The Final Battle . . . For Now

The Final Battle . . . For Now: Excerpt

PROLOGUE

If you don't know what's going on by now, I can't help you.

Oh, very well. I'll do it just one more time. Here is the Complete and Updated List:

Annie: power — can think like an adult when necessary; gift — purple ring.

Durinda: power — can freeze people, except Zinnia; gift — green earrings.

Georgia: power — can become invisible; gift — gold compact.

Jackie: power — faster than a speeding train; gift — red cape.

Marcia: power — x-ray vision; gift — purple cloak.

Petal: power — can read people's minds; gift — silver charm bracelet.

Rebecca: power — can shoot fire from her fingertips and is really strong; gift — a locket.

Zinnia: power — can talk to cats and all other animals as well (seriously); gift — a Christmas ornament in the shape of a snow globe.

And that's it! That's all you'll get, so don't even bother trying to beg, borrow, or steal more information from me.

See you around, or in the funny pages, whichever comes first. It's been nice knowing you.

ONE

"Daddy?" Zinnia said.

It was August 8, 2008, the day of our official eighth birthday, and we were all still gathered outside our front door, the eight of us plus the Petes, the McGs, Will, and Mandy. A unicorn, the last in the world, according to Zinnia, had just brought Zinnia her gift, a Christmas ornament in the shape of a snow globe. Inside the snow globe was a sort of mansion that looked remarkably like our own sort of mansion, and out of the tower of the snow globe sort of mansion, our father was leaning, waving his arms wildly at us.

"Silly Daddy," Georgia said. "Now, how did he get himself inside a snow globe?"

Silly Georgia, we all thought. Did Daddy look as if he'd done this on purpose? Did Daddy look as if he was having fun in there? Not with all that wild armwaving, he didn't.

"Daddy!" We all began shouting and wildly waving our own arms back at him so he could see we were standing right there. "Daddy!"

But no matter how loudly we shouted, no matter how wildly we waved, he kept looking all around as though he couldn't see or hear us. It occurred to us then that while we could see in, he couldn't see out.

We were puzzled.

"Let's go inside and try to figure out what to do next," Annie directed. "It's tough to concentrate out here with that lion growling every five seconds."

Yes, it's true; there was a lion — more than one, actually — as well as tigers and bears and giraffes and kangaroos and pandas and strange animals we didn't even have names for filling our front lawn, plus an amazing variety of birds beating their wings overhead. The large menagerie was there because Zinnia had summoned them, having decided once and for all to prove to the rest of us that she really could talk to the animals.

We followed Annie through the front door, and so did the Petes and the McGs and Will and Mandy too, Zinnia bringing up the rear as she carefully cradled the snow globe in her hands.

Annie looked barely patient as she stood beside the open door.

"Zinnia?" Annie finally prompted.

"Hmm?" Zinnia answered vaguely without raising her head because she was too busy staring at the tiny Daddy on the other side of the glass.

"Can you do something about this?" Annie said.

"Hmm?" Zinnia said again. "How's that?"

"All these animals!" Annie said, exasperated.

"What?" Zinnia said, raising her head at last.

"All these feathered things and beasts outside," Annie said. "Do you think you could ask your friends to leave before I shut the door? I'm worried what the neighbors will say."

* * * * * * * *

Once Zinnia had sent away the feathered things and beasts, and the door had been safely shut behind us, we gathered around the dining-room table and stared at the snow globe, trying to come up with a plan of what to do next.

"This is like something out of a fairy tale," Petal said with a shudder. "It's all so terrifying."

"Why?" Rebecca sneered. "It's just Daddy in there. It's not like it's an ogre."

"Yes, I know," Petal said, "but up until a moment ago there was a lion on our lawn, roaring its head off, plus all those other animals. There was even that unicorn, which some might have thought was a great thing to see, but I didn't. I'm terrified of the idea of things that are supposed to be imaginary turning out to be real. Why, if there's a unicorn in the world, even if it is the last one, and there's something live that's living inside a snow globe, then maybe the monster I've always heard could live under my bed is real. And if the imaginary monster under my bed is real, then where in the world will I go to hide when I get really scared?"

