"Well, children, what do you want to do today, on your first full day here in L.A.?" Ted Bennett looked at his niece and nephew, Todd and Allison Bennett, who lived in Oklahoma City, but were spending the summer with their aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. He, his wife Alice, and the children were eating breakfast in the dining room.
The children glanced at each other as they laid down their spoons. Ten-year-old Todd brushed back his light-brown bangs and swallowed his Cheerios. For a moment, he glanced down at his light-blue T-shirt and gray jeans.
"Welló"óTodd paused to scratch his noseó"I want to go to Disneyland."
"Me, too!" Allison wriggled in her chair and ran her fingers through her hair. At nine years of age, she had blue eyes and fine, straight, golden hair that hung below her shoulders. She wore a blue plaid jumper and underneath, a pink T-shirt. Dimples appeared on her cheeks as she grinned. "And I want to go to Hollywood! Meet some movie stars!"
Todd grinned back. "And then I want to go to the beach. Go swimming!" Allison nodded assent.
Uncle Ted chuckled as he wiped his lips with his napkin. He smiled at the children. "We will go to all those places and more, while youíre here. I promise you that. We will go to Disneyland first, tomorrow. Today, I have some other place in mind."
Todd felt a knot in his stomach. He had a feeling that this "other place" would be a place he would not like to visit at all.
"Children, I thought weíd go and tour an old mission church that was founded back in the late 1700s, when California belonged to Spain," Uncle Ted said. "Itís been rebuilt and restored by the California Historical Society, and it looks just the way it did, then."
Todd and Allison groaned. "I donít want to see an old church!" Allison wailed. "I want to go to Hollywood."
"I donít want to go to some old place!" Todd groaned. "I want to go to Disneyland. History bores me! Please, Uncle Ted! I donít like those kinds of places!"
"I know," Uncle Ted muttered. He did know, all too well, that Todd and Allison had no interest in history. They didnít like to read about the past; they didnít like to visit historical sites; and they sure didnít want to study it in school!
Todd could care less about visiting a stupid old church. Who cared about such places? The mere thought of visiting some moldy old Spanish mission dismayed Todd. He saw the same dismay on Allisonís face.
"Please, please, Uncle Ted," Todd begged, "canít we just skip that stuff? It may be fun for you, but itís not for me. I mean, who cares about the past? Not me. Not Allison, either!"
Uncle Ted frowned and leaned forward, folding his arms on the table. This was a sign that he was about to give the children a lecture. Uncle Ted taught history at the University of California. He and Aunt Alice had moved to California from Oklahoma a year before. They had purchased the old Spanish-style house when they first moved to Los Angeles.
Todd looked around the dining room to escape the determined look on his uncleís face. Except for the furnishings, it resembled an old Spanish-style dining room, according to his uncle. It stood directly across the spacious entry from the front door. It had dull-yellow walls. The doorless entrance consisted of straight sides and, at the top, a half-circle; "a Moorish arch," his aunt and uncle called it. Above the dining table, a ceiling fan whirred.
Uncle Ted cleared his throat. Todd looked back at him.
"Children," Uncle Ted said quietly, "I want you to listen to me carefully. We will go to all the places you requested, just as I promised, but today, we will go where I choose. And I choose the mission." The children fidgeted and exchanged glum looks. "You should be interested in the past," Uncle Ted went on. "A long time ago, California belonged to the Indians. Then it belonged to Spain, and then Mexico. It didnít belong to the United States until 1848, so it has a rich Indian and Hispanic heritage. We have much to learn from Hispanicsóthey gave California so much."
Allison sighed. Sitting slumped, she toyed with her cereal with one hand and twisted her imitation pearl necklace with the other.
"Do you kids know why your Aunt Alice and I bought this house?" Uncle Ted asked. Todd glanced at Allison and shrugged. "This house is as old as the mission church weíre going to visit."
Todd stared at him. "But it looks so new!"
