Inquiries

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 Before they moved to Mad Tom Farm, mail slots had been missing from Maya's life. They almost made up for the name of the place which scared her very much with its suggestion of angry gentlemen living in barns. Mother had told her about the gentlemen. She'd said it was a gentleman's estate, but Maya couldn't figure out how a state of gentle men could also be a farm full of mad guys named Tom. The farm was big but she was pretty sure states were bigger. All the same, they'd lived here since her fourth birthday, and that was in the summer, and she hadn't met anyone named Tom and no one seemed particularly cross, so she was feeling a little better about things during the day. Nighttime was another story. She had a niggling suspicion that the mad guys probably came out at night.

 She watched the boys drive off with their Dad, watched Kate drive off with water for the sheep, and heard Maurice bumping around in the place where he made piles of wood. She'd been in that place

once (even though she wasn't allowed past the long white fence); she didn't like it. It was dark with big, stringy cobwebs and it smelled like dirt. She slipped off the low branch, crunching dry leaves with her pretty, yellow boots. Mother had said the boots were too big and she had put them away for another year, but Maya said the boots were beautiful and got them out again. Then Mother said that you choose your battles and that meant that Maya could wear the boots and Mother would make lunch. 

Maya tiptoed across to the Carriage House door. She was on tiptoe, at least, inside the boots; the boots themselves rubbed flat against the drive making a worrisome scraping sound that belied her attempts at stealth. Nevertheless, she reached the door without detection and knelt reverently in front of the mail slot. Mail slots, she felt, were the repository of secrets. She knew they were for letters, of course. Every day after lunch the mail lady parked her white truck in the driveway and walked from house to house pushing letters through the slots. Maya had stood many times, in fact, inside her own front door and watched the letters pop through and land on the rug. But there was more to it than that, she was sure. When you poked open that thin, little door, you could see into places where you didn't belong, other rooms where people lived who were different from you. And you couldn't see the whole thing either, just a narrow slit like a picture in a frame that changed when you moved your eye.

She took a deep breath and pushed open the slot. A big, wet eye looked out from the other side. Maya froze. The eye gleamed. Maya screamed and fell backwards out of her boots. The mail slot slapped shut and Crunchy barked frantically from inside the door. Maya grabbed her boots and ran across the lawn not stopping to look back until she was safely behind the barn. Breathing hard, she pressed her back against the weathered wood and hugged her yellow boots tight against her pounding chest. This was a secret she didn't want to know. Did Mad Tom live in the Carriage House with Kate and the boys and their Dad, Felix, who liked to sing? It didn't seem likely but what else could she think? Maybe he hid in the basement and only came out when no one was home.

The barking stopped and Maya eased her grip on the yellow boots. Crunchy was a big dog and it sounded as if he had things under control. That angry Tom must not have known that Crunchy was in the house or he wouldn't have ventured out of hiding. She was safe for now, but the incident threw a shadowy pall of foreboding over further mail slot investigation. Were the secrets of mail slots worth the danger involved in extracting them? She wasn't sure. Up until now, secrets had been nice. Birthday presents and Easter eggs were secrets. So was the mouse with her nest of pink babies living behind the extra toilet paper under the bathroom sink. (That was a secret she didn't tell Mother.) But the secrets surrounding mail slots had been different from the start. To begin with, she was fairly certain that if she asked permission, her explorations would be forbidden. So she didn't ask, and a clandestine feeling clung to her inquiries. Then there were the slots themselves. Rimmed with fancy, black iron or smooth, shiny gold, each one opened into an out-of-bounds world that she hadn't been invited to look at. The slot at the Big House revealed an airy, empty foyer filled with light. The Stone House slot was full of sleeping shadows. (She looked in that one often because Kate's parents, who lived there, were away.) She'd never checked the Carriage House before. Now she knew that secrets weren't always well-behaved. She had crossed some boundary of understanding. She felt the weight of her years. Still, mail slots were useful and this was her first bad experience with one.

Miss Augusta's dog, Daisy, trotted past dragging a ratty, old blanket in her mouth. She dropped it in the sun in the middle of the drive, arranged it in a circular nest, then settled in for a morning nap, her dirty, pink sweater in a contemplative bunch around her. Maya took the gesture as an invitation and joined her on the blanket, carefully arranging the yellow boots side by side beside them. It was warm for February and the sun felt good. Maya picked a pile of sticky burrs off Daisy's sweater, then curled up next to her and promptly fell asleep.

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