Chapter 1 of The House at the Edge of Time. Enjoy!
“Some houses,” said Mrs. Hirsch, “just never should have been built.”
Max bit into his second cookie and looked warily at her. She was standing at the kitchen sink, glaring out the window at the big house on the hill. Max sort of like the big stone house, with its towers and swoopy roofs and occasional gargoyle, but he knew better than to say it. Mrs. Hirsh just like to argue.
“Shoulda just bulldozed it when they had the chance,” said Mrs. Hirsch. “Of course, they didn’t get the chance. If I’d of sold all my land to a developer, I’d of sold my house, too. Start over. Build a nice house like the ones we live in—all square and nice. Instead of that weird monstrosity. Weird family. Nuts—all of ’em.”
Max’s father didn’t agree that their new house was all that nice. “Shoe box,” he called it. A shoe box on a street with other shoe boxes, all alike. He liked the house on the hill, too, though, “Wow, the upkeep,” he said. “Those old mansions just eat money.”
That must have been why the Willsons had sold their land for someone to build the subdivision of square brick houses. Now the mansion perched above them, almost hidden by trees.
Mrs. Hirsch looked over at Max. “You see that boy at school?” she asked.
Uh— “Ran?” said Max. “Yeah. He keeps to himself.”
Mrs. Hirsch snorted. “Ran. What kind of parents give a child a name like that?”
Maxwell Eleazer Pangborn shifted in his chair and reached for a third cookie. He wasn’t saying a word. He could sympathize with somebody who had a name like “Ran Willson”; he’d had to defend himself over his own name. Max’s father joked that Max’s full name was really “Maxwell Eleazer Don’t Mess With Me Pangborn”, and sometimes he called Max “Don’t” for short.
“You makin’ a lot of friends at school?” asked Mrs. Hirsch.
Uh— “Sure,” Max said, but he was lying, and he was pretty sure Mrs. Hirsch knew it.
He missed his old friends, and he missed his old school. Being the new kid was hard enough, but arriving in the middle of the school year was even worse. By then everybody else knew each other and didn’t seem to want new friends. And only a couple of the other kids in his class were black, and they didn’t seem interested in him, either. So until he made a friend or two, Max was the odd one out—he and Ran.
And that was a problem, because Ran got picked on. Max wasn’t—yet. The others didn’t know him yet and weren’t sure about him. So he was careful not to call attention to himself; he didn’t want to be a target.
Ran was a different story, because the other students knew him and because there was just a lot about him to make fun of. He was not, as Max’s father put it, socially ept. There was his weird name and his shabby clothes. And he never seemed to comb his hair, which stuck out in little wisps and tufts that got worse when he scrunched his hair with both hands, which he did a lot. And Ran never played with the other kids at recess or answered questions in class—when he even bothered to come to school. The other kids seemed to think that Ran was stupid, though he was always reading—usually interesting-looking books about science or the past.
But the main thing people made fun of was Ran’s family. “Weird,” “crazy,” and “loony”—that’s what the other kids said. Max wasn’t sure why. Ran lived with his uncle instead of his parents, but that couldn’t be it. After all, everybody’s family was a little different. Max’s family was just him and his father because Max’s mother had died when he was a baby. That didn’t make somebody’s family weird.
“Crazy people, all of ’em,” said Mrs. Hirsch. Then, “You got homework?”
“I did it already.” Sort of.
“Well, go out and play, then, why don’t you. It’ll be dark before your father gets home; you should get some fresh air.”
Max grinned. Mrs. Hirsch was big on fresh air. Every day after school he dropped off his books in his own empty house and came next door to her place so she could keep an eye on him; and she sent him outside to get some fresh air.
“I think I’ll go to the library,” he said. He grabbed his helmet and jammed his fuzzy green earmuffs into his coat pocket in case he had to walk; and then he paused on his way out the door with his hand on the knob, waiting for her to say it.
“Well, don’t get run over,” Mrs. Hirsch said, wiping the kitchen table.
She said it every time he went out; it was funny and it meant—Max’s father told him—that she cared about him.
The library was a short bicycle ride away, not far from the entrance to Wyrwood Estates—the fancy name for the subdivision where Max lived. No one else was out on this gray January day, and Max felt like the only person in the world.
He stopped for a moment where the Willsons’ patched and pot-holed driveway met the subdivision’s smooth, new road. From here the mansion looked even more like a castle—one of the ones in the monster movies his father sometimes wrote articles about.
Max knew his movies; by age eleven he’d seen hundreds, over and over and over. Max’s father had studied film in college, so Max had grown up seeing, it seemed, every movie there was, while his father wrote papers about them. Now his father taught classes about movies in the local college, so they still held movie marathons; it was just that now his father grouched over student papers in between exclaiming over fields of view and images of the Other—whatever that meant.