"It isónow," Uncle Ted agreed. "Thatís because this house has been rebuilt and restored, too. It used to belong to an old man named John de la Vega, whose ancestors came from Spain to settle in Los Angeles. Thatís why it has so many old-style Spanish touches."
"When did Mr. de la Vegaís ancestors come?" Allison scratched her neck.
"When Los Angeles was first founded, back in the late 1700s. It was just a small village, back then."
Todd knitted his brows. How could such a big city as Los Angeles ever have been a small village?!
"I see from your faces that you find that hard to believe." Uncle Ted chuckled. "But itís true. This house was called a hacienda, and it was part of a huge ranch. The house has been in the de la Vega family ever sinceóuntil last year. Thatís when Mr. de la Vega sold it to us."
Uncle Ted paused to sip his coffee. His plastic cup clicked in the saucer. "Before he did, he had the house completely rebuilt and completely restored, so that someone would want to buy it. It looks just as it did when it was built the first timeóexcept, of course, itís got electricity, plumbing, and modern furnishings, now. Itís even got secret passages, Mr. de la Vega told me, though I donít know where they are." Uncle Ted winked. "Perhaps you children will discover them for Alice and me."
As the children laughed, in spite of themselves, the phone rang. "Iíll get it." Aunt Alice rose and hurried to the living room. A moment later, she called, "Ted, itís for you. Itís Edna."
Uncle Ted strode out of the dining room. He spoke so low Todd could not hear what he was saying. Neither could Allison, he saw, who sat staring at the dining table and biting her fingernails. Todd rubbed his finger against the tableís smooth, cool surface.
Five minutes later, Uncle Ted returned to the dining room. "Children, thereís been an emergency." He picked up the bowl. "A friend of ours needs help, and your aunt and I are going to help him."
"Weíll have to wait till after lunch for our sightseeing expedition," Aunt Alice added. "Before we go to the mission, weíll eat lunch at a restaurant. Wash the dishes, please, and have your shoes on when we return. Weíll be leaving as soon as we get back."
"Yes, Aunt Alice." Allison stood up and grasped her bowl.
After their aunt and uncle had left, the children washed the dishes, then put on their shoes and socks. They trotted to the family room to play.
Todd paused to look carefully at the room, wondering if it really looked the same as it had in the late 1700s. To be sure, it had the same dull-yellow walls and a doorless, Moorish arch entrance. The window on the front wall was small and had dark-brown wooden shutters. A huge, black, floor-to-ceiling bookcase was built into the opposite wall, and spanned it. On the wall facing the entry, a fireplace with a white mantle stood. Two small, white bookcases, one on each side of the fireplace, were built into that wall.
Still, it had modern furnishings and objects. A light-brown velvet couch stood underneath the window. A dark-green wall-to-wall carpet spanned the floor. A TV set, VCR, and WebTV-Plus stood in the corner between the black bookcase and the fireplace; a stereo system, complete with CD player, cassette recorder, and AM-FM radio, stood in the other corner. A ceiling fan whirred above; the air it stirred caressed Toddís face. His uncleís laptop computer, a desktop calendar, and a copy of the Los Angeles Times lay on a cedar coffee table in front of the couch. Books, videos, audiocassettes, compact discs, floppy computer disks, and CD-ROMs lay in orderly rows on the shelves of the bookcases.
Todd paused to read the date on the desktop calendar. "June 15, 1998," he read aloud, then shrugged.
"Why does Uncle Ted want to see such a stupid old place?" Allison complained, as Todd, who felt restless, did three cartwheels in the spacious entry.
Todd shrugged. "I guess itís because heís a history professor. He loves that stuff." Allison scowled as she strapped on her Mickey Mouse watch. Todd squatted on the floor before the coffee table and opened his uncleís laptop computer. "At least, we donít have to go till after lunch. And thank goodness!"
For a while, the children played with the computer, surfing the Internet. When they grew tired of America Online, Todd turned on the TV set. He played Nintendo while Allison read a book.
"Uh, what time is it?" Todd asked, at last.
A pause. "Itís eight fifty-eight."
