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Outside, a pair of slippers shuffled to the front porch. An envelope fluttered to the ground. A chilly breeze made the bright light coming from inside the house seem inviting. The figure turned and left.
“Mabel, will you set the table?” Mrs. Kandi called. “Dinner will be ready in five.”
Mabel sighed and flipped her book closed. It seemed like Mrs. Kandi always needed her to do something right when she was at an exciting part in her book. She swung her legs off the couch and began taking out placemats and utensils.
“Will Mr. Kandi be eating with us today?” Mabel asked.
It had been four years since Mabel had been living with Mr. and Mrs. Kandi, but she still addressed them formally.
“No, honey, just set the table for two.”
Mabel sighed once again and placed everything on the table. Just as she set down the last fork, the doorbell’s familiar melody began to ring. Mabel jogged to the front door curiously. They didn’t receive many visitors. Mabel had been a bit cut off from the rest of the world since her mom had vanished four years ago.
Mabel could her Mrs. Kandi’s footsteps drawing nearer as she inquired, “Who is it, dear?”
There was no one there. Mabel looked right, left, and then down, where she saw an envelope that was blank except for the word “Mabel” written in elegant cursive.
Mrs. Kandi glanced at Mabel questioningly. Mabel shrugged. She waited until she could hear the soft padding of her foster mom’s footsteps receding into the kitchen before ripping open the envelope. Inside was written the simple note, “I have information regarding your family. Your life will never be the same again.”
Mabel read the note over and over again. A chill went down her spine. She didn’t know what to believe, but she was willing to do anything if it meant a chance to find out what happened to her mother.
From the kitchen, Mabel could hear Mrs. Kandi calling her to dinner. She quickly stuffed the note into her pocket. When she walked into the kitchen, the bright yellow lights that once seemed cozy and welcoming now made her feel dizzy. She wanted to be somewhere dark and alone, but she stayed in the kitchen with Mrs. Kandi because she could not stand the thought of her eating alone.
As soon as the last plate was set in the sink, Mabel raced up the stairs. She barely made it into her room before the tears started falling down her cheeks. She lay down on her bed and cried. There was not one day that passed that she did not wonder where her mom was. She did not even know if she was dead or alive.
She longed to feel her mom’s hug and hear her laugh. She wanted to find her, then talk and talk and never stop. She had such an extreme longing for her mom that she would do anything to see her again.
The next morning, Mabel slowly got out of bed. When she drew aside her curtain, another envelope was taped to the window. Mabel’s breath caught. She quickly pushed up the window, grabbed the envelope, and sat down, for she was suddenly lightheaded with hope and wonder. She was holding a possible clue to her mom in her very hands.
Before she could lose her courage, she ripped it open. It stated, “Task #1: Have a two-way conversation with Mrs. White.”
This was virtually impossible since Mrs. White had dysphonia, and had not been capable of speaking for two years. Mabel almost never saw Mrs. White since the old woman often stayed indoors. Mabel wondered if the person behind the mysterious notes did not want her to find out whatever there was to be found. Maybe this was just a game, but it was one she was willing to play.
All through the morning, Mabel thought and thought. She sat through breakfast in a daze. She was fairly sure she waved Mr. Kandi off to work, but she couldn’t be positive.
She sat through school distracted and deep in thought. It was only when she got called up in math to solve a problem on the board that she thought of it.
“That’s it!” she exclaimed.
All eyes stared at her, perplexed, but Mabel didn’t even care.
When she got home that afternoon, Mabel raced up to her room. She searched hurriedly through her closet until she found her arts and crafts bin. She dug out her Expo marker and personal white board. Mabel flew down the stairs and through the kitchen, heading for the front door.
“Your snack’s on the table, honey,” Mrs. Kandi told Mabel. Mabel saw a plate of cookies and milk, next to the usual centerpiece of flowers. She quickly grabbed a few flowers from the vase as she continued running toward the door.
“Sorry, gotta go!” Mabel called as she almost tripped over her own feet. Then she was out the door. Mrs. Kandi was left standing in the kitchen, staring at the front door as it banged shut. After a few seconds, she shrugged and muttered, “Teens.”
The air outside was crisp, exactly as fall should feel. Mabel jogged across the street to Mrs. White’s house. When she reached the driveway, she slowed and straightened out her hair. Then she cleared her throat and rang the bell. After a few moments, the door creaked open. Mrs. White’s hunched figure appeared. Emotions flitted across her face in quick succession; caution, pure surprise, and then delight. Mabel’s heart warmed at the smile on Mrs. White’s sweet face. Why hadn’t she thought of this before?
Mrs. White opened the door wider and stepped back. Mabel could practically hear her saying, “Come in, come in.” She stepped inside and offered her the roses she had brought. Mrs. White placed a frail hand on Mabel’s arm and led her to a couch.
When Mrs. White hobbled out of the living room, Mabel glanced around the room curiously. There were many frames hung up on the walls. Upon closer inspection, Mabel noticed that all of them still had the original sample photo they had been bought with. Picture perfect families and couples posed for the camera with wide smiles. Just looking at all the happy faces made Mabel long for her own family. Then she wondered why Mrs. White did not put her own photos into the frames.
Mrs. White came back into the room with a plate of crackers for Mabel. Mabel handed her the marker and white board. Mrs. White nodded in understanding.