"So you'll just have to give up hiding," Rebecca said. "And anyway, as I believe I've already pointed out, it's just Daddy inside the snow globe. It's not like it's an ogre."

"Yes, but — "

We ignored Petal. We ignored Rebecca.

"I think this can only be seen as a good thing," Jackie said.

"How's that?" Georgia said in an unpleasant tone of voice. "Our daddy's tiny, he's trapped inside some glass thing, and we can't even reassure him that we know where he is because he can't see us."

"Yes, I know all that," Jackie said. "But for seven months and eight days, ever since we found that first note in the drawing room telling us we each needed to find our own powers and gifts before we could discover what happened to Mommy and Daddy, we've been waiting for all those things to happen. But now we have eight powers, we have eight gifts — and look! There's Daddy!"

"But he looks so skinny," Durinda said, her brow furrowed in worry, "even if he is a model. Do you think he's been eating properly?"

"It doesn't matter how skinny he is," Jackie said, for once sounding impatient. "What matters is that we can actually see him."

"It's true," Petal said, sounding cheerier at once. "Now that we can see him, Rebecca can stop saying that maybe Mommy and Daddy died — yippee!"

"After all this time," Jackie went on, "we've found him. Mommy can't be far behind."

"Well, we don't know that, do we?" Marcia said, gently taking the snow globe out of Zinnia's hands and proceeding to look carefully around the whole thing as though trying to locate a needle in a haystack. "We can only see him, not her, so there's no observable proof that she's in there too."

"But it stands to reason, doesn't it?" Jackie said. "After all, they did both disappear on the same night."

"Yes," Marcia said, "but they disappeared from different places. He disappeared when he went outside to get firewood. She disappeared when she went to the kitchen to get eggnog."

"I do know all that," Jackie said. "But the note said once we discovered our powers and gifts, we'd learn what happened to Mommy and Daddy."

"Yes," Marcia said, "I know all that. But the note didn't specifically say we'd learn what happened to both of them at the same time or even that the same thing did happen to both of them. The note was only ever a note. It's not like it was some sort of official legal document with special clauses and the like."

We didn't know for sure what she was talking about. But we were sure we didn't like it.

"Oh, this is just great," Rebecca said darkly. "We now know that Daddy is . . . somewhere." She waved a disgusted hand in the general direction of the snow globe. "But it's still entirely possible that Mommy is — "

"Don't say it!" seven Eights shouted at Rebecca. We couldn't have said why, and the universe knows we'd heard her say it enough times before, but on this day — our official birthday, which was also the first time we'd seen Daddy's face live in seven months and eight days — we couldn't bear to hear her say that Mommy might be —

"I've got it!" Annie shouted gleefully. "I know where Daddy really is!"

???????

Seven Eights blinked.

"What are you talking about?" Rebecca said. "We can all see him. He's right there in that snow globe."

"No, he's not," Annie said, excited. "It only looks like he's in there. In reality, that snow globe is merely a visual representation of our house. It's like we're looking at ourselves somehow. So Daddy's not in the tower room inside the snow globe. He's actually in — "

"The tower!" Zinnia cried, clapping her hands together. But then her face fell. "But wait. How is that possible?"

"It's possible just like I just explained it is," Annie said, exasperated in spite of her excitement.

"Come on, let's go get him."

"But wait," Durinda said. "Do you mean he's been in the tower for seven months and eight days and we just never noticed him all the times we went in
there?"

"No, of course I don't mean that," Annie said. "But we were just away on vacation for a week or some length of time similar to that. Perhaps whoever took him in the first place deposited him in the tower while we were away and now he's locked up there, like a captive in his own home or something."

"Oh, I don't like the sound of that," Petal said.

We ignored her.

"Come on," Annie said again, "let's go free Daddy from the tower."

