Chapter One: Curly’s Dad
Curly grinned, pushed open the garage door and wheeled his bike out onto the driveway. Belle was riding in circles on the quiet road in front of his house, her schoolbag slung casually over one shoulder. Her eyes flashed silver as he mounted his bike and pedaled toward her.
“What are you doing here so early?” Curly stopped next to Belle. “I was planning to come over and wait outside your place.”
Belle laughed. “Thought if I got here early I might be able to convince you to skip school today.”
Belle nodded. “We haven’t been to the Secret World for ages, today seems like a good day to go back.”
“It’s hardly ages, Belle. It was two days ago.”
Belle sighed. “I know, but it feels like months ago. I don’t know if I can wait any longer. Come on, skipping one day isn’t going to hurt.”
Curly hesitated. He’d never skipped school before. “But the school will ring our parents if we don’t turn up.”
“Not if we beat them to it.”
“What, ring the school ourselves?”
Belle pursed her lips together and put on a familiar high-pitched voice. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Chapman, but Curly has been unwell overnight and won’t be attending school today.”
Curly laughed, Belle sounded exactly like his mother.
“So, what do you think? Are you game?”
Curly’s thoughts were interrupted as a car backed down his driveway. His dad stopped alongside them. “Shouldn’t you two be on your way to school by now?”
“Hi, Mr. Jones,” Belle said. “We’ll be on our way in just a minute.”
Curly’s dad’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. Frown lines marked his forehead and his face was pale. “Okay, well have a good day.”
Curly and Belle watched as he pulled out onto the road and drove down Pickapear Grove.
“He didn’t seem very happy,” Belle said.
“He’s not,” Curly said. “The company he works for has taken his design for a new piece of medical equipment and sold it to the Chinese.”
Belle’s forehead creased in confusion. “But shouldn’t he be happy about that? It seems pretty exciting to me.”
“It should be, except the company received so much money for it, that they’ve been able to purchase new equipment which will automate some of the work my dad’s team do.”
“But won’t that make their jobs easier? Mean that they can produce more?”
Curly nodded. “That’s the problem. Dad’s worried they won’t need all the members of his team now to do the work. He’s hoping they’ll create some new positions but it’s more likely that some of his team will be fired. I guess he feels guilty.”
“That’s so unfair.” A sly smile crept onto Belle’s face. “I think we need to cheer you up, too, Curly Q. Jones. So, Secret World or boring old school?”
An image of his dad’s strained face crept into Curly’s mind. He swallowed. He didn’t want to disappoint Belle but he didn’t want to add more stress for his dad if they got caught. He cleared his throat before meeting Belle’s eyes with his own.
She laughed before he had a chance to speak. “Don’t worry Curly, I get it. I didn’t really think you’d skip school.” She pushed off from the curb and started to pedal, then turned and looked back over her shoulder. “I’ve never skipped either, just thought it could be exciting.”
Curly let out a deep breath and rode after Belle. “How about after school?” he called.
Belle’s eyes flashed aqua as Curly caught up to her. “I’d say definitely, Curly, definitely.”
Laughter and excited screams rang out through the schoolyard. The morning had passed quickly and Mr. Blarf had dismissed his class early for their lunch break. He’d told them not to eat their food yet as he had a surprise. He’d called Tom Smiggins out of class and now had him setting up a long row of tables in the shade of the large elm tree. A horn tooted from outside the school and Blarf rubbed his hands together, a huge smile lighting up his face.
Belle nudged Curly. They watched as Blarf motioned for Smiggins to accompany him to the school gate.
“What do you think they’re up to?” Belle asked.
“No idea,” Curly said. “It’s still hard to believe that the magic chocolates worked.” Curly thought back to their first visit to the Secret World. With Boompa’s help they’d been introduced to the seapoes who’d created magic chocolates to stop Blarf’s and Smiggins’ bullying. Curly had tricked the two into eating the chocolates and their behavior had completely changed. Mr. Blarf no longer picked on Curly or any of the other students. He encouraged them and rewarded them. Smiggins was no longer the schoolyard bully. He was the guy students turned to for help.
