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Authors: Alexander Vance

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BOOK: Behind the Canvas
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Pim beat his fist against the invisible canvas wall. “But I can't get at Nee Gezicht or her staff while I'm stuck in here.”

Granny Custos tsked. “Not you. The girl helps you.”

As the old woman's words registered in Claudia's mind, her heart fell. A few minutes ago she was ready to do anything to help Pim. But break the staff of a witch who was who-knows-how-old and powerful enough to create a whole new world? Well, to
help
create a whole new world. Even if it wasn't the stuff of fairy tales, it would have seemed impossible.

“That's your plan for setting Pim free?” she said faintly.

“Sì.”

“You're crazy.”

“No,” Granny Custos said as she continued to stir. “I am ancient. There's a difference.”

Claudia stared at Granny Custos, expecting something more. When nothing came, she looked at Pim. His wide blue eyes locked with hers. They seemed to be more vibrant, more alive, than she had seen them before.
Alive with hope,
she thought.

It was enough for her to ask a question.

“Where is Nee Gezicht?”

The secretive smile of Granny Custos returned. She stood, not without some effort, and took the green bowl through the door to the kitchen. Claudia heard beeps followed by the familiar hum of a microwave. Granny Custos called out over the hum. “The Netherlands. So I suppose.”

“Yes,” Pim said. “Her estate in Haarlem remains.”

Claudia looked at Pim in surprise.

“I've … there's a painting in her manor,” Pim said, looking embarrassed. “I've gone there many times to plead with her for my release. She only laughs.”

The Netherlands. The other side of the world. It was impossible. Claudia sighed in both frustration and relief. “Well, I have a holiday on Monday, but I need to be back in school by Tuesday.”

“Then you will have plenty of time,” Granny Custos said, ignoring the sarcasm. The microwave dinged, and she emerged balancing the green bowl in one hand and an electric blender in the other. She set both on the table.

“And this magic potion you're making is supposed to fly me to the Netherlands?” Claudia asked.

Granny Custos plugged in the blender, a puce-colored machine that Claudia guessed was older than her parents. “Not a potion. An ointment.”

“An ointment?”

“And not for flying. For crossing.” Granny Custos scraped the mixture from the plastic green bowl into the blender.

“Crossing? And how exactly is that supposed to work?” The riddles and impossibilities sent a throbbing through her head.

The old woman held out her hand. “Painting.”

Claudia sighed and picked up her watercolor, which was still glistening. A fierce lion with a fiery mane stared back at her as she handed it over.

Granny Custos regarded the painting and then peered at Claudia shrewdly. “I recognize this.”

Claudia nodded. “It's from a painting. By Rubens, I think.”

“Not, then, from your own imagination.”

Claudia shook her head, not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“That will come. With time.” Granny Custos looked at the painting again and nodded once. “Courage.” Then she ripped it in half.

“Hey!” cried Claudia. “It wasn't that bad.”

Granny Custos continued to fold and tear, fold and tear, until her gnarled fingers held a soggy mess of scraps. She unceremoniously dumped them into the blender and clamped on the lid. She leaned toward Claudia as though passing along some juicy gossip. “These new gadgets make magic so much easier.”

Then she punched
Frappe
.

The scraps of paper buzzed around like angry moths before the liquid sucked them down to join the mixture. The grinding whir of the blender grated on Claudia's ears, sending her frustration level even higher.

Granny Custos counted under her breath before hitting another button on the blender. It came to an immediate stop, the goop streaking down the insides of the glass jar.

“I don't understand,” Claudia said, slamming a fist on the table. “How is this supposed to help Pim?”

Granny Custos paused as she picked up a spatula and sighed. She opened her leathery hand and moved the spatula over it, as though spreading peanut butter on bread. “Place the ointment on your hand.” She turned her hand over and stuck it to the table. “Place your hand on a painting. Then
zoot, zoot
—you are in the world behind the canvas.”

Fear gripped Claudia's heart as she realized what the old woman meant.

“Don't worry. It dries clear,” Granny Custos added.

