Screwing Up Babylon Excerpt

Chapter One
“Are you ready yet, Kate?” I pounded on her bathroom door. We were supposed to leave last night to visit Miranda. But my mom and my sister Kate had insisted on waiting until UPS delivered the silk thermals they’d ordered for Miranda. Only L.L. Bean’s were good enough.
“Give me a second, Mark. I’m finishing my hair,” Kate said.
I opened the door and got a faceful of hairspray. “Kate!”
“What? Oh.” She stopped shellacking her hair. “Sorry.”
I blinked, but my eyelashes stuck together. I pried them apart.
She smoothed her black hair, which was in some kind of medieval beehive. “What do you think?”
“You look like...Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.”
Kate tried to nail me with hairspray, but I slammed the door in time.
My eyebrows felt crispy, so I headed to the kitchen to wash my face.
Granddad sat at the kitchen table, muttering and reading. Every day, he spent hours poring over photos. Pictures of clay tablets covered with wedge-shaped letters. The photos came from museums all over the world. FedEx stopped at our house so often I knew the driver’s name was Jeff.
I ran hot water and washed my face. “Granddad?”
He started, and a photo fell to the floor.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
He picked up the picture. “Lots of things are wrong. Children starve. Dictators go unpunished. Grandsons disturb their grandfathers’ work.”
“You’ve been studying that photo for weeks—I’m pretty sure that the triangle things aren’t going to change.”
Granddad held it out so I could see it.
I glanced at it. “The bottom corner of the tablet is gone.”
“Which is why I spend so much time trying to figure out what the missing words might have been.”
I touched my eyebrows. They were still sticky. “Are a lot of words missing?”
“Twenty words. Maybe more.”
“Oh. That’s too bad.” Staring at the picture seemed like a waste of time to me. But if translating the tablets made Granddad happy, I was good with it. Though I’d heard my mom whisper to my dad, “Robert, do you think he’s obsessing?” And my dad would whisper back, “He’s not a classic obsessive-compulsive, but I’ll keep my eye on him.” My dad was the head shrink at a local psych hospital, so that calmed my mom’s nerves. But anyone could tell Granddad wasn’t OCD. The glint in his eye was more disdainful intelligence than compulsive anxiety.
I took two glasses from the cupboard. “So your translations are a total guess.”
Granddad scowled at the glasses. “I told you not to time travel. You’re treating it like a joy ride.”
“You always say that time traveling isn’t safe, but you never say why.”
Why?” Granddad’s eyes went wild like some animal in a nature movie. But I couldn’t decide if he was the gazelle. Or the lion. “Listen to me, Mark. You’ve been attacked by the colors of time before—you should know just how dangerous they are.”
I shrugged. “I survived.”
“Maybe I should tell your parents about the colors.”
I swallowed. “I already did.”
Granddad snorted. “A lie would have been more honest than ‘The colors of time are unpredictable.’ Because calling the colors of time unpredictable is like calling a wild boar…a fat pig.”
“I made it through the colors twice.”
“Those times were easy.”
“You think it’s going to be more dangerous this time?” I asked.
Granddad glanced at the photo. “You could call it a gut instinct.”
“Or you could call it indigestion,” I said. Or psychological projection—a response to Granddad’s own suffering. That’s what Dad told me the other day after Granddad forbid Kate and me from traveling.
Dad might be right. Granddad did have a lot of nightmares. Sometimes his screams would wake me during the night. Still, I knew his worries weren’t imaginary. On the other hand, Dad’s psycho-babble gave me a reason to ignore Granddad’s warning. Besides, I had to go. I’d promised Miranda I’d visit during Spring Break.
Miranda. She was gorgeous—long, curly blond hair, blue eyes… I’d brave the colors over and over to see her.
I must’ve been smiling because Granddad said, “Forget about that girl. She’s safe where she is, and you’re safe here.”
“I’ll be careful, Granddad.”
“That won’t make a difference.” He narrowed his eyes. “What about Kate? She doesn’t know what she’s getting into.”
Granddad had a point there. “I’ll look out for her.”