"But wait," Georgia said. "If Daddy was really in the real tower here, wouldn't we have noticed him waving his arms out the window to get our attention when we were all outside earlier?"

"I don't see why." Annie shrugged her shoulders. "The only time we looked upward was when we looked at the sky during the arrival of Zinnia's feathered friends, and that was from the other direction. The rest of the time we were looking at pretty much eye level or lower, so we never would have seen him waving wildly. Plus, with all the roaring of the lions, it's not like we could have heard him screaming. If he had been screaming, that is. So you see . . ." Her voice trailed off.

We wanted to see, we really did, because we wanted to believe she was right. Still, it seemed like there might be a few holes in her theory.

"But — " Georgia started to say, but she never got a chance to finish.

"No," Annie said firmly. "I'll listen to no more but-waits, not from Durinda or Georgia or Marcia or Petal or Rebecca or Zinnia, not even from Jackie, and she usually has only sensible things to say."

"I resent — " Georgia and Rebecca started to say in tandem, but Annie was still of a mind to cut people's speeches off prematurely.

"Forget it for now," Annie said. "All right, who's with me? Shall we go free Daddy?"

And suddenly we were all with her, all of us having caught the spirit of the thing.

Marcia carefully placed the snow globe on the dining-room table, and then we raced from the room and headed to the stairs. We were all the way to the foot of the stairs when —

"Wait for us!" came a shout.

Who said that?

We turned in time to see Pete running toward us, with Mrs. Pete, the McGs, Will, and Mandy not far behind him. We realized it was Pete's voice we'd heard shout after us, and we also realized we'd forgotten there were six other people in the house. Huh. Funny how things like that happened when there was so much going on.

"You shouldn't go up there alone," Pete said, already a bit winded by the time he reached us at the bottom of the stairs. "What if it's unsafe?"

"The mechanic is right," the McG said. "There should always be adult supervision."

"The principal is right," Mandy said with relief. "I couldn't agree more."

She would say that. She probably even thought she'd get extra credit in school somehow for saying it even though we were on summer vacation. Besides, if she hadn't said it, Petal would have.

"This is insanely exciting," Will said. "I can't believe I'm along for the ride."

"I can't believe I'm saying this," the Mr. McG said, "but I'm feeling rather excited too."

Huh. You couldn't tell from the look on his face.

"I don't think we should do this," Petal said, suddenly fearful again as she gazed up the long flight of stairs. This was Petal, so that flight of stairs must have looked like Mount Everest, with assured death waiting at the top.

"It'll be fine, dear," Mrs. Pete said, placing an arm around Petal's shoulders. "I'll stay right by your side and make sure nothing bad happens to you."

"Can you guarantee that in writing?" Petal said, looking skeptical. "Maybe do one of those contract thingies like Marcia was talking about earlier?"

Even Mrs. Pete ignored that.

"Ready, gang?" Annie said, barely able to contain both her exasperation and her excitement.

We were.

Twenty-eight feet pounded up the stairs; sixty, if you include the cats'. When we got to the top floor of the house and the tower room, Annie flung open the door.

We must say, we were rather surprised at that flinging. We'd convinced ourselves that Daddy was in the tower — or at least Annie had convinced us — and we'd further convinced ourselves that he must be being held captive there, or at least was locked in, because if he was in fact in the house, what else could explain why he didn't simply come downstairs? And yet that door — it had opened so easily, giving no resistance at all . . .

"Daddy!" we cried. "Daddy!"

No one answered.

"Mr. Huit?" Pete tried. "I've been taking very good care of your car while you've been gone."

That too failed to produce Daddy.

So we proceeded to tear the tower room apart, going over every square inch of space. We even removed everything from our costume trunk, just in case he'd somehow locked himself inside in the moments since we'd seen him waving wildly from inside the snow globe. But there was no Daddy inside the costume trunk. There was only the Daddy disguise that Annie sometimes wore when we needed to fool nosy parkers.

"He's not here," Zinnia said, a tear escaping her right eye.

