Here are the first few pages of The Palace of the Seven Stories. A 12-year old American boy, Josh, and a 12-year old French-Afghani girl, Therese, have to end the darkness in the world...they live in Paris, surrounded by historic Buddhist monks, an intrepid terrier, a French archeologist, several children from all over the world...will they succeed??

Prologue--Sunday

A Mysterious Palace. A Room Brimming with Bones. And the Knight of the Night Sky.

One day in Paris, a girl named Therese with hair that shimmered in ebony & gold spotted a book in a used-book stall along the Seine with a magical name:

The Palace of the Seven Stories.

Therese would be 13 years old in seven days. Surely there was no harm in asking for a pre-birthday present now? “Maman,” she said, turning to her mother immersed in a vintage coppery, sky-blue copy of Babar, “Can you buy this for me?”

Isabelle looked at the cover of the book, which featured a faded, yet still glittering sky-blue palace. Looks like a book of fairy-tales, she thought. Behind her, the Seine shifted moods, from dreaming sea-green to contemplative gray-blue.

She glanced at the price—5 Euros--, nodded, and took it from her daughter’s hand to pay the taciturn bookseller.

What Isabelle didn’t know, was that this book was no book of fairy-tales.

**

On the same day in Paris—a cool Sunday in March—a boy named Josh stared at a wall of bones.

He was in the Parisian catacombs—ancient underground rooms full of bones. Scapulas, tibias, fibulas.  Dirty white bricks-of-humanity sculpted in pretty patterns lined wall after wall. The bones of six million Parisians lay here.

But Josh wasn’t scared. He felt he was in his element here.

 “Son,” Josh’s dad said, “Seen enough? I think we should go now.”

Josh looked up at his dad. Mr. Pearson was frustrated because he couldn’t get a signal on his phone.

He sighed. “Yeah dad,” he said, “We can go.”

Yeah. He was in his element here.

Lots of bones.

And no hearts.

**

On the same day in Englewood, a suburb of Chicago, a young boy named Jason ran to a mailbox in the post office parking lot.

He was going to mail a letter.

All the way to France.

He was practically the only boy in his class to not have his own phone.

But he had something everyone else didn’t have:

A friend in Paris.

He’d printed his friend’s address very neatly on the envelope with a black marker.

Josh Pearson

38 Avenue George V

75018 Paris

France.

He put a fresh new USA Global Forever stamp on it, of a sky-blue earth underneath lots of stars.

Before he put it in the mailbox, he briefly imagined this:

the letter flying over the ocean, underneath the constellations, almost farther than his own imagination could take him.

He found, to his surprise, he was nervous before he dropped it in the mailbox---he’d never before mailed a letter overseas!

He closed his eyes, and let the letter drop.

“Come on Jason,” his mom called, “How long is it taking you to mail a letter?”

“Coming Mom,” he said.

He couldn’t wait until Josh got the letter.

Josh was his best friend in the world.

They shared a secret, you see.

And nothing was a more powerful bond of friendship, than a secret shared.

 

---

That evening, Therese stood on her little balcony, in her family’s little apartment on the Rue Grenelle.

She was searching for something.

She looked amongst buildings, treetops, above the soaring spire of the Eiffel Tower---

she sighed. No. She still couldn’t spot it.

She was looking for the Knight of the Night Sky. A great knight, her father Mahmoud told her, that rode his horse amongst the stars. He found it, he said, when he was a little boy in Afghanistan.

Therese didn’t know much about her dad’s life in Afghanistan, but she knew he lived through war. And that it was horrible.

“So one day,” he had told his daughter a few weeks previously, “I was sitting in front of the door of a house that had just been bombed. I was crying. I had a little street-dog with me. He looked like Maximilian.”

Therese stifled a tear. Maximilian was their terrier,  that had just been run over by a taxi six months ago.

“I felt very alone.  My own brother had just been killed, my father was off fighting. My mom was crying. So I was alone next to my dog, and I looked into the sky”--He stopped, as if still in awe at a 30-year old memory.

“I saw a fantastically beautiful constellation of stars I’d never seen before. I called it The Knight of the Night Sky, because I saw him ride his beautiful stallion across the sky, in between clouds, across the face of the crescent moon. And somehow I knew, that no matter how awful the fighting was, that it would be ok. That even if a bomb hit me, I would be ok. I can’t explain it more than that.” He paused, adding, “So whenever you are lonely, look for The Knight. He is there.”

Therese took a deep breath, still staring into the sky. She wasn’t exactly feeling lonely—rather, more than anything, she was curious. She wanted to see the Knight.

She sighed once more. No knight in the quiet night.

Therese pulled her sweater around her---a deep green cardigan embroidered with rose-pink petals that her Spanish grandmother had knitted for her. It was a chilly March evening.

She picked up the book Isabelle had bought her earlier that day.

Taking out her phone from her backpack, she sat down upon the balcony, opened the flashlight app, and shone its light upon the cover.

The Palace looked so magical! A sky-blue palace…with seven floors…topped with creamy clouds…

I’ll open it while I wait to see the Knight, she thought.

So she tried---

and couldn’t.   She tried again, and couldn’t.

Frustrated, she shone the light on the pages—

they were sewn together.

This has got to be a really old book, she thought.

She got up, and turned to go inside---

and stopped, catching her breath.

What was that?

Leaning her palms on the balcony, she stood on tip-toe,

gasped.

Mon Dieu. She couldn’t be seeing what she was seeing.

Children. She was seeing children flying through the Parisian night-sky.

She must be making this up. Her heart beating wildly, she ran into her room to get a telescope her parents had bought her for birthday last year.

She ran back out, focused it on the sky.

Children! How could she be seeing children??

Black children. Brown children. Fair children…

She opened her mouth to call her parents—

when her phone beeped.

She picked it up, her fingers trembling.

A text from her friend Josh.

You up?

Yes.

You’re not gonna believe what I’m seeing in the sky.

Therese’s heart started thumping so hard against her chest she thought she’d faint.

What?

Kids. I’m seeing little kids in the sky.

Day 1—Monday

A Box of Skulls. The King’s Heart. And a Lost, Very Wet, Deeply Philosophical, Dog.

He’s drooling, thought Therese.

She gave a sidelong glance at Josh. He couldn’t take his eyes off their biology teacher.

Well, Therese had to admit she was beautiful.

Mathilde Desroches was her name. Matilda of the Rocks. She was from West Africa---the Ivory Coast, to be precise.  She was by far the most stunningly lovely teacher in the École Internationale des Lettres et Lumière—The International School of Letters and Light—the school Therese and Josh attended. Today she was wearing a mustard-colored leopard-print blouse, and black-and-gold dyed ostrich-feather earrings. Madame-of-the-Rocks always dressed in animal prints, textures, and jewelry.

“Monsieurs et  Dames!” she’d exclaim, looking at her students with an expression of royal authority.  “We must never forget we are connected to this earth, and to its myriad of creatures. I wish we could have a classroom in the ocean---then you’d understand how linked we are to all the water on this earth, and to all the animals within!”

A classroom in the ocean, thought Therese dreamily, wouldn’t that be amazing, to have dazzling, bizarre-looking fish suddenly swim across your desk? An octopus suddenly decide to slink its way through its day behind a teacher? Smiling dolphins suddenly crashing through your history lesson?