The library was a great place that always cheered Max up, especially on cold and gray days like today. It wasn’t very big—just one large room—but the librarians knew what their patrons wanted. Unfortunately, people were already on the computers, but luckily there was a big new book on dinosaurs that Max was just in the mood for. Dinosaurs especially cheered him up.
Except someone else had the book.
Max saw with a sinking heart that there was only one other person in the kids’ section of the library, and that person was Ran. And he was reading the new book—the one with the color pictures that made it so easy to block out the world of the twenty-first century and imagine a larger world full of huge, wonderful lambeosaurs and apatosauruses. Ran had it flat on the table and was twisting his hair with his fingers as he read, so intent that his nose was about six inches from the book.
Nuts. For a minute, Max thought about going home, but there was nothing to do at Mrs. Hirsch’s house. So he poked around in the kids’ section, sneaking glances at Ran to see if he showed signs of giving up the book.
No such luck. Not, that is, until Max had settled down with an archaeology magazine with pictures of Neanderthals. Suddenly he realized that Ran was coming his way, carrying the book.
It didn’t work. Ran stopped at Max’s elbow and stood there for a minute, breathing noisily, before he thrust the book under Max’s nose.
“If you had a dinosaur like this,” Ran said, “what would you feed it?”
When it came to paleo-anything, Max’s brain was on automatic.
“Orodromeus,” the caption read. “Campanian period of the Cretaceous.”
“It eats plants,” he said. “No grass in the Cretaceous, so I’d feed it tree leaves and ferns and stuff.”
Max glanced around the library, hoping nobody was noticing that he was talking to goofy Ran. Then he looked at Ran, who seemed relieved somehow, as if he had known the answer all along and was glad to have finally found someone else who knew it. “Right,” Ran said thoughtfully.
Max blinked at him. “Right?” he asked.
“Orodromeus. Little guys. They travel in herds.” Or maybe flocks, because they had kind of feathers—
That word again. “Right?”
Ran grinned at him, and it occurred to Max that this was the first time he’d seen Ran smile.
“You know a lot about dinosaurs,” Ran said.
“You must really like ’em.”
Ran’s grin got wider. “I got something to show you,” he said.
Max hesitated. Being seen with Ran would ruin any chances he had of ever making friends with the cool kids at school.
Ran noticed him hesitating; his grin vanished and something in his expression snapped shut. He stepped back as if to leave.
On the other hand, even a friend like Ran was better than no friend at all. And Max was bored. And—dinosaurs. Why was Ran talking about dinosaurs like they were real? He just had to know what was happening.
“Sure,” said Max. “I gotta be home before dark, though.”
He was casual as he put on his coat, as if he had not hesitated, as if Ran were an old friend instead of a suddenly silent shadow following him out of the library.
“It’s—it’s up at my house,” Ran said abruptly, tucking the ends of his striped scarf inside his coat and jamming his bike helmet on over his neon-red winter hat.
“Really? Cool!” Finally Max would get to see inside the big, weird mansion on the hill.
Max’s reaction must have been just right, because Ran’s grin was back as he unchained and mounted the rustiest bicycle Max had ever seen. It also was the noisiest, squeaking and rattling all the way up the hill.
Up they went, past the shoe box houses, up the winding driveway beneath the trees, to the mansion looming bigger and bigger and bigger.
They came to an enormous porch, where Ran chained their bicycles to a pillar.
“Front door,” he said; and, wow: it was the best front door Max had ever seen.
Around the door were carvings of gods and goddesses. Over the door was carved an old man with a scythe and an hourglass: Father Time. Below him words were cut deep: “ABANDON ALL TIME, YE WHO ENTER HERE.” Really: the weirdest and coolest front door ever. Max’s father would love it.
The inside was just as mind-boggling: under Max’s feet was a vast mosaic of planets and stars and whirling galaxies. Darker patches on the wallpaper showed where huge tapestries or paintings had hung.
“Come on!” Ran called, running ahead.
Max went on, through an enormous stone hall with nothing but a table twenty feet long, through a room with frescoes of people jumping over bulls, to a wall made of panes of glass which Max realized was the entrance to some sort of enormous greenhouse.
Here Ran waited, grinning at him.
Inside the greenhouse was a tangle of palms and huge ferns around a big stone fountain. Max peered through the glass into a tropical world that looked weird under the January sky.
Something moved in the greenery; something shook the green fronds. Max’s breath stopped.
Something else lived in that green world. There were dinosaurs, lots of them.