“You—you want me to go in there? Behind the canvas? How's that going to help? What if I get stuck just like him?”

“May I?” Pim said. Granny Custos nodded. “Claudia, every painting—no matter where it hangs—acts as a window into the world behind the canvas. I can look through this painting and see you. There's another painting around the corner from me—if I look through there, I can see into the Prado. In Madrid.”

“Yeah? So? You've told me about that already.”

“If I understand Granny Custos correctly, you can use the ointment to enter through a painting and then use the ointment again to exit through a painting that leads into Nee Gezicht's house in the Netherlands. You can steal her staff, bring it into this world, and we'll find a way to break it. Then we both return home using the ointment. Is that right, Granny Custos?”

“Esattamente.”
The old woman nodded and shook her hands toward the ceiling in relief. “Break the staff. Break the curse. Break the witch.”

“And even if we fail to get the staff or break it,” Pim continued, “you can still use the paste to return home.”

Granny Custos pulled out a plastic yellow mustard bottle with a twisty cap from her pile of things. The writing was faded and it appeared empty as she unscrewed the cap.

Claudia's head felt like a wave machine.
Magic paste
.

“And I know just the painting to get us into her estate.…” Pim mumbled.

Find the house of witch Nee Gezicht
.

“It's in the Southern Tier, but if the painting we enter is close enough…”

Steal her staff
.

“I think it could work.…”

The world behind the canvas
.

Granny Custos carefully lifted the glass blender jar from the base and tipped it over. The viscous goop was the color of mashed potatoes and moved like honey. With a slurping sound that would have made the boys in Claudia's class snicker, the ointment poured into the opening of the mustard bottle. A few sticky strands missed and drizzled down the side. A spatula helped every last drop over the edge of the blender jar. Granny Custos set it down with a satisfied sigh. She wiped a wet rag over the yellow plastic.

“Not made ointment like this for decades.” She screwed on the twisty top and winked at Claudia. “But I've a good feeling about this one.”

She placed the mustard bottle on the table in front of Claudia. “
Unguento di Attreversarse la Tela.
Canvas-crossing ointment.”

Claudia's hand was drawn toward the yellow bottle. She picked it up. It felt like … a bottle of mustard. She hefted it for a moment—and then quickly set it back on the table.

“No way,” she said. “Not a chance. I mean, this goop looks like something my Aunt Maggie would bring to Thanksgiving dinner. You made it in the microwave and a blender that's a hundred years old. This is ridiculous.”

Granny Custos shrugged. “You're the one talking to a boy in a painting.”

Fear welled up inside Claudia's chest. Of course she wanted to help Pim, but this … “I'm twelve years old. I've never even stolen a candy bar from a grocery store. What makes you think I can steal a witch's precious
ricola
—”

“Raccolta,”
Granny Custos corrected.

“Whatever. A witch's most valuable thing from her own house? She cursed Pim in seconds just for staining her dress. What would she do to me if she catches me there trying to steal something?”

Granny Custos shrugged under the thick shawl, then reached for her pipe and tucked it between her teeth.

Claudia turned to Pim, but he stared at the tabletop. She looked back and forth between the two, waiting for someone to say something.

“I'm sorry, Claudia,” Pim finally said, running his hand through his hair. “I got caught up in the idea for a moment. But of course you can't go. I would never ask you to. There are too many unknowns, too many perils. Nee Gezicht is evil and dangerous and should not be underestimated. I wouldn't risk my only friend in such a foolish dream.”

There was that word again.
Friend
. It sent a powerful stroke of energy pumping through her veins, and she felt her face flush once more. Her frantic thoughts slowed enough for her to pick them apart and study them for a moment.

Pim needed her. When would another chance like this come along for him? “Why the staff?” she asked. “Can't I just go … behind the canvas … and give some of this goop to Pim?”

“Told you already,” replied Granny Custos. “A strong curse cannot be undone. Only by breaking the magic. Breaking
la raccolta
.”

Claudia nibbled at her thumbnail. She stood up from her chair and paced absentmindedly.