"Even though I was scared to come up," Petal said, a tear escaping her left eye, "I still really wanted him to be here."

"I've got it!" Rebecca said, imitating Annie's words from earlier but sneering as she did so. "I know where Daddy really is!" Rebecca folded her arms across her chest and glared at Annie. "Nice work, Einstein."

"Nice work, Einstein," Marcia echoed, puzzled. "Shouldn't it be Nice work, Sherlock?"

* * * * * * * *

Back in the dining room, after we'd glumly trudged down there, Rebecca's patience was entirely gone.

Not that she'd ever really had any to begin with.

"Daddy's not in the house!" she shouted. "He's in this stupid snow globe and we have to get him out!"

Then, before anyone could stop her, she lifted the snow globe off the dining-room table and raised it high above her head.

"No!" pretty much everyone in the room shouted as Rebecca began to move to smash the snow globe on the corner of the table. Even the cats objected strenuously, in their meowing sort of way.

"Please, Rebecca," Annie said with a forced tone of calmness, holding a steadying hand out toward Rebecca, "just put the snow globe back on the table."

"All right," Rebecca said grudgingly, "but only long enough for you to explain to me why I shouldn't do what I want to do."

"Because it's insanity!" Georgia shouted once Daddy was safely on the table again. "Even I can see that, and I'm not exactly known for my own sanity!"

"Did you see the way poor Daddy was shaking around when Rebecca raised him high?" Durinda
said.

"I thought he was going to fall out of the window," Petal said, "and that would be awful. Such a long way down, even if it only looks like a few inches to us, because of course to mini-Daddy it must seem as high as the real tower does to us when we are standing on the lawn outside. I know I should hate to fall to my own death."

"He wasn't going to die from what I did," Rebecca scoffed.

"How do you know that?" Annie countered.

"Well, I . . . that is to say . . . er . . ." A flustered Rebecca was such a rare event, some of us were sure we'd see pigs flying soon.

"That's right," Annie said. "You don't know. All we know are, as Marcia might say, the observable facts: Daddy's in there, we're out here. But we don't know the rules of this thing. We don't know how to safely get him out."

"So I won't raise it over my head this time," Rebecca suggested, taking hold of the globe again. "That way Daddy won't fall to his death. Maybe this time I'll simply shatter it gently against the corner of the table so that he's free of his glass cage, like —"

"No!" pretty much everyone, plus the cats, shouted again. We realized we really were going to need to keep Rebecca away from the snow globe.

"We don't know how this works," Annie insisted. "Maybe there's a special atmosphere inside the snow globe. What if it's like with a fishbowl, and how if you break the fishbowl, the fish inside all die? After seven months and eight days of saying Mommy and Daddy might be dead, do you really want to be the one who finally kills Daddy?"

"No!" Rebecca was horrified. In fact, she was so horrified, she dropped Daddy.

Good thing Jackie was still faster than anyone around and was able to catch Daddy before he hit the ground. Then Jackie put him back on the table while most of us silently vowed never to pick him up again unless absolutely necessary.

"And of course," Annie went on, "even if we could be sure of getting Daddy safely out of there by smashing the glass open, we don't know if once he's free he'd be regular size again or still mini. It would be awful if he was still mini. The cats might think he was a snack."

This made sense to us. The cats weren't too careful about what they ate if they were really hungry.

"But if we can't get Daddy out here," Durinda wondered aloud, "then how will we ever be, you know, reunited again?"

"If he can't come out here," Annie said, as though it were the most reasonable thing in the world, "we'll have to get in there."

"We'll have to what?" Georgia said. "You're even insaner than Rebecca!"

"I don't want to become miniature," Petal said. "It's a scary enough world as it is."

"I should like to see Daddy again," Zinnia said, "sooner rather than later, but I am already the smallest one in the family. Being the smallest and being miniature might be a bit much."

