Packing her bags hurriedly, Bethany was thinking about how she would have to make new friends in a new school. Downstairs, she heard her father yelling, “Bethany, come on! We need to reach the airport in 90 minutes”. “Coming,” she panted, running out with her heavy luggage.
With thick, black wavy hair tied up in a bun, 14-year-old Bethany Belle Boris was a short, fit kid with a broad build. Honest, brave, funny, and confident enough to trust her natural beauty and avoid makeup, Bethany loved playing with her friends when she was not doing gymnastics, cooking, dancing to some hip-hop music, or solving mysteries.
The big rush to move had to do with her doctor-father starting a new job in California. They were moving to the United States of America from the UK, where Bethany felt more at home. She was not British. She was originally from California, but her happy childhood memories were overshadowed by the memory of her mother’s sudden death when she was 7. Seeing her heartbroken at her mother’s death, her father had taken little Bethany and moved to the UK to get away from the dark memories that haunted them.
At the moment, Bethany had mixed feelings as she boarded the flight. She felt like she was saying goodbye to safety and comfort. As she sat in the flight and thought of these little things, memories about her mother came rushing. She thought about the many times her father had indulged her by allowing her to eat her favourite chicken pizza and s’mores, even though her mother wanted to maintain a healthy diet in the household. She remembered her prized Kipling bag that used to have all her knick-knacks. It was military green in colour and also had a small detachable monkey charm. She cherished the memory of these things fondly. She had spent countless hours entertaining the monkey toy in her mother’s greenhouse. Soon after her mother’s death, she moved to the UK and decided to leave behind her bag and her monkey.
Bethany sat down on the biggest sofa in their new apartment, brooding, alone and eating the s’mores her father had made for her as a treat before he had to rush to St. Paul’s Hospital to report for his shift. He had been spending more time at the hospital lately, with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the city. He tried to make it up to her when he was home between shifts, and she could see that he was overworked.
When he was home, she tried to cheer him up by chattering away about her day and exaggerating the events in her life, just so he could have a few laughs and take his mind off work. But she never let him know when she was feeling down. She did not like how her life had turned out in the past three months, ever since the pandemic.
The move to California had gone smoothly, and she had made friends with Rosie and Liam from her school. Rosie Ruby Rinder was a very kind, fun, and cool girl, with long blonde curly hair, a tall and skinny build and was about Bethany’s age. She liked solving mysteries, chemistry, styling, and ballet, and she hated dirt.
Liam Leo Litts, very funny, helpful and kind, had short black hair, green eyes, and was fit, and tall. Liam liked solving mysteries as well. His other hobbies were physics, cricket, and football. Rosie and Liam had moved to California seven years ago, a week after Bethany had moved to the UK. Rosie had moved from India and Liam from Australia. Their fathers were researchers in the same company and had eventually become neighbours. The two families grew extremely close. Liam and Rosie had warmly welcomed Bethany as their friend and they had become inseparable.
During the quarantine and due to the practice of social distancing, the three hadn’t been able to meet in three months. This, Bethany realized, was the reason for her sour mood. She was using the magic of technology to stay connected, but it was not the same as hugging them. She missed their routine of going for ice cream on Fridays after school, sharing fresh lemonade made by Rosie’s mom on Saturdays after gymnastics, and going for movies once a fortnight with the whole gang. She desperately wanted to sneak out and meet her friends, but she did not want her father to worry. So she stayed home like a good daughter.
However, today was different. She felt a vague restlessness. She could not sit still. She called her friends and asked them if they were willing to risk coming out to meet her. They were enthusiastic. After all, they were her partners in crime. She decided to meet them at the treehouse in the far end of her garden. Rosie and Liam promised to be there in 20 minutes. They had to hatch a plan and sneak out, without dropping any hints. Their parents would not permit them to go out and risk exposure to the virus, so this had to be done carefully.
Sneaking out was an appealing option as it did not require an explanation, unless they were caught. The three were determined to meet up, but were cautious to follow distancing and wear a mask. Staying safe was also a priority. Rosie and Liam also realized that Bethany was feeling alone and wanted to be with her to cheer her up before she headed back to her house.
The three houses shared a common backyard as their parents had decided to do away with the fence separating the properties. As Bethany waited in her part of the backyard for Liam and Rosie to join her, she thought about how they had become friends.
The first day in school for Bethany threatened to become a nightmare, till Rosie stepped in to help her. Rosie was sensitive enough to understand that Bethany was shy and not as rude as the other children thought her (because of her quiet behaviour). She immediately decided to befriend Rosie and convinced Liam to agree with her. In such a short span, they had grown so close. They knew each other so well and always looked out for each other.
After a few minutes, Liam and Rosie came together to Bethany’s backyard. The three of them walked to the treehouse and climbed up the stairs quietly. They avoided the creaking step as they did not want to attract any attention. They were sure that if the adults caught them together, out of the house, it was going to be difficult to escape getting grounded.