"Oh! Time for Batman!" Todd turned off the Nintendo and turned the TV set to Channel 8. Two minutes later, the old 1960s series, Batman, came on.
"Batman!" Todd sang with the theme song. "Batman! Batman, Batman! Batman, Batman, Batman!" He rocked back and forth on his heels as he sang.
Half an hour passed, then another ten minutes, while Todd watched Batman and Robin battle the evil Riddler. Todd had long been a fan of Batman. He owned several Batman and Robin comic books, and he watched the reruns every day, back home. He longed to watch the recent movie versions on home video one day. His parents refused to get them for him, because they said the movies were not suitable for children.
"Hey, Todd!" Allison cried. "I want to show you something!"
Todd groaned. "Not now, Allison! Iím watching Batman!"
"But, Todd, itís important! Youíve got to see it!"
The commercial came on. Todd scrambled to his feet and trudged toward the fireplace. "This had better be important." He scowled at his little sister.
"It is!" Allison grinned. "Look!" She pointed at the fireplace, then pressed her thumb against the mantle above.
A secret door, hidden in the back of the fireplace, swung open. Todd gasped. "Itísóitís a secret passage! Just like Uncle Ted said!"
Todd felt excited. A secret door right in his aunt and uncleís house! Where did it lead?
He glanced back at the TV set, torn with indecision. He wanted to explore the secret passage, but he didnít want to miss Batman. For a moment, he hesitated.
"Uh, Allisonó" Todd paused and scratched his head. "Uh, letís explore it after Batmanís over, OK?"
Allison shrugged. "I donít care."
The program came back on; Todd returned to the TV and sat down on the floor. Allison leaned back on the couch to watch the show with her brother. Fifteen minutes later, the show ended. Todd turned the TV set off, then raced back to the fireplace. He pressed the hidden lever, and the door swung open. The children stepped carefully through the entrance, one after the other.
The hidden door swung shut behind them. Thick darkness blanketed the children. The air smelled dank and stale, and felt crisp.
"Come on," Todd whispered. "Letís see where it goes."
"Itóitís dark in here!" Allison whimpered. "It smells bad. Iím scared."
"Aw, the dark canít hurt you," Todd told her, in a tone of 10-year-old superiority. "The smell wonít kill you, either. Iím here; Iíll take care of you. Come on!"
Todd laid his hand on the wall to feel his way. It was made of bricks which felt smoother to his hand than did ordinary bricks, and cold. He and Allison carefully felt their way down a short hall, till they came to another entrance to their right. Their sneakers clumped on the floor.
The children carefully felt their way down two steps, then crept toward the left through a room of some kind. They crept down some more steps, then soon found themselves in a tunnel.
"Uh, we need a flashlight," Todd said, at last. "Letís go back and get our backpacks and flashlights. Then weíll come back here and see where it goes."
The children groped their way through the darkness back to the secret entrance. Suddenly, Todd froze and gasped.
"Allison! We donít know how to get out!"
Allison screamed. "Weíre trapped! Weíre trapped! Weíre stuck in here; we canít get out!"
Todd shushed her. "Weíll get out, I promise. We just got to find a lever, is all. Maybe itís on the door!"
The children pounded on the secret door, trying to find the secret latch. For several minutes, their efforts failed. Allison started to cry.
Suddenly, the door swung open!
"Hey! Allison, did you do that?" Todd grabbed the door before it could shut again.
"What do you think, dummy? Open this door!"
"All I did was put my hand on this thing!"
Todd stared at the object Allison was pointing at. A metal candleholder was fastened to the wall. After Allison pressed her hand on it, Todd ran his fingers along the candleholder. It felt cold and smooth.
Todd let go of the door, and it swung shut. Thick darkness enveloped the children again. "Hey, do that again!" he urged.
A second later, the door swung open once more. Allison grinned. "I found the button, Todd! I found the button!"
Todd whooped. "You sure did! Now we know how to get out! Come on, letís go get our stuff and meet back here! Weíll see where that secret tunnel goes!" He paused. "Uh, donít forget your jacket, OK? Youíre going to need it."