“Look,” Belle pointed. “Are those pizzas?”
Blarf and Smiggins walked back to the tables, their arms laden with pizza boxes. They placed them down and spread them out, opening the lids to reveal a huge variety of toppings.
Blarf clapped his hands together and motioned for the students to gather around him. He smiled at his class. “I’m putting on a special lunch for you all today,” he said. “You’ve been working so hard and producing some fantastic results. I’d like you all to enjoy some pizza and keep up the good work.”
The students cheered. This was unheard of.
Belle winked at Curly as she stepped forward to take a slice. “I’m glad we didn’t skip now,” she said.
Curly grinned, so was he. He picked up a slice of pepperoni. A hand tapped him on the shoulder just as he was about to take a bite.
“You are one of the hardest workers in the class, Curly, enjoy your reward.”
Curly smiled at his teacher. “Thank you, sir.”
Concern crossed Blarf’s face. “How’s your dad doing? I bumped into him last week. He seemed a bit worried.”
“Some changes are taking place at his work,” Curly said. “It’s a bit unknown as to how it might affect everyone.”
Blarf nodded. “Okay, well you let me know how he goes. If there’s anything extra you need, you just holler.”
Belle raised an eyebrow as Blarf walked away and joined another group of students. “This Blarf actually cares. A bit of a contrast to the teacher I met a couple of weeks ago.”
“I don’t know if it will ever seem normal.” Curly lifted his pizza to his mouth and took a huge bite. A swirl of colors flashed in his mind as cheese oozed into his mouth. It was delicious. He stopped chewing when he noticed Belle looking at him strangely.
“What?” Curly asked through his mouthful.
“Your eyes,” Belle said. “They just changed color.”
Belle nodded. “As soon as you bit into the pizza they flashed green and then yellow. They flashed when we left the Secret World last time but I haven’t seen them do it in our world before.”
Curly grinned. “Awesome.” His grin turned to a frown. “What if anyone else notices? How do I explain it?”
“I’m not sure,” Belle said. “I’ve always said I got it from my great-great-grandmother as that’s what my parents told me. I’m not sure how you explain a sudden change like that. Perhaps Boompa or Bo can give us instructions on how to control the flashes.”
“We can ask them when we go back after school,” Curly said.
Belle laughed as she helped herself to another slice of pizza. “We need a magic potion to move time forward, so after school can be as soon as I’ve finished this slice.”
Even without magic potions to move time forward, a double period of art ensured the afternoon sped past. Belle was waiting for Curly by the bike racks after school.
“Hurry up,” she called as he walked toward her. “I’ve been waiting for ages.”
Curly laughed as he reached her and started unlocking his bike. “I had to get the paint off my hands first, and anyway, we were only dismissed about two minutes ago, you couldn’t have been waiting that long.”
They pushed their bikes to the school gate and were coasting through the leafy streets of Ponchy on their way to Belle’s within minutes. They slowed as they neared Curly’s house. A car passed them and pulled to a stop outside number thirteen. The door opened and Curly’s dad stepped out. He spoke to the driver, opened the back door and took out a box. He shut the door and gave the car a wave as it pulled out into the street.
“Oh no.” Curly slowed beside Belle. “My dad never gets home at this time.”
“Do you think it’s bad news?” Belle said.
Curly swallowed. “Looking at his face, I’d say yes.”
Even from a distance Curly’s dad looked pale and drawn. His eyes were sad, his shoulders slumped as if defeated. He pulled himself up straighter when he saw Curly and Belle and forced a smile.
“Good day?” he asked.
Curly nodded. “Are you okay, Dad?”
Curly’s dad shook his head and sighed. “No, son, afraid not.” He tapped the lid of the box he was carrying. “Twenty-five years and all I get to walk away with is this box.” He took a deep breath. “Now for the hardest bit, I have to tell your mother. Not only have I lost my job but of course they’ve taken back the company car and all of my other benefits.”
Curly felt like he’d been punched. His dad loved his job. He’d taken Curly to work on a number of occasions and had shown him the area where he and his team designed new medical equipment, where they built prototypes from their own designs and tested them. He was proud of what he did, proud to be designing and manufacturing equipment that helped sick people. To see him so crushed, dreading breaking the news to his mother, was awful.