"Annie may be insane about some things," Marcia said, ignoring Petal and Zinnia, like the rest of us, "but she's right about this. We need to get inside that snow globe." Marcia squinted at the base of the snow globe, a smile spreading across her face. "And I think I know just how to do it."

TWO

What was Marcia talking about? we all wondered.

"Marcia, what are you talking about?" Annie demanded.

"I don't see why you're so quick to jump all over Marcia," Rebecca said to Annie. "Marcia did say you weren't insane, or at least not about this, so you do have that."

"See this at the base of the snow globe?" Marcia said, ignoring Rebecca along with the rest of us.

We looked, and suddenly we saw something we hadn't seen before. At the base of the snow globe there was a symbol that looked like the number eight lying down.

"I recognize that!" Durinda said.

"It's the infinity sign," Georgia said. "Even I recognize it!"

"I knew it," Annie said triumphantly.

"No, you didn't," Rebecca said. "You didn't even know it was on the snow globe until Marcia pointed it out to us."

"I didn't mean that," Annie said. "I meant that I knew I was right when I insisted we all do summer workbook while we were on vacation."

We couldn't believe it. She was still going on about that?

"Thanks to me," Annie said proudly, "we all recognize what that symbol is." Then she looked less proud as she asked Marcia, "Er, so what does it have to do with anything?"

"Only this," Marcia said, getting that mad-scientist gleam in her eye we knew so well. "Remember when we first learned about the infinity sign over vacation? And then we realized it looked just like the number eight lying down?"

"Actually," Zinnia put in, "it was me who noticed that."

We ignored her. This was no time to be glomming credit for things. We expected that sort of behavior from Annie, but Zinnia?

Marcia continued as though Zinnia hadn't spoken. "And remember how we had the idea to all lie down and connect ourselves to one another to form our own lying-down-eight infinity symbol?"

"That was also my idea," Zinnia pointed out. "I was very good at ideas when we were on vacation."
More ignoring.

"Well, here's what I'm thinking," Marcia said. "If we do the same thing right now, it will magically transport us inside the snow globe."

We all stared at Marcia in wonder. Some of that wonder was positive, but some was negative.

"What are you," Rebecca said, "totally daft? That will never work!"

"How do we know until we try?" Marcia said reasonably.

"I suppose we don't," Rebecca admitted grudgingly. "But wait a second. If that's what happens, then how come it didn't happen when we did the lying-down thing while on vacation? Huh? Answer me that."

"Because we didn't have the snow globe then, did we?" Marcia said reasonably. "And now we do."

"I hate to say it, Marcia," Jackie said, "but that does sound a little bit far-fetched. How can you be so sure?"

Marcia shrugged. "I don't know. There are some things you learn from books and other things you just know. It's called instinct."

Jackie nodded. "I can relate to that."

"Well, I've got an instinct right now," Petal said. "I've got an instinct to go hide under the bed."

We ignored Petal, although Georgia did place a firm restraining arm around Petal's shoulders. We were going to need Petal to form our eight.

"I knew it!" Annie said. "I knew it! I knew that doing summer workbook would come in handy, and once we formed the lying-down eight, I knew it would come in handy one day too."

"Actually," Jackie pointed out, "it was Zinnia who predicted that the lying-down eight would come in handy."

That shut Annie up.

"So when do we do this thing?" Durinda asked.

"No time like the present," Annie said, having recovered quickly from being shut up. "After all, we do want to save Daddy, don't we?"

"Speaking of presents," Zinnia said, "don't you think we should open our birthday presents before we go? You know, just in case we never make it back? It's been a long time since I've opened a present . . ."

Oh, Zinnia.

"I must say," Rebecca said, "I would like to dig into that birthday cake first. It looks very enticing, what with all that frosting."

Oh, Rebecca.

"We don't have time for presents and frosting," Annie said decisively. "We need to go—"

"Excuse me," Will Simms said, interrupting Annie's decisiveness and reminding the rest of us that there were still other people in the room, "but could you explain to me what this lying-down-eight business is you're all talking about? I must say, I'm having a tough time picturing it."