She looked at Josh and stifled a giggle. He couldn’t take his eyes off Madame Desroches.

Suddenly their teacher fished out from a box on her desk a tray filled with skulls.

“You all know I and my family own a small wildlife reserve in the Ivory Coast,” she said dramatically. “We are doing what we can to save the animals of this earth. Let’s see how much you have learned in this class. Can you identify the animals to whom these skulls once belonged?”

The children passed the tray from one to another, looking at the animal relics with interest. Death always fascinates, thought Josh. He could identify the skull’s inhabitants easily---cattle, baboon, macaque, a rodent of some sort, and a kind of bird—maybe a parrot?

While the kids were looking at the assorted bones, Therese texted Josh:

You can’t take your eyes off the teacher! Lol.

Josh didn’t respond until class was over.

 

I wasn’t looking at her.

I was looking at the skulls.

__

It wasn’t until Therese and Josh walked to the Metro Sèvres-Babylone that they were able to talk.

“You were too looking at Madame Desroches!” said Therese.

“No I wasn’t,” replied Josh stubbornly.

“Why are you so shy?” asked Therese perplexed.  “What’s wrong with thinking she’s really pretty?”  She paused, adding, “I think you’re pretty cute. Nothing wrong with that.”

Josh didn’t reply.

Boys were impossible. So Therese said switched topics. “So you saw kids fly in the sky last night?”

Josh nodded. He was looking at the ground, eyebrows scrunched up in thought. “I thought I was crazy at first. But I know what I saw.”

Therese nodded, tucking some flyaway hair behind her ear. “I know. I saw them too. Like little birds almost, but you could see them …laugh. I mean, it looked like they were having fun, and racing one another. It was so weird.”

Josh nodded, very seriously. “Believe me, I’ve seen weird. I’ve lived in New York and Chicago remember. But this beats everything. And my dad’s flat is really high up…and I …I couldn’t believe what I saw.”

Therese sighed in relief inside. Josh was always so serious about everything. So to hear him say he saw the kids too really meant something.

They arrived at the Métro and were about to descend underground, when Josh asked Therese suddenly, “You told me about that book. Palace something. The title sounds cool.  Is it good?”

Therese shook her head. “I don’t know. I tried to open it. But I couldn’t. The pages were sewn together.”

“You wanna try now? I have some scissors in my backpack.”

He put down his backpack, rifled through books, his IPad, pencils, pens, pocket-knife, stapler, paper clips, until he found his scissors.

“You have everything in there!” said Therese, laughing.

“I like to be prepared,” he said, very seriously, pushing his glasses back up his nose.

Therese put her backpack down, took out The Palace of the Seven Stories. Josh leaned over to look at the cover.  He studied it while she slowly took out stitch by stitch.

“Oh my god,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“Didn’t you see what’s on the cover?”

“A palace right?” Therese shrugged, still focusing on her stitches.

“You didn’t look properly,” said Josh, in a very grown-up voice.

He can be a drag sometimes, thought Therese.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“The kids,” he said. “The kids on the book. Didn’t you see?”

Therese stared at the cover in the late-afternoon sunlight.

She gasped, for the second time in two days.

There were children flying into and out of the palace---children just like she’d seen the night before. But when she’d looked at the book earlier, she’d thought they were just birds…

“Josh!” she exclaimed, “I didn’t notice, because I looked really quickly at it, and then I looked at it again in the dark. What do you think this means?”

Josh shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Who’s the author? Oh—it’s in Chinese. That’s weird. Can you open the book?”

Therese nodded, biting her lip as she tore off the last stitch. She handed the scissors back to Josh.

As he put them back in his backpack with his pile of assorted scholarly artifacts, Therese read the first page, her eyes growing wider by the second.

“Josh,” she said, “You’re not gonna believe this.”

“What?” he asked. “What’s the book about?”

She looked up at him, her eyes a distant dream.

“Us,” she said, swallowing. “Us.”

--

At the very moment Therese opened The Palace of the Seven Stories, a Chinese monk in a store basement adjacent to tunnels in the catacombs looked up from a box of trinkets he was unpacking, and said, with a catch in his breath, “The book has been opened.”

Another monk, much younger, looked up from a box of cakes he was unpacking, and said, “Huh?””

“The book has been opened,” the first Chinese monk repeated.

“What book?” asked the second monk.

But the first monk only said, “The book has been opened. By the children who were meant to find it.” He closed his eyes and whispered a quick prayer.

The second monk, eyeing the cakes that looked delicious in the box, said, “Excuse me sir, but what book? And what kids?”

The first monk said, “Tonight. We will explain all tonigh--no,no—tomorrow night. Let me see first if the children will come in the store. If they come in tomorrow, then we will know for sure and we will explain all to you. For now, finish unpacking the cakes.” And, observing the second monk licking his lips at the sight of the delicious sweets, commanded, “I said unpack them. Not ‘Eat them’.”

--

Later that evening, Josh stared out his bedroom window, thinking of Therese’s words:  The book is about us. Us? Therese didn’t tell him everything that she’d read---she was so shocked she said she needed to think about it. She said she’d text him later this evening.

Now, nothing but endless rein reined upon Paris.

But the city’s streetlights still shone through the downpour of crystal drops. Traffic blared brightly along the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Avenue George V, the location of his dad’s apartment.  Far off, he saw the Seine writing an elegantly fluid, silver sentence through one of the most storied cities in the world.

A big city brimming with people from all over the world was one of the loneliest places on the planet. He’d always heard that. And it was true.

He and his dad had just moved to Paris, where Mr. Pearson, CEO of Pulsar, Inc.---a firm that searched for renewable sources of energy around the world-- would oversee all European operations. Josh’s mom stayed back in Chicago. After his parents’ divorce, just the previous year, the judge had decided that it was better for Josh to stay with his father. His mother wasn’t quite…all there. Her psychiatrists hadn’t been able to diagnose her properly. Some said clinical depression, some said borderline personality disorder…she’d been a prominent civil rights lawyer, fighting all sorts of societal demons, and all of a sudden she couldn’t even fight the demons in her mind…

As far as Josh was concerned, he didn’t really have a mother or father. His mom was trapped in the locked dungeon of her mind, and his dad…, as CEO of Pulsar Inc., kept looking for an endless mine of money, even though it was shrouded in the term “energy.”

And then there was that night in Chicago…how could he ever forget that?

Suddenly, a voice: “Son?”

Josh sighed. His bones groaned. Or was it the hollow echo of his heart? Beating endlessly…emptily…

 “Yeah dad?” he said, stepping back into his room from the balcony. 

“Come out here for a minute.”

Josh reluctantly left the sanctuary of his room---there was hardly anything in it, just a bed, table, computer, guitar—which he couldn’t play very well but which his aunt Josephine had started teaching him how to play a couple of years ago--- and a portrait of his mom Felicia.  A quote was printed underneath her pretty face framed in curly blond hair, gazing out at the world with deep black eyes…the quote was one of Martin Luther King’s: Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step. She’d put a black magnet emblazoned with that quote in sharp white lettering on the refrigerator, before she got sick…

It was his secret, his secret that he couldn’t tell anyone, (except Jason, who knew anyway), that had caused her depression…

Josh entered the living room, glancing at the paintings on the wall before approaching his dad. His dad had six pictures on the wall, of warriors mythic and real. Five paintings in richly textured oils—of the Greek Alexander, the Roman Marcus Aurelius, the Mongol Genghis Khan, and the much gentler-in-comparison Indian Prince Rama and Grail Knight Galahad. Mr. Pearson also had two photographs--one of his grandfather’s good friend, a Louis Menget, a French soldier who fought at the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II, and of his brother’s son, Matthew, who was MIA in the recent conflict in Afghanistan. His dad called it his Wall of Warriors.