The children rushed to their guestrooms in the back of the rectangle-shaped house. Todd hurried into his bedroom, snatched his backpack off the floor, and opened it. He rummaged through the backpackís contents in search of his flashlight.
Todd and Allison had packed their toys in their backpacks before leaving Oklahoma City. They had neglected to unpack them when they arrived in Los Angeles the evening before, so the backpacks were full of their possessions. Toddís navy-blue backpack contained his flashlight, his Walkman cassette recorder, three miniature audiocassettes, a four-blade pocketknife, a jump rope, a walkie-talkie, and three Batman and Robin comic books.
He removed his flashlight and zipped his backpack shut. After putting on his jacket, Todd slipped the backpack onto his back and hurried into the hall. He found Allison waiting outside his room, wearing her jacket.
"You have everything?" he asked his sister. "Got your flashlight?"
"Let me see."
Allison set her pink backpack on the floor and zipped it open. On the front, there was a picture of Barbie. Todd knelt to look inside. It contained a flashlight, three plastic barrettes, a miniature CD player, several compact discs, a doll, a jump-rope, a walkie-talkie, and a paperback book, The Babysittersí Club #1: Kristyís Great Idea.
Allison removed her flashlight, zipped her backpack closed, and slipped her arms through its handles. She switched her flashlight on and off; Todd did the same with his. "Check."
Todd nodded. "Letís go!"
The children scuttled back to the secret passage, switching their flashlights on before Allison pressed her thumb on the secret panel. "What time is it, now?" Todd asked.
Allison glanced at her watch. "Itís ten-thirty."
The children stepped inside the secret passage and shined their flashlights ahead of them. The walls of the hall were made of brick. They saw the entrance to their right, just a little way ahead of them. They returned to the secret room they had entered earlier, and swung their flashlights in an arc.
As the beams from the childrenís flashlights provided contrasts to the dark background, they looked around. The room consisted of yellowish-gray stone walls and a stone floor. Bricks like the ones lining the secret hall formed Moorish arches in each wall. Cobwebs stretched across the entrance, and from the Moorish arches to the walls. There was no furniture. Nothing but cobwebs and a few metal candleholders attached to each wall.
Beyond the brick room was the tunnel the children had sensed more than seen. Two stone steps led down into it. The walls consisted of vertical grayish-brown stone peaks and valleys. A long metal spout extended from the wall on the left of the small tunnel, directly above what appeared to be a manger made of stone. An iron candleholder was attached to the wall.
"This cave sure is spooky," Todd whispered.
"Come on, Todd, letís go back," Allison urged. "Iím cold!"
Todd frowned at her and shook his head. "No! I want to see where this tunnel goes."
"But what if we get stuck again?" Allisonís voice shook with fear. She grabbed her brotherís arm.
"We wonít. I promise you." Todd shook off her hand impatiently.
The children minced down the tunnel, cautiously and fearfully. Todd stared straight ahead, wondering where it led. Despite his efforts not to, he shivered with cold; Allison hugged her chest. At last, they saw a stone wall just ahead of them, and a long, wooden lever on the floor directly in front of their feet.
"Maybeó" Todd stomped his foot on the lever. The stone wall swung open. Before Allison had a chance to protest, Todd grabbed her arm and raced outside, pulling his sister along.
Trees and bushes stood directly in front of the secret entrance, blocking the childrenís vision, and bordered the entrance as well. The children stepped past the curtain of tree branches to get a better look at their surroundings.
A canyon surrounded them, in front and to the right. The ground consisted mostly of bare dirt. A few boulders dotted the ground here and there; in places, white stone jutted out of the dirt. The entrance to the tunnel itself was bordered with solid, jagged rock pockmarked with hollows, and with huge, grayish-brown boulders.