“My mom vanished four years ago,” Mabel began.
Mrs. White waited for her to continue. Mabel told her all about the mysterious notes and how the first task said to have a conversation with her. Mrs. White’s face stayed impassive. Then a question crossed Mabel’s mind.
“It’s not you writing the notes, is it?”
Mrs. White shook her head. Then she picked up the marker and wrote “Sorry dear. Good luck with your journey.” She added a smiley face for good measure.
Mabel smiled and said thanks.
It was an hour later when Mabel stepped outside again. Time had flown by as Mabel and Mrs. White had become instant friends. She knew she would visit her frequently.
On her way home, Mabel saw Mr. Utgers raking his front lawn. She waved and said hello. She also passed old Mrs. Ebbing, who had been the first neighbor she had met upon moving in with her foster parents. Mabel had always felt a special liking for her, ever since she had welcomed her to the neighborhood without probing eyes and with a full heart.
There was another note on the front step. Mabel’s heart leaped with excitement. Mabel opened it aggressively. It said, “You have not only a kind heart, but a creative mind as well. Congratulations on completing Task #1. Your second and final task will be to climb Death Mountain. On top you will find a surprise.”
Mabel wanted to start climbing Death Mountain right away, but she knew she had to prepare first. Death Mountain was not as bad as it sounded, but it required agility and preparation. It was a treacherous hill filled with thorns and snakes, but worst of all was the steepness of the slope. Just walking a few steps exhausted most. To make it to the top was an extremely demanding task.
She stuffed a pack with water, a couple granola bars, and gloves to protect her hands from thorns. Then she ran upstairs and changed into thick long pants, also to protect herself from sharp objects. She took a deep breath. She felt ready.
She walked the half mile to the hill. She wanted to sprint there, but she knew enough to conserve her energy. What was waiting for her at the top? She had to know.
When Mabel arrived at the hill, she craned her neck upwards. It seemed to go up forever and ever, to the sky perhaps. Her mind told her it was an impossible task, but she told it to shut up. Deep in her heart she knew she could do this.
One, two, three steps. She made it all the way to ten before she had to rest, her hands on her knees, panting. Her thighs burned. She had to keep going. Eleven, twelve, thirteen. “Just make it to twenty,” she told herself. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. Her legs were as heavy as lead. Would she ever reach the top? She tried to focus on keeping her breath steady. “I can do it, I can do it.” She became stronger with each step as memories of her mother flooded her mind. In her mind she was putting a lilac behind her mother’s ear. The purple of the flower looked beautiful against her mom’s black hair.
She was at the top. Mabel collapsed onto the ground, panting. Briars were clinging to her pants. Thorns had penetrated through her gloves. She plucked them all out carefully. Her legs burned and her chest heaved, but she had done it. She had made it to the top of Death Mountain.
She had just lain down onto the dry yellow grass when she heard footsteps and rustling behind her. Startled, she sat up. Who she saw made her heart leap. It was someone who looked shockingly similar to her. They stood there staring at one another.
Suddenly, the girl leaned forward and hugged Mabel tightly. Mabel hugged her back without hesitation. There was an undeniable connection between them, even though they had never seen each other before.
“I’m Mabel,” Mabel said.
“What… How…” Mabel stammered.
“I received a note on my motel door a few days ago,” Tammy responded.
Tammy started to recite the note and Mabel joined in.
Tammy said, “You got it too! Of course!”
Mabel said excitedly, “We must be related.”
Mabel looked at Tammy closely. They had similar eyes, but Mabel’s were closer to black and Tammy’s were closer to brown. They had mirror image noses, except for the fact that Tammy’s had a spray of freckles. They had the exact same smile, both having the power to light up a room.
“Who do you live with?” Mabel asked and held her breath.
“My dad. What about you?”
“Foster parents,” Mabel replied. “My mom vanished four years ago,” she added upon seeing Tammy’s expression, telling her to continue.
Tammy confided, “I’ve never met my mom. I’ve lived with my dad my whole life.”
Mabel said, “I’ve never met my dad. I used to live with my mom. Then I was taken in by my foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kandi.” Mabel feigned indifference, but her voice was thick with emotion.
Mabel and Tammy continued to talk. They came to the conclusion that they were half sisters since Mabel was fully Chinese and Tammy was half Chinese, half French. They each felt the same missing link because they had never met one of their parents. They were glad to have each other.
The walk down was a lot easier. Mabel and Tammy slid down together, holding onto each other for support, shrieking and laughing.
“Come to my house. We’ll have dinner together,” Mabel said. “Where do you live, anyway?”
“In France. I’m staying in a motel about twenty minutes from here for my dad’s business trip. He thought it would be good for me to see what America is like.”
Mabel squeezed Tammy’s hand.
Before they reached the house, they saw old Mrs. Ebbing hobbling down to retrieve her mail. She wore a pair of purple slippers.
“Hello, Mrs. Ebbing,” Mabel said.
The look on Mrs. Ebbing’s face made Mabel sure that it was her behind the notes. She hugged her hard.
“We’ll talk soon, darling. Now go on,” the old woman said.
Mabel had many unanswered questions, but for now she felt pure bliss. She had met Tammy, who she knew she would love for the rest of her life. Nothing could break sisterly love.
They held hands, talking and laughing, as they made their way up the front porch and into the bright light of the kitchen.