Above these pictures hung a magnificent, cobalt-blue-and-brilliant-gold bow and arrow, engraved with the sun and hundreds of tiny jeweled stars.  An antique weapon that his dad had bought at auction in London. Josh had tried carrying it a couple of years ago, but it was way too heavy.

Josh’s gaze drifted back down into Matthew’s brown eyes, and took in his friendly smile. His cousin. Only ten years older than him. He’d only met him a couple of times. Where are you Matt? I’d love to meet you now. Matt didn’t have to join the military; no one in Josh’s family ever had. He joined for a greater cause.  Dad wishes he was like them, a warrior, a hero.  Josh thought. Because he’s definitely not.

Mr. Pearson, sitting upon a silvery-gray sofa, lay aside a book he was reading and stood up, almost apologetically. He treats me like a guest, thought Josh. His dad spoke, softly.  “I’ll be busy tomorrow. I’ve arranged for a couple of child refugees from Syria to arrive in Paris, to get them good health check-ups, to rehabilitate them from recent wars, and to reunite them with their families.”

Josh replied, in a sober voice, “That’s really nice of you, dad.” He didn’t look at his father, but at the wall behind Mr. Pearson, against which hung a locked glass case containing a dazzling assortment of classically crafted keys. Mr. Pearson bought ancient keys (or master copies) of keys from castles, palaces, temples mosques shrines and churches, from all over the world. Rusted rectangular keys hung next to odd-shaped oblong silver keys. Huge heavy keys in bronze clinked against slim golden keys. An enameled key, in jade. A key of midnight blue lapis lazuli dipped in sharply-cut steel, shaped like a curved small dagger, whose keychain was round and in places pocked with razor-sharp teeth, that looked like a circular saw…

His father looked at him curiously, as if he couldn’t tell if his son was mocking him or not. He sighed, in a manner that said, it doesn’t matter to me if you’re mocking me, and replied, self-effacingly, “It’s nothing. Just part of an international program arranged by an NGO—a charity--called Benediction that Pulsar is cooperating with.”

“So it looks good,” said Josh, without a trace of emotion.

His father looked at him, weighing his son’s words. His dad always dressed so effortlessly elegantly; tonight he was wearing nice dark jeans and a silvery-gray shirt to match his silvery-gray hair.  Josh knew he’d never look so at ease no matter how much he tried. And now, the son had no idea how what his dad meant when he said, “Yes, so it will look good,” and smiled, in his winning CEO expression. Silvery grey eyes, slightly crinkled tan skin. Yeah, Josh thought, I’ll never look as good as him.

Father and son looked at one another for what seemed several minutes, but was only a few seconds. Father continued. “So Madame de Savoie will be here for the next couple of days, cooking and cleaning. I will be very busy. I may bring a child by here, to meet you. Maybe you can make a friend.”

Josh nodded stoically, wincing inside. He could never make friends with someone when someone said, “Make friends with him. (or her).” And he hated when people thought he didn’t have any friends. Actually he didn’t, except Jason in Chicago, and Therese was kind of a friend, but he’d never needed friends.

“What are you reading, Dad?” Josh asked, mindlessly, just to distract himself from his own thoughts.

Mr. Pearson looked pleased at the interest his son showed in his book. “It’s a history book, about some Chinese Buddhist monks who traveled back-and-forth in Asia.”

Buddhist monks? Dad is about as far away from a Buddhist monk as you can imagine.

“You know, Josh,” ---Josh was surprised to hear his own name, his dad usually just called him Son—“you’re always in your room. Always on the computer. But come out here sometimes. So much to see here. Look at that magnificent bow-and-arrow that I bought at auction in London. Legend has it that the bow can change the karma—the energy---of a person or place. The Indian paintings over there---of the Mongol Genghis Khan and Indian Prince Rama I bought in an antiques shop in New Delhi. They were painted in the 16th –century court of the great emperor Akbar, whom no one in the States knows about. And I’ve got beautiful books; the one I’m reading I bought at auction in Paris.” He picked it up, gave it to Josh. Josh held the tired text in his hands; it weighed hardly anything, the words inside must be so light…

“It’s old,” he said simply.

His dad nodded, excitedly. “Written by a French monk in the Middle Ages. He heard of a tale told by Chinese Buddhist monks in Afghanistan-- Afghanistan used to be a melting pot of many different cultures. They told of a mysterious palace, hidden somewhere in the world. No one knows where it is now. Anyway, inside this Palace is supposed to be an awesome source of energy—called The One True God, according to the monk.  If you want to read it, go ahead.”

Josh flipped through it. “I don’t know Medieval French, dad,” he said, surprised that his dad seemed to know it, “I barely know regular French.”

His dad shook his head. “I certainly don’t know medieval French!” he replied, laughing, seeming to delight that he was having a real conversation with his son, “I just pick out words here and there that are close enough to regular French that I do know, and I have a dictionary for the rest in my bookshelf. The illustrations—called illuminations—are beautiful aren’t they?”

Josh flipped through the book, distractedly. The pictures were pretty, but he didn’t want to read this! Dad doesn’t know me at all.

Golden images shone here and there upon the pages, shimmering like fireflies against a black inkscape, of Buddhist monks in saffron-gold robes. Of huge statues of Buddhas carved out of a cliff.

Of a sky-blue palace…with seven floors…and a large number 7 above it…

Josh looked up. “Dad,” he said, quickly, “What’s the name of the palace mentioned in this book? Is it called something?”

Mr. Pearson nodded. “It’s called the Palace of the Seven Stories. Why?”

Josh quelled his surprise, shrugged his shoulders. “I heard about it from a friend of mine.”

His dad responded, “You know there are supposed to be clues in this book as to its location. The author says there is a book called The Palace of the Seven Stories, a building with the same name, and a model of the building, somewhere in the world. On top of that there’s a jewel called The King’s Heart that’s supposed to help find the model of the building.  And then it is said the Palace has a door through which only a child can enter. Sure you don’t want to read the book?”

Josh shook his head. “No, no,” he said, his head whirling, needing to think alone, “Just curious.”

He closed the book, and gave it back to his dad.

“I’m sleepy Dad,” he said, “I’ll go to bed now.”

His father looked him deeply in the eyes, puzzled at his son’s behavior. “Ok,” he said, “I’ll be out tomorrow before you wake up. But I’ll stop by tomorrow afternoon at some point.” He seemed determined to do that now, delighted at his son’s sudden interest in his book. In him.

Josh nodded. “Good Night,” he said, feeling nothing but bewilderment.

“Good Night,” his dad replied, smiling, sending him off with a slight wave.

 

**

Josh sat on his bed and immediately texted Therese:  You up?

He waited.

And waited.

Finally, his phone beeped.

I am. But I’ll tell you about the book tomorrow. It’s mind-blowing.

Josh sighed frustrated.   Why can’t you tell me now?

Too much for a text. You won’t believe this.

Well you won’t believe this---my dad has a book that mentions The Palace of the Seven Stories!