A wall of earth, taller than a man, rose upward fifty feet ahead of them. White boulders with patches of brown jutted out of the canyon wall. A wire fence bordered the top of the wall; beyond the fence, orange trees, palm trees, and houses stood, and telephone poles stood at fixed intervals, the wire looping their tops.
To the left of the children, the ground was hilly. Houses and fenced-in yards stood in the distance. Near the horizon, a blanket of smog covered the city; the sky overhead looked strangely brassy. Up close, the trees, houses, and poles looked hazy.
"Californiaís neat," Todd said. "Look at those orange trees and palm trees! Arenít they cool?"
"They sure are. Yeah, itís neat." Allison made a face. "Except for the smog. I hate it!"
Todd screwed his nose at the sight. "Me, too." He grinned at his sister. "But the rest of itís neat. Come on, Allison! Letís explore this canyon before Uncle Ted and Aunt Alice get back."
"Letís take off our jackets, first." Allison removed her left arm from underneath her backpack strap. "Iím hot." The children removed their jackets and dumped them on one of the boulders that bordered the secret entrance.
Todd strode to the right of the entrance, where the edge of the canyon wall sharply turned. He and Allison walked down the canyon for some time. They saw more houses above the surface of the canyon wall.
"Uh, what time is it?" Todd finally asked.
Allison glanced down at her Mickey Mouse watch. "Itís ten forty-five."
Todd nodded. "Itís been fifteen minutes, now, since we came back to that secret passage."
Todd suddenly froze and stared at the canyon wall to his left. A cave was in this wall! As Todd gaped at it, a grin spread across his face. Iíve just got to see whatís in it! He thought.
"No, Todd!" Allison grabbed his arm and shook it. "If weíre not back at the house when Aunt Alice and Uncle Ted return, weíre going to be in big trouble! Letís go back!"
Todd shook off her hand impatiently. "We will, soon. I want to see this cave, first. Letís see where it goes, OK? We wonít go far."
The children tiptoed through the narrow entrance and walked forward several feet. Several stalactites hung from the ceiling, and ledges spanned the walls.
"Cool!" Todd swung his flashlight on the glowworms dotting the ceiling several feet ahead. "Check that out, Allison!"
Allison giggled and twisted her necklace. "They look like just stars!"
Suddenly, the cave floor shook so violently it knocked the children off their feet. A blinding flash of light flooded the cave. Todd squeezed his eyes shut to avoid the glare.
"Todd!" Allison screamed. "Help me!"
Todd rolled on his side, grabbed Allison, and clutched her. For a moment, the children clung to each other in terror. A moment later, the earthquake and the blinding light ceased.
Todd let go of Allison and lay on his back, panting. He felt sick at his stomach, and the stalactites seemed to whirl above him. Spots danced before his eyes. Allison whimpered.
"I want to go home!" she said. "I donít feel like exploring, anymore."
Todd did not answer. For a few minutes, he lay trembling as the dizziness and nausea eased and the black spots dissipated. Finally, he grabbed the flashlights, which the earthquake had knocked out of their hands, and rose to his feet. For a moment, he leaned against the cave wall and tried to stop shaking. He didnít feel like exploring, now. All he wanted was to go back to the house.
Todd sighed and helped Allison to her feet. "Ohh, OK. I donít feel like exploring, either. Aunt Alice and Uncle Ted will be home any minute. Weíll go back through the secret passage." He handed Allison her flashlight.
The children left the cave and returned to the secret entrance. Suddenly, Todd froze and moaned. "Our jackets are gone!" He pointed at the now-empty boulders bordering the secret entrance.
Allison scrooged her eyes shut. "Mom and Dad are going to kill us when they find out!" She took a deep breath. "You suppose someone stole them?"
Todd looked around. "I donít know," he said grimly. "Weíve got to find them." As he turned back toward the cave wall, he froze again.
"Allison! We donít know how to get back in!" he moaned. "We have to find the lever, first."
The children rubbed and pounded every inch of the stone wall they could reach, but found no lever. Their efforts to pry open the secret door failed. Todd felt frustrated. If they couldnít open the secret entrance, how would they get back inside?