His dad reached across and ruffled his mop of thick brown curls. “Don’t worry, son. I’ll find another job soon enough. It’s just one of those things.” He gave a little laugh. “We’re all healthy, we have a nice home. There’s not too much to worry about.”
Curly nodded, his father always tried to put a positive spin on things, but he could see his father was upset. “I was planning to go to Belle’s. Is that okay or would you prefer me to come home?”
“You go to Belle’s. It will give me a chance to chat with your mother, make some plans for what we do next.” He smiled. “Go and have some fun. Don’t worry about any of this job stuff. It’s my concern, not yours.” He squeezed Curly’s shoulder and, with the box under one arm, walked up the driveway.
Curly and Belle rode on toward Belle’s house.
“We don’t have to visit the Secret World today,” Belle said. “In fact it might be better not to.”
“Why not?” Curly asked.
“With what’s going on with your family, I thought you might not feel like it. You might just want to chill or, even better, there are some old crates in the backyard. We can smash them up if you’re feeling angry?”
Curly smiled. “I’m not angry, Belle. It’s just how the world is. Robots and machines are gradually replacing jobs. My dad’s known this was coming for a while now. He’s just extra upset that his own design helped the company get the money to buy the equipment that’s now put him out of a job.”
“You’d think they’d want to keep him if he designed something so amazing,” Belle said.
Curly nodded. “It makes no sense at all.”
They rode into Belle’s driveway and leaned their bikes against the garage door. Curly followed Belle around the side of the house and into the backyard.
The tension in Curly’s shoulders lifted as he looked up into the branches of the oak tree that dominated the garden. The aged brown wood of the tree house gleamed in the sunshine. The green vines sparkled and yellow smoke puffed from the chimney. He grinned.
“I don’t need to chill or smash crates, this is exactly the distraction I need.”
Belle’s eyes shimmered. “So we’re going in?”
Belle let out a squeal and high-fived Curly. She raced over beneath the tree house and clapped her hands twice then stomped her feet. A small opening appeared in the floor above them. A motor whirred and a silver ladder lowered to the ground. Curly waited for Belle as she moved quickly up the rungs to the floor of the tree house. He grabbed the first rung and grinned as tingles rippled through his fingers and into his body, he’d never get sick of this feeling.
Curly climbed the ladder and pulled himself into the tree house. His eyes moved straight to the bright yellow walls. “Do they always change color? They were aqua and then red last time.”
Belle shook her head. “Not always. I haven’t worked out what makes them change color. Sometimes I go into the Secret World and when I come back they are still the same color, other times they change. The same with the smoke.”
Curly moved through to the second room and peered inside the black cauldron. “There are lots of shades of yellow moving about in there today,” he said. “I wonder whether it’s a spell?”
Belle picked up the paddle which leaned against one wall and handed it to Curly. “Give it a swirl and see if anything happens.”
Curly pushed the paddle into the pot and stirred. He looked back in and rainbow colors danced before him.
“Have a look,” he said.
Belle leaned over the pot. “It’s beautiful.” She looked up at Curly.
He grinned. “The rainbow colors are in your eyes. I wonder if that puts a spell on you?”
“Hope so.” Belle pulled back the thick aqua curtain which covered half the wall and tied them out of the way, revealing a mirror. Its wooden frame was aged like the outside of the tree house. “Ready?” Belle asked.
Curly took a deep breath and nodded.
Belle grinned and rainbow colors flashed in her eyes. “I feel more excited today than any other time I’ve been to the Secret World, and I’ve no idea why.”
Flutters of excitement were growing in Curly’s belly. He knew exactly what Belle meant. They’d been introduced to so much magic and adventure on their previous visits it was hard to know what to expect. He followed Belle’s lead and stared into the mirror. Colors raced before his eyes. Tingles, similar to the ones from the ladder, started in his toes and slowly moved up his body. The colors continued to race and explode before him. Curly could no longer see his own reflection, he was tugged forward, the tingles exploding through his body as he was lifted and spun within the rainbow of colors.