A pause.

Wild. We’ll talk tomorrow. I have to show you something. See any kids this evening?

No. It’s raining, maybe that’s why.

K. Night.

He sighed. His head hurt. Too much had happened in the single space of an evening. An actual conversation with his dad. The revelation of a palace with the same name as Therese’s book.

That’s why his head was hurting. It had to be.

He looked at himself in a small blue marble mirror on the wall. Therese had said he was cute. Was he? His Aunt Josephine, his mom’s sister, had said so as well. “The girls will be lining up for you. Dark hair. Eyes darker than the night. You just wait and see.”

“Dude,” his cousin Brent had interjected, “Your eyes are darker than a black hole. They’re gonna freak girls out.”

Brent’s mom had shushed him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I think I know what girls like.”

Josh stared into his pair of charcoal pupils, red veins, transparent aqueous humor.

For a full minute.

Suddenly, he gasped. He felt like a stranger was looking at him through his own eyes.

He jumped back, his heart beating, his head still hurting.

My head hurts because of all that’s happened. Talking to my dad. The book. Kids flying in the sky.

I know I saw the kids.

That’s why my head is hurting. It has to be.

Or is what happened to Mom happening to me…

He didn’t let himself think.

And just went to bed.

**

Therese sat on her balcony, knees scrunched up to her chin, thinking.

It had stopped raining, so she slipped outside, even though it was cold.

She took a deep breath of damp air. It was…syrupy, luxuriously so, with the silky liquid of life…

Her parents wouldn’t want her to be outside on such a cool evening but she loved thinking outside.  All the space for free thought!  Even though she was in a city. The sky was a blank sheet of paper upon which she could sketch her thoughts…

So she did, within the welcoming space of her red jeweled journal.  She had an extraordinarily strange thing happen to her after Josh left that afternoon.

Instead of going home, she turned up the Boulevard Raspail, Palace of the Seven Stories in hand, reading, and thinking. Her heart had simply slammed against her chest at the sight of the first sentence:

Therese Mirany and Joshua Pearson have been chosen to vanquish the darkness in the world.

This is what I, a humble monk of China, have foreseen.

And this is what needs to be done:

How was her name, and Josh’s name, in a book she bought alongside the Seine?

Her head had started whirling. Whirling so much that she could hardly speak. She needed to be alone and think.

So, as it wasn’t dark yet, she took a walk up Boulevard Raspail, pondering the book, her head spinning…

and, as you would expect when you’re lost in thought and not looking in front of you,

she bumped into someone. An old white-haired lady.

Who was obviously in a state of panic.

“Excusez-moi,” Therese started to say---

but the old lady hardly heard her. Instead she said, “Have you seen Jacques?”

Therese shook her head, and started to say, “I haven’t seen a lost boy,”—when she realized, intuitively, instinctively, this lady was looking for a dog. She recognized the fear in her crinkled face, as if it were her own.

“A dog, right?” said Therese, “You’re looking for a dog?”

The old lady nodded, worry seeping from her wrinkles.

“I will help you look Madame!” Therese, still hurting from the loss of her beloved (yet rather stupid) Maximilien, felt a sudden amazingly strong desire to help this lady in finding her dog.

“Thank you chérie!” said the old lady, “I have terrible pain in my left hip and can’t run fast. I was in the Jardin du Luxembourg, he was sitting next to me, and all of a sudden he’s gone!”

Therese nodded, taking control of the situation. “Don’t worry Madame, I will look for you. Where did you see him last?”

The old lady pointed left, right, and then straight ahead. Then she turned around and pointed behind her. “Oof,” she said, “I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry. I will look everywhere,” said Therese. “What does he look like?”

The old lady thought for a minute, and said, very strangely, “Philosophical. He looks philosophical.”

Philosophical?

“And brown. He is brown. A small terrier.”

Just like Maximilien. Except for the philosophical part. Max had been rather obtuse.

Therese slid Palace into her backpack, and ran off.

She passed shops closing, sidewalk cafés brimming with people enjoying hot cafés and chocolat chaud—hot chocolate--, among other amber-colored crystal-clear drinks—on this spring evening in Paris. Clouds were racing in, and people wanted to be out a little bit before it started to rain.

She ran all the way up to the Boulevard Montparnasse, back down, passed the Métro Notre Dame des Champs, looked around every tree, around every bakery door….

where else would a dog go?

Finally, a little tired and very hungry, she turned back, and found Madame sitting in a café, staring at the street in pure, very grave, concern.

Therese felt an enormous sense of failure. But what else could she do? She’d looked everywhere.

“Madame, I am so sorry,” she said, “I wasn’t able to find him.” To her surprise, she found a tear forming in her right eye. The pain of losing Max was so close, still.

The old lady took her hand, and said very kindly, “Chérie, don’t worry. You’ve done your best. Take a lesson from an old lady who has seen a lot in life---if something or someone is lost, they will come back to you if they are meant to. You don’t have to worry about it. But you have to remind yourself not to worry about it sometimes.”

She paused, and said, “My name is Lucie. Lucie Menget. What is yours?”

“Therese,” Therese responded. “Therese Mirany.”

Lucie looked at her curiously. “Mirany?”

Therese nodded.

“Do you have a relative named Ibrahim?”

Therese shook her head. “No Madame. My father’s name is Mahmoud.”

“Hmm,” Lucie said, “I have a very good friend whose name is Ibrahim Mirany. It is funny, I just received a package from him today. Anyway, I suppose I was meant to meet you. Go now, it is getting late. Jacques will come back if he’s meant to. Merci Beaucoup.”

She shook Therese’s hand.

Therese left, and walked slowly, dejectedly, to the Métro Sèvres-Babylone. She was disappointed in herself, at not having been able to help a woman find her dog. And she was positively ravenous. She just wanted to go home.

She descended into the station, stuck her pass through the ticket carousel slot, plodded to her platform.

She passed many sober-faced businesspeople, seriously exhausted shoppers. A busker in the subway sang Bob Dylan in a croaking voice.

These were the things you expected to see in Parisian subway station.

The last thing in the world you’d expect to see?

A little brown terrier, with a rather philosophical mien, standing on the platform, as if he were waiting for a train.

Oh—who was also soaking wet.

Day 2—Tuesday

A Magic Carpet of Mesmerizing Emerald. Fudge of Heavenly Joy. And Flying Buttresses—and Boddhisattvas.

“So, what do you think?”

Josh looked at the page in Palace that Therese had unstitched. It was lunchtime, and they were sitting out in the schoolyard, away from the other students.

He sighed, looked up at his friend, and shifted his glasses back up his nose.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s awesome. Mind-blowing.”

He read the words out loud:

Task One:

Therese Mirany and Joshua Pearson have been chosen to vanquish the darkness in the world.

This is what I, a humble monk of China, have foreseen.

And this is what needs to be done:

1. Pass through the One True Hell.

2. Enter the One True Heaven.

3. Find the One True God—which is Also the One True Devil.

These tasks must be carried out in order. Details in chapters that follow.

“How are our names in here, Therese?” asked Josh, in wonder. “How?”

For the first time in a while, Josh looked lost, bewildered, he looked his age—13. He always seemed much older.

Therese shook her head. “I have no idea. But never mind that. How in the world do we Pass Through the One True Hell? How do we do all this?”

“Have you looked at the next page?”

