pocket-money left to pay for one.
She approached the counter, raised the book above her head and said, ‘First three people get their books free, the flyer said?’
He nodded, ‘Yes, that’s correct. And before you ask me, yes, you are the lucky third person in today. If that’s the book you’ve chosen, there is no charge my dear.’
She smiled, ‘Thank you.’ Now that he had said she could have it, she was burning with unanswered questions about the key within those old pages. ‘You don’t by any chance happen to know what the key opens.’
‘A key you say? No, sorry, can’t really say that I do. But if you get your parents,’ he paused and looked at her a little strangely when he said this, as though he knew she had no father now, ‘to take you along to Mitchell’s cottage on the weekend; the tour guide Fred is an old friend of mine. He’s a blacksmith, familiar with old keys and such. He might be able to help you with it.’
Kaylee thanked the strange man once again, tucked the new, old book in her backpack and hurried home to ask her mother if they could go to Michell’s cottage this weekend. She was sure her mother would take her. After all, the original owners of the cottage had apparently been some ancestor-or-other of theirs, way back in the 1800’s.
She was in such a good mood now, she doubted even Paul could dampen her spirits when she got home.
How wrong she was.