They needed this visit to go smoothly and without any surprises. Once they entered the treehouse, things seemed like it was back to normal.
Rosie, who always knew what every other person in class was up to, started giving them all the news about their classmates. She had the habit of making these stories sound very funny and in no time, the three friends were rolling on the floor laughing. Bethany felt happy after a long time. Liam and Rosie also noticed her face looked brighter.
Liam was looking around the treehouse, thinking that it was as messy as his bedroom and was glad that his friends were not clean freaks like his mother was. He also strongly believed that young girls had a defective gene that pushed them to live in clean surroundings. He hoped that they would not notice that the treehouse had not been cleaned since they last met. He could even detect a musty odour.
Bethany glanced at Liam and saw that he was in his world, without paying any attention to Rosie’s gossip, but looking around secretively.
She decided to tease him and suddenly said, “I am sure Liam will agree.” Rosie quickly caught on that Bethany was trying to pull Liam’s leg and turned to look at him with narrowed eyes. “Well, what do you say?” she asked.
Liam was taken aback. He did not know what the conversation was about and he somehow thought that they wanted him to help clean the treehouse. So, he blurted out, “I promise, I will help you clean up. Just not today, please! I will come back on Saturday and do my share”.
The girls burst out laughing. Liam also joined in when he realised what had just happened. Into the adventure, the girls looked around and saw the dry leaves and dust on the floor of the treehouse. They could smell the fragrant flowers and the ripe berries in the garden. The pleasant odour could not mask a faint, foul smell that Liam categorized as musty. However, the girls thought that the smell reminded them of something rotten. Perhaps in the garden?
Bethany’s father had chosen this particular tree to build the treehouse when Bethany was three years old, and he had told his daughter that it was a magical tree. The trunk was oddly hollow; people said it was because of a terrible storm that came by years ago when lightning had struck that tree and had made it hollow. But for Bethany, the memory of her mother’s death had included a hollow tree. She had never questioned the neighbours’ stories though.
Bethany had fallen in love with the tree again. She felt one with it. When she had moved to California, she had also felt hollow. Her dad had furnished it to Bethany’s teenage taste. From the hollow part, creepers and climbers grew and it looked green and brown in pretty patches. Somehow, it always reminded Bethany of her mother.
Coming here felt like being close to her mother and she had spent many happy weekends here with her friends. Suddenly, the sharp-eyed Rosie exclaimed, “Guys! Look! There are some fresh cookies!”
The three of them looked around and suddenly felt scared. They noticed a couple of books in the corner and a tattered rug rolled up next to it. It was partially hidden in the darkness and they would not have noticed it in the corner. It used to be Bethany’s make-believe pantry when she was younger, and she remembered it having a couple of shelves. However, they had not used that part of the treehouse since she had moved back to California and only used the main entrance when they wanted to enjoy a nice picnic with store-bought food in hampers.
Suddenly, it looked like somebody found it useful. Did it mean someone was living there? Did a homeless person decide to stay here during the pandemic? Did they think it was abandoned? The three friends exchanged looks. Bethany was twirling her locket nervously, noted Rosie, a sure sign that she was agitated. Liam looked ready to fight and Rosie was also pumping herself up to defend their treehouse. As Bethany twirled her locket, the delicate chain on which the locket hung, broke and fell to the ground. Bethany bent down to retrieve it and then stopped. She looked puzzled. Rosie stepped towards her to help when she noticed that the locket was broken. Only, what had puzzled Bethany was what lay behind her mother’s photo inside the locket.
There was a circular metallic thing and it was flat. Liam shouted excitedly, “Bethany, you never told me you had one of these!” Bethany and Rosie did not understand why Liam was excited about the broken locket and looked at him quizzically. He elaborated for their benefit, “That is a compass and a safe key rolled into one. Only high-level agents who work on secret government projects have access to it. Is it fake by any chance? Where did you get it? This looks like the real thing though!” squealed Liam excitedly.
Bethany looked at him like he was crazy and said, “That is my mother’s locket. She gave it to me a week before she died. I think you are mistaken. She was a simple botanist, and from what I remember, she used to love spending time in this treehouse with me. You could always find her here in the garden or the greenhouse, having tea. This was all before she died. Why would she keep a secret from her family? And why would she give me something like that?”
Liam did not look convinced and asked, “Where is the greenhouse?”
“The tenants who moved in when we relocated to the UK did not want to take care of the plants in there, so my father destroyed it before we left,” replied Bethany.
Liam was looking at her, thoughtfully. He did not know what to make of the situation. Rosie moved to the locket and picked it up. When she cleaned the broken shards of glass, the dial of the compass became visible. As she felt the smooth outer edge, she commented, ”I hate to admit it, but I think Liam is right.”