Therese shook her head. “I have to cut it. It’s exhausting, the pages are sewed together so tightly. Takes me so long to cut just one page.”

Josh looked at his phone. “We have ten minutes left. Do you think that’s enough time?”

Therese shook her head. “I want to do it slowly, because I don’t want to rip any pages by accident. After school I’ll do it. You still have your scissors, right?”

Josh nodded, seriously. “Always.”

Therese stifled a giggle, thinking, He’s so serious about his stuff.

“Why don’t you ask your dad about what he’s read in his book about Palace?” asked Therese in a very common-sense tone.

Josh looked at her as if she were out of her mind. “You’re joking, right?”

Therese, flummoxed, said, “But I’d ask my dad about it if he had such a book.”

“Your dad’s a professor. Mine’s a money-man.”

“Come on Josh!” she exclaimed, “He’s your dad. He’s gonna help you.”

Josh stared at her in disbelief. And Therese, to her great surprise, heard him speak angrily for the first time ever. “You don’t know my dad. If you knew what I knew there’s no way you’d ask him.”

Therese, a little shocked at her friend’s tone of voice, didn’t reply. But she thought privately, Josh’s dad can’t be that bad.

Deciding to take control of the conversation and steer it away from something obviously uncomfortable to her friend, Therese changed the subject. “Well let’s meet after school. Hey, how about this—I pass this snack-shop on the way to the Métro I’ve always wanted to try.  Les Trois Frères Chinois. The Three Chinese Brothers. And we have a book written by a Chinese man. Maybe we can ask them to read the author’s name on the book. Let’s stop there after school.”

Josh nodded. “Sounds good.”

“And let me tell you about the dog I met yesterday,” said Therese.

And as they walked back to class she regaled him with the truly bizarre tale, of the terrier with a strangely soaking tail.

--

While Therese and Josh were in class, Jacques & Lucie were in Lucie’s apartment, peering at the content of the package—a brilliantly green carpet-- sent by her friend Ibrahim Mirany.

Lucie had spread the carpet on the floor, and was thinking. A retired archeologist and Professor at the Sorbonne, whose specialty was India, she’d met her fellow archeologist Ibrahim years previously, at a site in India. Ibrahim was Director of the Museum of Kabul.

The carpet differed from most oriental carpets, in that it shone a mesmerizing emerald. As if it were made from fresh leaves from a fairy-tale forest.

Lucie squatted down upon the floor to look more closely at the carpet, grimacing at pain in her left hip. Arthritis had riddled her limbs for years now. Ah, to have the bones of youth! she thought.

In addition to being green, the rug was also unique for another reason: instead of the usual motif of flowing flowers and vines, its design was rather…geometric. A simple rectangle---indeed, it looked something like a small door. Six more rectangles inside, one tucked into another. And inside the smallest rectangle, or door, the carpet-weaver had woven a spiral staircase, with seven stairs…crowned with a flowering star, or starry flower, of some sort.

 At the foot of the door lay five white stones.

Stones? How strange. Lucie squinted. What could stones possibly symbolize?

She huddled closer to the carpet---trying to ignore the sharp pain in her lower back---and smoothed out the fibers which shaped the stones. Were they really just stones?

Lucie gasped.

They weren’t stones. They were skulls.

“What does this mean, Jacques?” she asked her pet as if she were seeking the opinion of a professional colleague.

Jacques barked three times.

Lucie looked up at him, frustrated. “I’ve lived with you 11 years but still can’t comprehend your barks. Do be quiet. Forget I asked you.”

Jacques whined. Hurt, he turned around to his bowl, and sipped some water.

“And by the way, you are still not dry! How did you get so wet? Fall into the Seine, did you?”

His thirst satiated, he huddled down by his bowl and chewed a bone.

Lucie picked up and re-read the letter from her old friend Ibrahim Mirany again.

 

My dear Lucie,

 

Forgive my absence. I have been away a long time, I know. Always so very busy with keeping art objects safe. I hid this rug away—not rug, magical carpet! -- years ago, when the Taliban were set to destroy the museum in Kabul. I kept it deep in a basement and hid it so well in a garbage bag I almost forgot about it.

It was thanks to my assistant Khaled that I found it recently. Do you remember Khaled? You met him once, in India. I don’t know how I would manage without him. He’s the one who suggested I send this to you, for safekeeping. It’s really such a unique rug. We would love to keep it but we are overwhelmed with art objects and underwhelmed with staff, trying to catalogue everything and keep it safe.  You know this world of ours---one terrorist group after the other seeks to destroy art or to sell its soul. I still weep when I think of one terrorist group destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and another terrorist group destroying the stunning beauty of Palmyra & so much else in Syria. Always, the worst in humanity seeks to conquer and destroy the best in humanity.

Ah, well, this is the way of the world. It has always been this way. I thank God I was born to be on the right side. As were you.

We both know you will know what to do with this carpet.  Somehow, I think it will lead you to the door of The Palace of the Seven Stories. Do you remember we talked about that Palace last time we met? A palace mentioned in the writings of ancient Buddhist monks…it refers to both a book and a building.

Well, perhaps I will come to Paris again soon. We shall meet once again, God willing.

 

Yours warmly,

Ibrahim.

 

Idly, Lucie went to her computer, and googled Magic Carpet Afghanistan. Most unscientific, but she needed to sift through random images—it helped her think, much like sifting through dirt, pebbles, and weeds,  to uncover forgotten bone shards and assorted relics…All kinds of irrelevant entries came up…Aladdin and Jasmine,  Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride…Pulsar CEO signing deal nicknamed The Magic Carpet with the interim president in Afghanistan because it brought millions of dollars into Afghanistan in return for mining a reported new source of energy… …she lost herself in nonsensical images…Buddhist monks in Afghanistan, witnessing the Pulsar deal….Buddhist monks in Paris…Pulsar CEO again,  in a war zone, somewhere in the world….among child soldiers, in some Middle Eastern country…Syria?  Thousands of children-of-migrants missing in Europe feared to be taken by traffickers…She was so used to dealing with the remains of the dead, as a retired (supposedly) archaeologist that death should no longer bother her.  And it didn’t so much-- it was just the cruelty, the pain in which life painted the world that was still so difficult for her to understand. Child trafficking? Child soldiers?

Well, she wasn’t alone. Who could understand it? 

She remembered Khaled—a very intellectual, bookish, young man. Why would he think of her?

Ibrahim, can you just call me and tell me what to do with this?

At that moment, a knock on the door shattered her contemplation.

She opened it. The huge, malodorous Madame Chataignon—potato-scented concierge of her building-- stood outside.

“I just came to check on Jacques. Strange how he disappeared yesterday. Is everything ok? Do you want me to walk him now? “

That was a lie. Madame had no intention of checking on Jacques. She was just curious about the unexpected package Lucie had received.

She sensed Madame staring at the rug. Madame snooped on everyone in the building; she was a virtual goddess of gossip. “Family heirloom,” Lucie told the donut-shaped dog-walker, “My brother in the US sent it to me because it’s not worth anything.”

“Your brother is in Afghanistan now?” Madame asked innocently.

Drat! Madame had noticed the mailing label! Lucie should’ve realized she would. Not knowing what to say, Lucie attempted the wondrously effective tactic of distraction: “Madame! I have just found money in my pocket! It is all for you---advance payment for walking Jacques this month.” She gave her several Euros.  The concierge gave Lucie a smirk—her closest expression to a smile—and left, her tumescent ankles and clods-for-feet plodding on down the hallway to the stairs.