Todd sighed. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and brushed his bangs back. "Come on. Weíll have to go the long way around." He shook his head. "If theyíre back, theyíre going to be real mad at us."
"I told youó"
"I know, I know. Iím sorry, Allison. I didnít mean to get you in this trouble."
"You think the church tour will be short?"
"I hope so!"
The children put their flashlights back in their backpacks, then slowly trudged down the canyon, till they reached the turnoff. Suddenly, Allison froze and pointed upward. "Where are the fences?"
Todd stopped and stared. The fences had disappeared! So had the houses and the telephone poles.
"The smog is gone, too!" Todd stared at the still-brassy sky.
"Whatówhatís happened to everything?" Allisonís hands trembled.
Todd gulped. "Maybe the earth opened up and swallowed them! Maybe the earthquake did it! Come on, letís climb out of the canyon and look for Uncle Tedís house! If itís gone, tooó"
He raced toward the canyon wall, with Allison in hot pursuit. They found a gently sloping ledge that rose from the floor of the canyon to the top, and climbed it. As the children reached the top of the canyon, they stopped to look around.
Los Angeles had disappeared!
Instead of the miles and miles of houses and businesses that had surrounded the area when they arrived, and the thick blanket of smog, all they could see was an empty desert. Grass covered the ground where they stood. As far as they could see, trees and boulders stood here and there; mounds of stone stuck out of the dirt in various spots.
With the smog gone, everything stood out in plain sight. Everywhere Todd looked, there were no buildings or people for miles around.
Todd and Allison stood stock-still, gaping at the bare, empty desert where a smog-filled city had stood only fifteen minutes before. They stared at each other, open-mouthed.
"An earthquake canít make a whole city disappear!" Allisonís voice shook. "Can it?"
Todd swallowed a lump in his throat. "I guess it could, if it was big enough. But the one we were in wasnít that big! Not big enough to swallow a whole city. And it sure canít swallow smog!"
"Whatíll we do?"
Todd paused to think. "I guess weíll just look for the house." He pointed east. "Itís that way, I think. Come on."
The children walked away from the canyon in what they hoped was the direction of their aunt and uncleís house. For fifteen minutes, they said nothing. Allison chewed her fingernails to the quick as they tramped.
"Uh, what time is it, now?" Todd finally asked.
Allison glanced at her watch. "Still ten forty-five."
"Let me see that!" Todd grabbed her arm and stared at the watch. "Your watch has stopped!" He sounded disgusted. "We donít have any way of knowing what time it is!" He sighed and shook his head. "Letís rest a minute. Iím tired." He slumped onto a boulder.
As the children rested on the boulder, Todd wiped the sweat off his face. Allison sighed and ran her fingers through her blonde hair. A few minutes later, Todd saw a cloud of dust rise from the distant horizon ahead. A few minutes after that, horses appeared on the horizon.
"Look!" Allison cried. "Thereís some men coming! Maybe theyíll help us!"
"Yeah!" Todd grinned in anticipation.
As the horses and their riders came closer, Todd saw that all but one of the riders were wearing some weird uniforms. All were dressed in blue, and were wearing tall black hats. Strips of cloth hung down their shoulders; swords dangled from their sides; and pistols stuck through their sashes. Todd guessed that the men were soldiers. The horsesí hooves raised a cloud of dust as they clop-clopped.
Why are they dressed so funny? Todd wondered. Iíve never seen a soldier dressed like that, before.
The one man who didnít have on a soldierís uniform was wearing a gray coat that hung down past his knees, a shiny green vest, and underneath the vest and coat, a white ruffled shirt and a black shiny bowtie. A sword like those the soldiers had dangled on his side. He sat tall and straight in the saddle.
The soldiers rode directly toward the children and pulled up alongside them. The man in the long gray coat glared at Todd and Allison for a long moment, then frowned at the chubby soldier who sat on a horse next to his. The man pulled his sword out of its scabbard and pointed it at the children. "Identify yourselves!" he ordered.