“You don’t understand. It’s—”
Kate flounced in, her long green velvet skirt trailing after her. My mom followed behind, carrying Kate’s backpack.
Kate held up two bottles of nail polish. One was red and the other orange. “Mark, you know Miranda best. What do you think?”
“What do I think about what?” I shouldered my backpack, glad that Kate had interrupted my talk with Granddad.
“The nail polish, Dwarf.”
Even though I was over six foot, Kate still called me that.
She waved the bottles in front of my face. “Which one do you think Miranda will like?”
“You’re bringing her nail polish?” Why didn’t Kate understand that Miranda wasn’t a slumber-party-giggle-girl? She was Lady Miranda. And besides the title, she’d inherited a fully-functioning castle. “Miranda doesn’t give a rip about her nails. Do you have any idea what medieval people would say if one day she had orange fingernails? They’d think she was in league with the Devil.”
Kate sniffed. “I’m not stupid. I know Miranda can’t paint her fingernails, but every woman likes to be beautiful. Miranda can paint her toenails…red.” Kate ziplocked the red bottle and squished it into her overstuffed backpack.
“What else are you bringing, Kate?
“This and that.”
I pulled on my fedora—I’d gotten my hair cut short yesterday. Castles weren’t the epitome of cleanliness, and I didn’t want Miranda to see me with oily brown hair hanging in my eyes. “Please tell me you’re not bringing Miranda makeup.”
Kate jerked the zippers of her backpack together.
She arched an overly plucked eyebrow. “You told me not to tell you.”
“Miranda doesn’t need makeup.”
“I’m not bringing makeup. Just moisturizer, foundation with sunscreen, and cleanser. Do you know what kind of soap they used in those days?” Kate cringed. “It was made with lye.”
“Lye. Wow, that is dangerous,” I said, hoping the sarcasm wasn’t lost on her. It was.
“I’ve got the silk thermals too. And hand sanitizer, wool socks, flannel pajamas, Midol…”
My mom took a bottle from a cupboard. “Don’t forget the vitamins with extra iron.”
I shook my head. “Mom, you and Kate planned this?”
Mom handed the bottle to Kate. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to be a woman in the Middle Ages.”
I wondered what Granddad thought of all the crap Kate was bringing, but he was measuring out the ingredients for the time elixir into a bowl. Carefully, he crushed the rose hips with the back of a spoon. He added a pinch of gold dust and a quarter spoonful of rosemary, snapping each needle in half.
“Uh, Granddad, I can do that.”
“If you insist on passing through the colors of time, I’m making sure that the elixir’s made correctly.” He measured a 1/8 teaspoon of ground unicorn horn and added it. Then, he poured in water. Finally, he dropped a bit of ribbon on top. It was Miranda’s ribbon. Everything else in the elixir would draw us into the colors of time. But the ribbon would be our beacon because it contained “the energy of that time.” It would pull us to Bodiam Castle in the Middle Ages.
“Would you like to stir?” Granddad asked.
“Oh. Thanks.” I picked up a spoon and stirred. I should be more patient with him. After all, Granddad had spent fifteen years locked up at the Hartner Institute—a high security psych hospital where Dad dumped Granddad when everyone thought he’d tried to kill Kate and me. But he didn’t do it. An alchemist named Peter had poisoned us. Though I didn’t figure it out until Peter almost killed my cousin Nathaniel.
“Nate!” my mom yelled. Nathaniel had moved in with us after I found him at Bodiam Castle and brought him back. “Mark and Kate are going.”
Nathaniel—only my mom called him “Nate”—stumbled into the kitchen, his eyes glued to a book. He’d finished the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson novels, and yesterday I’d introduced him to The Lord of the Rings. His bloodshot eyes told me he hadn’t stopped reading since I handed him the book.
I wanted to appeal to Nathaniel about what Miranda would need. After all, he’d lived most of his life in Bodiam Castle. But I understood what it was like to meet Frodo and Sam for the first time. And I wasn’t even sure Nathaniel would agree with me. He’d been co-opted by the hot chocolate and bagels with cream cheese that Mom gave him for breakfast every morning.