Jacques leapt up to Lucie for a hug, as if he were saying, Thank you for not making me walk her.

Lucie looked around the flat. It was most unflattering. The place was a disaster.

She suddenly saw a black velvet bag on the floor. On the floor! That was the precious, indeed priceless stone her best-friend-in-the-world Sandrine had given her to research…she picked it up quickly—her left hip and back twinging—and took it…well, where should she take it? Sandrine told her it was a very very rare stone that had been in her family for generations; she thought it might be from India, so she wanted Lucie to have a look at it. It was called The King’s Heart.

If Lucie lost it, Sandrine would kill her…

Lucie stuck it in a lockbox she had…but where to put the lockbox? Hmm…ah! She stuck it underneath a pile of dirty laundry.

Who in their right mind would want to look through her dirty laundry?

Having kept the stone in a very secure place, she made some coffee so she could think quietly about the carpet and the lost wallet.

As she stirred instant coffee in a stained mug, she watched Jacques. Jacques watched her.  How she envied him. Life was so much simpler for a dog.

She kept staring at Jacques, who now had gone out onto her balcony, trying as she had in the past, to break through into his consciousness. It was extraordinary—she had known Jacques for eleven years now, shared her life with him, and yet they operated on two entirely different levels of being. How easily people took miracles for granted.

Taking miracles for granted…a topic Sandrine loved to go on and on about…

Who else was there to call?

Lucie picked up the phone, still staring at the magic carpet.

Jacques circled around himself three times, and fell asleep.

--

After school, Therese and Josh stopped at Les Trois Frères Chinois. The Three Chinese Brothers.

A little bell rang as they entered.  And although Therese had never been inside a Chinese temple (nor had Josh) she knew that’s what this little store smelled like. The store-space blossomed with slowly unfolding petals of incense, a particularly sweet, soporific kind.

A bright green counter topped with all kinds of cakes greeted them—Chinese doll-shaped cakes filled with chocolate, marshmallow, strawberries. Flower-shaped yellow cake spiced with green tea. White cakes spiced with white tea, shaped like hummingbirds.  A big glass jar filled with chai-ginger-almond-cookies.

“These look amazing, don’t they?” asked Therese.

Josh, in awe at the rich aromas of the sweets, couldn’t even speak.  “I’ll buy you one,” said Therese. She herself reached for a yellow tulip-shaped cake filled with strawberries and cream labeled Blossoming Petals of Joy. What a weird name.  She looked around to pay, but no one was around.

“Pardon,” she said, loudly.

No one.

She slowly went through into the larger room beyond. A deep, steep staircase led to a basement below.

The larger room was filled with not with snacks but knick-knacks: purses, hair brushes, watches. Fans, a strangely incongruous shimmering chocolate-brown and silvery-white stringed instrument which made Therese wonder, What is that? It looks like it plays the songs of stars… batteries... suddenly she heard a noise.

Therese turned to the staircase—

and that’s when she noticed the buddhas.

Lots of them. Rows and rows of them. Smiling buddhas. Angry buddhas. Compassionate, gentle, sinuous buddhas.  Cheap factory copies of a long-gone god.

They all watched her, curiously, as if they knew a secret she could never even fathom.

The angry buddhas glared at her. The laughing buddhas laughed at her.

Suddenly Therese felt a chill fill her. No matter how good the cakes looked, she wanted to leave.

She turned to run when she heard footsteps upon the basement stairs.

And wheezing. 

“Excuse me, mademoiselle,” an old Chinese man said, speaking heavily-accented French slowly, carefully. “I was downstairs, and it takes me a long time to come up. We’ve just opened and my help is unpacking downstairs.”

Therese stared at him. He looked like he came out of one of her father’s texts on Eastern religions. Adorned in a long earth-brown robe, he gazed at her with gentle eyes.

He looked like a monk.

“Do you want to buy that cake?” the man asked.

Therese nodded, silently.

“Take it,” the man said, “take it. It’s yours. You waited a long time for me.  And it’s your first time in the store. Enjoy.  Just be sure and come back.”

“Merci, monsieur,” said Therese, “but I have a friend here, and he wants something too.” The man didn’t scare her, but he certainly unsettled her.

All of a sudden, she heard more footsteps from below.

A few seconds later, a younger Chinese monk appeared, and spoke. “Sorry about the delay. I’ll help you. What would you like?”

He was obviously French.

Therese led them to the green counter with scrumptious sweets. Josh, to her surprise, was still having trouble deciding. “The thing is, Therese,” he said, staring at a jar of white-chocolate-and-walnut cookies, labeled, Pearls of World Wisdom Series 1: White-Chocolate Walnut. “I want them all.”

“Can’t buy you all of them Josh!” she said, “Just choose.  Any one you want. I have to get home soon, my mom’s expecting me.”

“You’re an honorable girl,” said the first monk, “It is good of you to buy your friend a treat and to obey your mother. I’m pleased.”

Somehow Therese didn’t feel reassured by his seeming kindness. “I’ll also get the orange-and-white-chocolate-walnutwhip-cake in the shape of a dove for my mom,” she said.  The label, Cake to Make Strangers Friends, seemed too kooky to actually say.

Josh added, “I’ll have the triple-chocolate fudge star with gold sprinkles on top.” He didn’t want to say the real name either, Fudge of Heavenly Love Cookie.

One of the monks quickly removed the cakes from the trays, and placed them in paper bags.  “Come again!” said all three of the monks as the kids started to leave.

“Merci, Monsieurs,” Therese and Josh said in unison, as Therese placed her hand on the doorknob.

But then Josh exclaimed, “The book! The author’s name. You were going to ask, remember?”

Therese swallowed some of her Blossoming Petals of Joy cake and said, “Oh, yeah, glad you remembered.” She took Palace out of her backpack, and showed it to the young monk. “Do you know what this says? I just bought it and want to know what it says. We think it’s the author’s name. What does it say?”

But the young monk shrugged his shoulders. “My Chinese isn’t all that good. I can speak, but don’t read it. Let me ask my esteemed colleague.”

He showed it to the elder monk.

To her complete surprise, the elder monk turned to Therese, and gently, so very gently, said, “What a fine book you have in your possession. I am so happy to see a young girl read this.”

“Why?” asked Therese curiously.

The monk shrugged his shoulders, smiled. “It’s a very wholesome book,” he said, gazing at her deeply. “The author’s name is Hsuan Tsang.”

“Can you spell it for us?” asked Josh.

The monk did so.

“Merci monsieur,” said Therese. Josh nodded and smiled.  They both left the store, happily munching their treats.

“Doesn’t it freak you out that he knows about the book?” asked Therese.

Josh bit into his triple-chocolate fudge star.  “Yeah, but well, he doesn’t know who we are. Mon Dieu,” he said, “I haven’t been this happy in…I don’t know how long. Merci Therese.”

Therese felt her heart soar. He was finally happy about something other than his skulls.

She bit into hers. “Mine’s amazing too,” she said.  “Those men must have a secret recipe.  Did you find them creepy, Josh?”

Her friend shook his head. “Not really. Just weird, wearing strange clothes. But I’m used to weird. I’ve lived in Chicago and New York, remember?”