The three came closer to look at it. They were able to make out some letters inscribed on the dial and a small pointy knob on the outer edge. The letters engraved read ‘B.V.B’.
“Those are my mother’s initials,” said Bethany, “Her name was Belanie Val Boris.”
Liam patted her on the back as he realized that she was close to tears. “It’s okay, Beth. I believe that it belonged to your mother. I am just wondering how she had one of those if she was just a botanist. It just seems strange, that’s all. Don’t get upset, but I think there might be some more to it.”
Bethany looked at him and asked quietly, “If you think this is the real thing, where is the safe key you mentioned? What does it access?”
Liam shrugged his shoulders and said, “The key usually opens a safe box or some weapons unit. Sometimes it can be the key to a safe house or it could open a safe car. What is this knob doing here? Do you mind if I fiddle with it?” Rosie and Bethany looked at each other. They were curious to know what it was. In all the excitement, they didn’t notice the intruder who had used their precious treehouse.
Rosie said, “Look under the knob, there is something etched. I felt it when I cleaned the glass.” Liam took out his pocket flashlight and shone it on the etchings. They were the numbers 0, 1, 2, and 3 on one side of the dial and the numbers 0 to 9 on the other side of the dial, like a puzzle. The knob could move freely over the numbers.
“I think this could be a key to a bank locker. They are identified using numbers,” said Rosie.
“No, look at the second dial, it has the letters – A D F J M N O S,” pointed out Liam.
Bethany looked at them in disbelief and said, “This is so simple you guys! It’s a date. That is the code. Look, the dates in a month can be written using the numbers and the letters are the starting letters of names of months in a year, written in alphabetic order.”
“Hmm… Interesting! I think you are right. But what could the code be? Can you think of a date that would be very important to your mother?”, asked Liam.
“Of course, your birthday. What else could have been more important for your mother?” chimed in Rosie, looking at Bethany.
With trembling hands, Bethany set the code to 22N, representing her birthday, the 22nd of November. The knob settled down into a small depression and the compass lit up at the direction, 22oN. The three of them walked in the same direction. It led them to the hollow of the tree. They stood near the hollow trunk, undecided, when Liam suddenly lost his footing and fell into the hollow.
Cushioned by the creepers, he was not hurt, only slightly wounded. He stood up and looked around the hollow inside the tree trunk. He saw a green trapdoor that was almost hidden by the creepers. Before he yelled out to the girls, he saw them slide down towards him using the creepers.
He pointed out to the trapdoor and they knelt to examine it closely.
“Can you see the circular depression in the corner?” asked Rosie.
“Yes, and I think that the compass will sit in the depression perfectly. Is either of you willing to take a bet?”, asked Liam.
Bethany set the compass on it and pressed slightly. The trapdoor swung inside silently, revealing a staircase going down. They realized that it led underground. By now, all three were intrigued and wanted to see where this adventure would take them. In silence, they descended the stairs one by one with Liam leading the way and Rosie following in the rear. There were only 7 steps and then, it turned into a narrow passage. The compass showed that they were moving North.
Bethany quickly realised they were walking towards the part of the garden where her mother’s greenhouse used to be. The passage ended at another door which also had to be opened using the compass. It swung inside and the teenagers could not believe what they saw.
Bethany yelled as she ran towards a smart-looking lady, who was bent over, tending to some plants.
They were in a greenhouse, though this was underground. There were many different varieties of plants and the smell was slightly sweet, like some lingering comfort-food. It reminded Bethany of her childhood and after-school snack. Unbidden tears sprang to her eyes.
Liam and Rosie exchanged looks. “I thought she was dead!”, whispered Liam. Rosie swiftly moved her hand over his mouth. “Shhh! Anything is possible at this stage. It looks like a conspiracy considering that she had hidden advanced safety precautions in Bethany’s locket. Let’s wait and watch, but be ready to run to safety.”
Bethany and Belanie, Bethany’s mother, were in a tight hug and were crying profusely. Liam and Rosie soon realised it wasn’t a dangerous situation. They relaxed, just enough to walk closer to the hugging mother-daughter duo.
“Hi, Mrs. Boris! I am Rosie and this is Liam,” Rosie introduced herself.
“Of course, I know who you are. You are the Rinder girl and he is the Litts’ boy. Your fathers and I are colleagues. They have been keeping me safe here all these years and now that I am close to the breakthrough, I asked Bethany’s dad to move back here and he readily agreed,” Belanie blurted.
The three children still seemed puzzled, so Belanie went on to make herself clear.
“Okay, I owe you all an explanation. Especially you, my dear Beth,” she said, stroking her daughter’s beautiful face.
“Here, have some cookies and juice and make yourself comfortable. I am happy you are all here to see the breakthrough”. She handed them the cookies and made sure they were comfortably seated before she continued.