“Forget about it, Claudia,” said Pim. “I'm not going to let you do it.”

What if the witch cursed her and she ended up like Pim? What would a hundred years in that world be like? Of course, he'd suffered much longer than that. He was still suffering.

The task seemed clear enough. From there to the world behind the canvas, to the Netherlands, and back again. If they could get the staff and bring it back, Granny Custos could help them break it.

“If we did this, would you be with me the whole way?” she asked Pim.

“I … of course. But I'm not going to let you come here.”

He would be with her. He would lead the way. With his help, she could do this. She could do this for him.

Her friend.

She picked up the painting and looked into Pim's crystal-blue eyes. “If you promise to lead the way, I'll do it.”

He shook his head. “I can't let you—”

“But I want to, Pim. I can help you, and I want to help you.”

He stared at her, eyes wide and a hint of a smile on his lips. “Are you sure?” whispered Pim.

Claudia smiled and slowly nodded. “We'll get you out. We'll do it together.”

Pim tossed his head back and laughed in surprise and relief. His eyes shone. “All right, then. Together.”

“So…” she breathed out. “We're going to need a painting. Can we use this one?” she asked, turning to Granny Custos.

Granny Custos wagged a finger. “Too small. You have your grandfather's head. Would get stuck in the frame.”

“Gee, thanks.” Claudia smoothed down her hair self-consciously.

“Do you have any paintings here?” Pim asked Granny Custos.

The old woman sat with closed eyes, arms folded within her shawls. She shook her head.

“An artist-magician like yourself and you don't have any paintings in your house?” Claudia said.

Granny Custos didn't open her eyes but smiled with the pipe protruding from her teeth. “Also a story for another time.”

From the kitchen came the sound of running water and some sort of scrubbing.

“It can't be just any painting, anyway,” Pim said. “The wrong painting will put us on the other side of the world behind the canvas, so to speak. We need one that places us close to the window into Nee Gezicht's house.”

“Okay. Right.” Claudia said. “We need options. What about the Florence museum?”

Pim nodded thoughtfully. “It has a lot of paintings. We'd at least have choices.”

Hurried footsteps rushed from the kitchen and Mr. Custos burst into the dining room. His blue flannel pajamas—which looked as though they had been ironed—were complemented by fuzzy orange slippers. Claudia hid a smile behind her hand as he whipped a toothbrush out of his mouth and pointed it at the three of them.

“No, absolutely not. Not in the museum. I run a serious academic institution, not a springboard for adventurous philanthropy and vendettas. I'm sorry, kids. The world behind the canvas can be a fun place for a field trip and all, but with the”—he gestured toward the mustard bottle with his toothbrush—“the magic sludge, you never know what's going to happen. I mean, they're valuable paintings, for crying out loud!”

Claudia opened her mouth to ask what he meant about the magic sludge, but he bulldozed forward.

“Granny, you remember the Leonardo paintings, right?” He opened his arms pleadingly toward Granny Custos. “The
lost
Leonardos?
10
Don't you remember what you promised me after that?”

Granny Custos scratched her nose and then shrugged. “We need another museum,” she said to Claudia, who was still worried about what Mr. Custos meant by “you never know what's going to happen.”

Mr. Custos relaxed with a sigh. He wiped a spot of toothpaste foam from the side of his mouth. “Thank you, Granny. You know, the next logical option, of course, is Chicago.”

Claudia perked up. “The Art Institute of Chicago!” Her parents took her there on occasion, when they got tired of her begging, and she was always anxious to return. “That would work.”

Mr. Custos began wagging his toothbrush again. “As a matter of fact, the director of the AIC once came to pay me a visit and take a look at our collection. He told me that—”

“Sal,” interrupted Granny Custos with a flick of her fingers.
“Zoot, zoot.”

“Ah … Right. Good night, then.” Mr. Custos returned the way he had come. The water running in the kitchen turned off and then a door closed somewhere in the back of the house.

BOOK: Behind the Canvas
7.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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