What all has he seen in Chicago and New York that he keeps saying that, thought Therese.  So she asked him, “Why do you keep saying that? What have you seen in Chicago and New York?”

But Josh was too interested in his cake to speak anymore.  “Stuff,” he said, casually, “stuff. Maybe I’ll tell you one day.” Golden sprinkles shone on his fingers like gems.

Stomachs satisfied, they parted ways at the Métro.  “I better get home Josh,” said Therese, “I have homework to do. But I’ll try to open the next page in the book and text you when I do.”

“Sounds good.”

As Therese waited for her train on the platform, she thought about Jacques, whom she’d met there 24 hours ago. After she found him, she picked him up, ran back up to the street, and raced up the Boulevard Raspail to find Lucie.

It was relatively easy to find her; Lucie, after all, couldn’t run like she could.

Therese would never forget the look on Lucie’s face when she returned her dog to her. Like the old lady had been given the gift of herself.

She’d kissed Therese four (or six) times on the cheeks, she was so thrilled. And she gave Therese her card; they’d keep in touch.

Therese almost shed a tear herself, now, on the platform; she was so happy to have been able to help someone else find their dog.

As the train arrived, and the doors parted, emptying its cargo of sullen commuters,

Therese wondered—

How strange, that Lucie had just received a package from a friend that day who shared the same last name as she did…

And…

Why had Jacques been soaking wet?

It’s as if he fell into the Seine, she thought, as she grasped a steel pole, the doors closed, and the subway car sped off.

-------

“It gave me such pleasure to meet Monsieur Pearson, but it gives me double the pleasure to meet his handsome son,” a Monsieur Jean Martin said gallantly, while shaking Josh’s hand.

After finishing his triple-fudge cookie dusted with gold, Josh had come home, and to his surprise had not just found Madame de Savoie the taciturn cook (he’d never heard her say anything more than Bonjour or Au Revoir) and his dad home, but a young Syrian boy, a young Syrian girl, and an older, very elegantly-dressed Frenchman.

Josh hadn’t yet met the Syrian kids; Monsieur Martin dominated the conversation. He wasn’t very tall, yet not what you’d call short; and not very old nor young, and not handsome nor ugly. You’d pass him on the street without giving him a second look. He was dressed in a fine black suit, to match his dark hair. His appearance was as polished as his shoes.

“Enchanté, Monsieur,” Jean said politely, even though he wasn’t enchanted at all. Something about this man disturbed him immediately, although he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Monsieur Martin was sitting in a plush silver armchair; Mr. Pearson was still standing, after having introduced Josh to his colleague. The Syrian kids were sitting on cobalt-blue cushioned, straight-backed antique chairs, drinking cups of hot chocolate. Both looked bewildered; the hot chocolate gave them anchor in this room of utter unfamiliarity.

Mr. Pearson sat down. “Have a seat, son,” he said. “Long day at school?” he inquired, smiling.

Josh shook his head, thinking of the animal skulls from the previous day.  Somehow, the relics of these creatures that lived upon the earth wildly, free of all pretense, relaxed him. “It was ok,” he said.

Mr. Pearson nodded, still smiling.  He gestured towards the Middle Eastern kids. “This is Amar,” his dad said, “from Syria. And this is Sarina. Go on and say hello.”

Josh bristled inside. He didn’t need to be told to say hello! He walked over to the young boy and shook his hand. The boy was probably Josh’s age—twelve or so---but was smaller and skinnier than Josh. He had fine black hair, milky-coffee-colored skin, and smooth black eyes. Josh expected the boy’s grip to be weak but it felt surprisingly strong.

“Hello,” said the boy quietly, in English.

Josh was relieved that he spoke English. He didn’t feel energized enough at the moment to speak French.

He shook the girl’s hand as well but she didn’t say anything. She stared at Josh from aquamarine eyes set in cinnamon-tinted skin, flush with patches of honey here and there. She’d covered her hair in a sky-blue headscarf. She looks like a mermaid, thought Josh.

He gave her a little smile to relax her, but she didn’t smile back.

Monsieur Martin spoke warmly, with the utmost refinement.  “Amar speaks very good English. His grandfather was the doorman at the Hilton Hotel in Damascus. He met many famous people from all over the world. And Amar learned English from him. Sarina’s English is not so good. But she will learn. But it is hard in Syria. Now, unfortunately, life has changed dramatically for people there. These children’s parents are in Greece awaiting their chance to come to France; I am doing my best to reunite them. “

Josh nodded. He’d seen stories on his phone, of incessant civil war, nerve gas attacks, unbelievable, unthinkable, unimaginable, brutality by terrorist groups that would make any American horror movie a fairy-tale in comparison. He didn’t know what to say, however. What do you say to a child your age who’s grown up in a war zone?

Josh’s dad picked up the tale, “Monsieur Martin here runs Benediction, a nonprofit organization that helps bring child refugees to France to rehabilitate them. They’re then reunited with their families, many of whom are waiting in Hungary or Greece to seek asylum in France.”

Josh remained silent. He had no idea what to say in this conversation stemming from a terrifying world which adults had created and in which both adults and children were suffering.

But I still don’t like Monsieur Martin, he thought. Why not?

Mr. Pearson’s phone rang. He looked at it, said, “Excuse me,” and left the room.

Josh managed to smile to Amar. To Sarina once more.  To Monsieur Martin. And sat down.

Madame de Savoie, whom Josh always thought looked like she could’ve been a snooty fashion model in her youth—she was in her sixties but easily looked twenty years younger-- brought them all hot chocolates. Amar and Sarina gladly took second cups.

More chocolate, thought Josh. Perfect. I don’t know what I’m doing here. At least I have chocolate. And this is incredibly delicious chocolate. Chocolate after my triple-fudge chocolate cookie. What a treat on a weird day in a really weird world. It was odd—he didn’t know in his own thoughts if he was being cynical or was genuinely relieved.

Mr. Pearson returned to the room, with a big smile on his face. Josh knew that smile. Dad’s struck a deal, he thought.

“You look very happy, Monsieur Pearson,” proclaimed Monsieur Martin, smiling himself.

“I am, I am,” Josh’s dad replied. But he didn’t elaborate. “So, are all getting to know one another here?”

He looked at Josh. Josh nodded, and tried to smile.

“Good,” said Mr. Pearson. He has no idea how uncomfortable I am, thought Josh.

His dad continued, “Why not take Amar and Sarina for a walk in this neighborhood? Just down to the Seine and back?”

That was the last thing in the world Josh wanted to do. He hated being with people he hardly knew.

But how could he say no with two adults wanting him to say yes?

So he said “Sure, I will. Come on.”

As the kids got up to follow Josh, Mr. Pearson blithely inquired, out of the blue, “Oh, son, the other day, you noticed the drawing of a palace and the number 7 in that French history book. You said you’d heard of it from a friend of yours. Who was that? How did he—or she—hear of it?”

Josh froze. Every instinct in him warned him against telling his father and Monsieur Martin the truth. He’s asking me about Palace like an afterthought but he’s really after something.

He turned, controlling the quiver in his throat, and his pupils that he knew must be bursting from his face, and responded, firmly, yet casually, “Just a kid in school. I have no idea how they heard of it.  Seemed such a cool place, a blue palace with 7 floors, if such a thing really did exist.”