I still got hot flax flakes and soy milk. When I asked Mom why Nathaniel didn’t have to eat it, she said, “Expanding Nate’s cultural horizons is the most important thing right now.” Then, one day, Nathaniel tried the flax flakes. After that, instead of siding with me whenever my mom and I had a disagreement, he’d say, “I am sure Aunt Carole must be right.” Nathaniel was getting the hang of life in the Montgomery family.
“What are you bringing?” Kate squeezed my backpack. “This doesn’t feel like extra clothes?”
“I’m bringing practical stuff like extra horn mixture, the elixir recipe, a box of granola bars, two bottles of water—you know, useful things.” She didn’t need to know about the five pounds of Starbucks premium French roast right now. I’d tell her about it tomorrow when she and Miranda would appreciate it.
Kate straightened the folds in her gown. My mom had sewn Kate and me “suitable medieval clothing,” though Kate’s dress had a concealed zipper, and I had insisted on hose held up by elastic instead of strips of wool.
“Do you think I look okay?” Kate asked. “I mean, will I look strange?”
Nathaniel must’ve gotten to the end of a chapter because he glanced at Kate and said, “The gown is not an exact replica of what the wealthy of the castle will be wearing, but it is adequate.”
I winced. “Nathaniel, try ‘it’s not an exact replica’ or ‘it isn’t an exact replica.’” I’d been trying to teach him to use contractions since I’d brought him home, but he wasn’t getting it.
 “Mark,” my mom said, “stand next to Kate so I can take your picture. You two look amazing.”
I put my arm around Kate’s shoulder. What would Miranda think of my tunic when she saw it? It was dark blue wool with gold braid. I’d told Mom that the trim was too much, I was supposed to be a third son of a third son—in other words, “poor.” But she said if I was a friend of Lady Miranda, I ought to look like it. And since she was going to the trouble of sewing the tunic, it would look beautiful.
The flash went off. “I wish your father didn’t have to work today. He’d love to see you go.”
“Dad had yesterday off,” I said. “If we hadn’t waited for the silk thermals—” 
Kate elbowed me.
“Right,” I said. “Dad’s already seen me time travel, no big deal.” Though it was a big deal to Dad. Sometimes he’d shake his head and touch the tunic and leggings I’d worn when I came back from my first visit to the Middle Ages.
Granddad poured the time elixir into cups and shoved them into Kate’s hand and mine. “Get going. The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back.”
I twisted my cup. “You could come with us.”
He picked up the photo and waved it. “I have work to do.”
Mom saw the picture and bit her lip. Then, she plastered a smile on her face and said, “Does Brian have everything he needs to meet you there tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He has the recipe and his own ingredients. Remember, he’s done this before.”
“All right.” Mom rubbed her hands together. “Just be careful.”
“Mom, Peter’s gone—we trapped him in the past. We’ll be fine. Think of it as a history vacation.”
My mom nodded, but her smile was fake. “Don’t you want to leave your hat behind?”
“Nope.” I tugged the brim of my fedora so it fit more snugly on my head.
“It’s Mark’s fashion statement,” Kate said. “Either that or he’s superstitious.”
I snorted and held up the glass of elixir. “Cheers.” I drank the liquid down to the dregs. Kate did the same.
“Ugh!” She stuck out her tongue. “This tastes like rotten garbage.”
“Remember, Kate, steel yourself.” I bent my knees and centered my weight on the balls of my feet. “When the colors of time hit, they hit hard. And—”
“Keep walking. Never stop. Watch out for the colors, they’re dangerous.” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve told me a million times.”
“When will it happen?” my mom asked.
Nathaniel put his book down. “It takes a moment or two.”  
“Remember to stay standing up, Katie-girl,” Granddad said.
“My body’s tingling,” Kate whispered. “I feel numb.”
“That’s normal.” I tried to add, “Just relax,” but my words slurred into sounds like whales calling to each other. My heart pounded so fast it burned for oxygen. I looked at Kate, her eyes were wide and her mouth was open like she was screaming. But I couldn’t hear her. I tried to reach for her, only my arm wouldn’t move. Then, white light exploded around me, and a wave slammed into my body.

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