"Me too," Mandy Stenko added.

"It's like this," Zinnia said, and we let her describe it since she was the one who'd come up with it in the first place. "Annie lies down on her side and curves her body a little to form one curved end of the eight. Durinda holds on to Annie's ankles and curves her hands just slightly. Georgia holds on to Durinda's ankles so she can be the line in the center. Jackie holds on to Georgia's ankles to continue the line but curves her legs a bit. Marcia grabs on to Jackie's curved legs and curves her whole body like Annie to form the other curved end of the eight. Petal grabs on to Marcia's curved ankles and curves her hands slightly. Rebecca holds on to Petal's ankles so she can be the other line in the center, crossing Georgia's line. And then I hold on to Rebecca's ankles, and then Annie grabs on to mine when I curve them slightly. And voilà! Couldn't be simpler!"

"I must say," the McG said, looking sentimental for once, "I've always worried that our teaching was somewhat useless, but the Eights have actually been learning things!"

"Well, don't get too carried away," the Mr. McG said. "Neither of us taught the Eights this stuff. They taught it to themselves."

We had a renewed appreciation for the Mr. McG in that moment. We always liked it when people gave us credit where we were due.

"Ready?" Annie said, and we all began assuming our positions on the floor.

"Wait!" Pete cried.

Wait? From Pete the mechanic? Really? Wait? At a time like this?

But wait we did. After all, Pete was asking us to do it, and it wasn't like he was just anybody. Plus, not all of us were ready to enter into the heart of darkness yet, or at least Petal wasn't. Back to our feet we rose.

"What is it, Mr. Pete?" Annie asked.

"Why, I can't let you do this alone!" he said. "What if there's real danger inside that snow globe? What if once you're in, you can't come back? No, I simply can't let you do this alone. What kind of friend would I be? What kind of loco parentis?"

Poor Pete. He looked so distraught. And now we were feeling distraught too. Except for Petal, none of us had thought of the danger. And we certainly hadn't imagined any consequences, like maybe not being able to get back out again. We'd only thought to save Daddy.

"Don't you see, Mr. Pete?" Annie said gently, taking both of Pete's large mechanic's hands in her regular-size girl's hands. "We can't take you with us, much as we might like to. For one thing, we need to make a lying-down eight, not a nine. But even if not for that, even if that would work, don't you see? We have to do this alone."

"Yes," Pete said, "I do see that. It's great to have a mum or a dad or some other adult when you need them, but it must be nice to know that, when push comes to shove, you can depend on yourselves. You can stand on your own two feet. Or sixteen feet, as the case may be." Tears welled up in his eyes. We liked to think it was because he'd miss us however long we were gone, but we also liked to think it was because he was proud of us too.

"You're always tearing up around us, Mr. Pete," Annie said, removing one of her hands from his and wiping the tears away.

"I suppose I am, aren't I, pet?" he agreed.

And then the eight of us were hugging him goodbye, hugging goodbye to Mandy and Will, the McGs and Mrs. Pete, Mrs. Pete was saying she'd take care of the cats for us, we were remembering we had cats — cats! How Zinnia begged us to take them with us, but of course Annie said no, so we each hugged each cat — Anthrax, Dandruff, Greatorex, Jaguar, Minx, Precious, Rambunctious, and Zither — which took quite a while, eight girls hugging each of eight separate cats, and then Zinnia asked one more time to open the presents and Rebecca asked once more for the frosting on the cake, and Annie said no two more times. Then we all hugged Mommy Sally and Daddy Sparky — the dressmaker's dummy and suit of armor we clothed to look like Mommy and Daddy, just in case nosy parkers peeked in our windows — and we hugged Carl the talking refrigerator and robot Betty as best as possible, considering one was a refrigerator and the other a robot, and then we hugged Pete one last time and finally got into our positions on the floor and —

The earth shook, the sky spun, and —
Boom!
Bam!
Shazam!
Pow!
Kazowie!

We were out of one world and into another.