Mr. Pearson nodded. He seemed to believe his son.

Josh was relieved, but then suddenly thought, Is he bluffing?  He is CEO. He knows how to bluff.

“Enjoy yourselves, children,” said Monsieur Martin with a wave of the hand, as they all left the apartment.

I don’t like him, thought Josh once more.

Inside the elevator, both children both simply stared at the elevator doors.

They must be shocked out of his mind at all this luxury, thought Josh, coming from a war zone.

Neither Amar nor Sarina said one word.

Finally, the doors opened.   The kids left the lift in silence.

I have no idea what to say, thought Josh. They seem like nice kids but we have nothing in common.

He felt a burst of anger at his dad for making him take Amar and Sarina out for a walk. He simply bristled at the idea that his dad thought he didn’t have any friends, even though that was mostly true (aside from Therese, of course, and Jason back in the US).

They started walking down the Avenue George V, towards the Seine, passing shops carrying clothes for the rich, the elegant, and all those who placed their sole, whole truth in appearance.

None of us belong here, thought Josh, even though he was dressed in first-class jeans and a blue t-shirt. Amar was in secondhand jeans and a white shirt. Sarina wore a long black skirt, blue blouse and thick black sweater. Her long black curly hair was tied in the blue headscarf which looked like a swatch of the sky.

Finally, just to say something, Josh spoke up. “I was looking up Damascus online,” he said, “It’s incredibly old. It’s been continuously inhabited for something like 11,000 years.”

Amar said nothing.  Sarina said nothing. Josh stared at both childrens’ almond-toned hands, fine fingers scarred with cuts. Three torn fingernails between them, as far as he could see.  He couldn’t imagine growing up in a war. What all had these kids seen?

“So your family is in Greece, or Hungary?”

Amar shook his head, and finally spoke. “I think so,” he said in proper, albeit heavily accented English. “I lost contact with them. When soldiers came to our village I pretended I was dead because I didn’t know what else to do. So many dead. And then I got separated from my family.  So many missing. I think they are in Hungary now. That’s what Monsieur Martin says. He will reunite us with them.”

Josh felt ashamed of every problem he’d ever thought he’d had. They were nothing compared to what this boy had gone through. All of a sudden, he wished for his mom---his old mom, the mom who would’ve fought for the rights for this boy, who would’ve searched without ceasing for his family…

Sarina still said nothing. She just seemed to stare ahead at the Seine.

“I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through,” he said, as they passed an Hermès store. Two slim women in fresh green and black skirt-suits walked out. They looked like trees adorned with new leaves.

Amar said nothing.

Sarina suddenly said, “We can’t imagine anything else. This is our life.” She said it without a trace of pity, in the most matter-of-fact tone possible.  Being in Paris must feel like a dream to her, Josh thought.

All of a sudden, even though he hardly knew this kids, Josh felt like divulging a little bit of his secret to them, to show that he could share their suffering, even if it was just an iota of it.

“You know,” he said, looking straight ahead at the evening traffic, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but…well I’m from Chicago. And, I was shot as a kid.”

Amar stared ahead of him blankly. He didn’t respond. Neither did Sarina.

Josh felt the kids’ silence said far more than any words could have. And what did it say?

This is the way of the world. Kids get shot. Die. Lose families. This is the way of the world.

“Who shot you?” Amar finally asked, dully.

Josh felt his stomach sink. He’d never gone into detail about this to anyone (except Jason) in his whole life.

And he found he couldn’t, not just yet. He hated lying to Amar though. So he just said, “I don’t know, it just happened,” which was the truth.

Amar didn’t reply.

They passed Armani. A Japanese couple left the store, shopping bags filled.

“Can I ask you both a question?” asked Josh suddenly.

Amar nodded. Sarina still stared ahead at the Seine, as if she were staring at an endless, expansive, ocean.

“This Monsieur Martin, does he actually help you in any way?”

Amar stopped walking.  He turned, and looked into Josh’s eyes. Sarina stopped, as well, but stared only into the river’s liquid light.

Josh couldn’t quite decipher the look. Amar’s eyes were so…detached from the world. They seemed to say…. what? Josh had no idea.

He had thick eyebrows. A round chin. Josh’s mom would’ve found him adorable.

Finally, Amar responded. “I just do what he says,” he said, “I just do what he says. That’s what we all do. And he promises us we’ll be reunited with our families.”

All? “Are there others?” asked Josh, intrigued.

Amar nodded. “Yes. Other girls and boys.  I don’t know their names. We work for him.”

Work for him? Josh’s heart started pounding. All he wanted to do was get online and start researching…

“He gives our families money. So we do it.” He paused, added, “He says he gives our families money. So we work for him.”

They stopped by a café shaded by a brilliant red-and-gold awning glittering in late-afternoon sunlight. Josh, Amar, and Sarina sat down just inside the window--it was a little chilly, this March afternoon-- and each had two scoops of chocolate-and-salted caramel-ice-cream. Amar and Sarina gobbled it down, they were so hungry. But they didn’t say, “Man that was awesome,” like an American kid would. They still had that detached stare, even with chocolate dripping down their chins.

They’ve both lost their hearts, thought Josh, they’ve both lost their hearts. I get that.

“So what does Monsieur Martin want you to do?” asked Josh, after they had finished.

“Everything. Whatever he asks, we do,” Amar said mechanically.

Sarina just said one word. “Everything.”

Josh sighed. While he knew something was up, he didn’t know what, and he didn’t know how to help Amar. But how was his dad involved in this? His dad certainly wouldn’t harm kids, would he?

Should he ask his dad?

“It’s getting late,” said Josh, putting off the decision until later, gazing at the twilight brushed in gold-washed- ink-blue, “Let’s go.” He left 20 Euros on the table, in a small plate, and stood up. Amar got up, and said quietly, “Thank you.” Sarina nodded, in thanks.

The daughter and son of war followed the son-of-a-CEO home along the Avenue George V.

The luxury-clothing stores seemed never to close.

From a hundred meters away, the Seine, sparkling and glamorous in evening sunlight, watched the children leave.

And unnoticeably, shed tears.

--

That night, Josh brushed his teeth, refusing to think or feel anything.

He had only thing on his mind.

After Monsieur Martin and the kids left, he left to go to bed, when his dad suddenly stopped him, and said, “Son, after school tomorrow, I want you to come to a meeting with me.”

“A meeting?” asked Josh.

Mr. Pearson nodded, put his hand on his son’s left shoulder. “I am going to be meeting with a brilliant French scientist---one who studies the properties of the universe. We are going to meet in the Marie Curie museum---you know Madame Curie who discovered radioactivity, who won two Nobel prizes—“

“Yeah dad,” Josh said impatiently, “Of course.”

“Well, I will meet him and his wife, and I thought you’d be interested. You can learn some of the latest theories of science, see the museum, and get a feel of what your dad does in the world.”

Josh had no idea if he wanted to go or not; his whole being felt exhausted by all he had experienced in the past few days—the mysterious book, Chinese monks, the child war refugees…but of course, he couldn’t say no to this command of his dad. His dad hadn’t asked him if he wanted to go after all, his dad wanted him to go.

What would his dad do to him if he refused? 

“Sounds good Dad,” he said, his mind confused, “I’m going to go to bed now. Good Night.”

“Night Son.”

He sat down in front of his laptop.

And started googling Jean Martin.