“You see, your fathers and I have been friends since high school. We went to the same University and pursued our interests. But we loved creating new things. We joined the same company as researchers and were trained in different fields. Based on our interests, we were posted in their laboratories and in different countries. Through the distance, we remained friends. Baron, my husband and I would meet your parents every summer. After we all had children of our own, we did not get much time to meet, like we did before.
“Around that time, I discovered that the company was working on a solution to end world hunger. They were planning to use chemicals and make pills that would kill hunger. When they tested it on monkeys, the monkeys kept falling sick and eventually died.
“I was against this project from the start. I was sure the answer could be found in plants, not chemicals. When they asked me to sign the test report that this pill was safe to be used on children in Africa, I refused. They threatened me and said they would kill my family. I informed your fathers and they spoke to a close contact in the FBI and got me protection.
“I was also simultaneously working on a solution using leaves to make cookies and juice that would be tasty, but also kill hunger. One day, Beth and I were playing in the treehouse when we heard sounds from the house. I saw men with masks and guns inside the house. Suddenly the sky turned stormy and lightning struck a tree in the garden and it started burning. The men left soon after searching the house for us and my research papers. I quickly called Baron to come home and then we went down the trapdoor where I created and maintained the underground greenhouse to continue working on my secret projects.
“We had planned for this. We called your fathers and they took a transfer and moved back to California. A week before they came, Beth and her dad shifted to the UK. My only regret was that the tenant refused to take care of my greenhouse. But I had all I needed underground. We had informed our friend in the FBI about our plan. So, he was ready to help us. He made the move easy and checked up on the house and neighbourhood regularly. We had created a rumour that I had burned to death when lightning struck the tree. All the changes happened within two weeks.
“In the past seven years, I have been working on my secret project. In the last year, I have been living entirely on these cookies and juice. They do not need any special process but are made with this special plant that can grow anywhere. I am ready to give the world the seeds I have modified genetically to survive against all odds. I had shared it with Litts and Rider last week, and they are waiting for a patent. Once that is done, I no longer have to hide and my solution will be free to be used by those who need it. How does it taste? I am also trying some new recipes. We can have a whole menu – ”
She was interrupted by the children screaming in terror. She turned around to see a gunman aiming his gun at her forehead. He walked towards her and removed his mask. It was her old boss, Mr. Grossbop.
“I knew you were not dead,” he said. “I did not see your dead body. I have been keeping an eye on your friends all these years. When your husband moved back in, I was sure that you were hiding somewhere. I am glad I did that. I heard your entire story. Now, if you promise to give me the patent, I will let you live. Otherwise, I will kill you.”
While the man was talking to Belanie, Liam and Rosie communicated in sign language with Bethany, using their secret codes and gestures. Suddenly, Rosie fell and cried loudly, rubbing her belly, “Mrs. Boris, you have poisoned me. I am going to die. My stomach is aching so badly. I feel like I am going to vomit.”
Next to her, Liam made retching noises and fell with a faint. Bethany looked at her mother accusingly and said, “So much for your research. I think I am going to die. My stomach feels like it is being twisted from inside. Please give him the patent. Let him go to jail. I don’t want you to suffer. I love you Mama,” she cried faintly and dropped down.
There was white froth coming out of her mouth. Grossbop took one look around and said, “I knew you were not very bright. Deal with your mess. I don’t want your faulty patent. Good luck explaining to your friends how you killed their children and yours.”
With that, he ran out. The three children sat up and laughed at how easily he was fooled. Belanie was overjoyed that the children was safe, and surprised at how smart Bethany and her friends turned out to be.
“Come on, children. You have been out here for far too long. Your parents will be worried,” said Belanie. When they came out into the garden, they saw police cars and Mr. Grossbop sitting inside one, in handcuffs.
Dr. Boris had returned home and not finding Bethany, had called the police. At that exact moment, Grossbop had run out, gun in hand.
What an unlucky fellow, thought Rosie.
Belanie had invited her friends, the Litts and Rinders, for dinner. She had had a successful year. Thanks to the patent, she had been able to help fight starvation in Africa. She had started a charitable trust and was enjoying using her abilities to help solve problems for the underprivileged.
Today was a celebratory dinner as she had been chosen to receive an award from the UN for her service. She was looking forward to a night of fun and banter with her favourite people in the world.
As she heard voices, she quickly started serving her patented cookies and juice.
Anwitha Koneru is a 9-year-old gymnast who lives with her head in the clouds. She is a caring sister, loving daughter, sweet cousin, supportive friend, and a naughty grand-daughter. Born on November 22, 2010, in Cuddalore, she loves flying to visit new places. She lives in Chennai and goes to KC High International School. She can usually be found watching cooking tutorials, trying to put together yummy desserts, or making pizza. She loves dancing, pranking her family, and documenting life hacks. Above all, she has a kind heart and a sensitive spirit.