Locked Doors and Broken Mirrors

It was the same deal every summer. I'd be doing what every normal person does after an entire season of algebra and English classes, lying back and reading a book with real educational value. Namely, Zombies vs. Unicorns by Holly Black.

Then all of a sudden, just out of the blue, dad gets it into his head that we should actually do something during vacation. Not only do something, but something constructive. As a family. Because of course he can't just let us enjoy our selves as individuals, oh no, we have to do things that make us miserable en masse. This year, it was visiting obscure relatives in foreign countries. Not interesting, romantic countries thought. Not France, or Romania, or Italy. We had to go to places like Iceland, and Czechoslovakia, and Germany. Cold, dark, depressing places where all the men have frighteningly large beards and all the women knit socks whilst singing creepy low-pitched folk songs. At least, I thought they were socks.

This part of our whirlwind world tour finds us staying with the long lost German branch of the Thrush family, the Drossels. Our arrival came as something of a shock to them, except for the patriarch of their family, the disturbingly jovial Uncle Wolfgang. It seems that he and dad had been corresponding over the Internet ever since dad had begun to plan our "foreign family exchange". Soon enough the rest of the FrondSpiels had adopted their leader's unsettlingly cheerful demeanor, and welcomed us in with open arms. Which is how I ended up lost in one of the "world's top five most creeptastic castles."

You see, as soon as they fell in line with Uncle Wolfgang's "familial bonding" attitude, the Drossels felt the need to express their new found affection by showing us the sights. ALL the sights. First, it was the lakes. Then, it was the historic battlefields. After that, the breweries. And then, having saved the best for last, we were taken through the most gothic, gruesome, unsafe and unsanitary castles within traveling distance. Today it was the ancestral home of the Spiegel Wachters, the moldiest and most barbaric of all the places we had visited so far. The gate alone had enough gargoyles to start a mythical zoo, and the interior decorating ran towards ancient oil paintings, an excess of stuffed animal heads, and all the vicious looking medieval weapons that they were probably killed with.

It was raining that day, as it had been for most of our travels in the far reaches of Europe. When we finally reached the castle, we had to jump out of the car and tumble into the entry hall at a dead run, which caused cousin Fritz to step my foot, which caused me to lose my balance and trip everyone else. Long story short, we all ended up in a cold wet pile on the hard stone floor, with only a particularly indignant looking stuffed owl to bear witness. I counted my blessings that I had been at the outer edge of the family throng, as most of my cousins were either extremely bony, frighteningly muscular, or uncommonly fat. After we managed to untangle ourselves and revive mom, who, unlike me, had unfortunately been at the center of the group and thus under the greatest number of disproportionate relatives, Helga appeared. Apparently, all the ruckus we'd made had set her tour guide senses tingling, and summoned her to our side.

She was Barbie doll blond, with her hair done up in honest to god pigtails. She wore a uniform of khaki pants, short sleeved blue polo shirt, neon green nametag, and a cheery smile so painfully bright I was sure she could peel paint with it. One glance at Cousin Fritz was enough to tell me that he found her "happy, helpful, and hoping to serve" grin enchanting instead of blinding. He nearly tripped us all over again in his rush to get to his newfound beloved's side, and upon reaching her, he practically got down on one knee and begged her to us the honor of being our tour guide in our time of need. He seemed to have conveniently forgotten that he had already been to the castle several times, and had planned to show us around it free of charge.

Helga, it seemed, was completely oblivious to Fritz' ulterior motives, and took his request quite seriously. And so began the most excruciatingly long, intensive, and thorough tour any hapless castle crazed foreigner could ask for. She showed us the dungeons, she showed us the courtyards, she showed us every single bedroom, bathroom, closet and cupboard, all while chirping in a ultra chipper sing song every significant event that occurred in them since the dawn of time. I tuned out her voice, my family's questions, everything. As she took us through a hallway that went past entrance to the third floor of the western wing, my attention wandered into a hazy, half-asleep state. I registered, at the back of my mind, that her tone changed here, lost some of its brightness, grew wary. Fritz, in a moment of clarity, commented that he had never seen this part of the castle. For once, his ignorance seemed genuine instead of created for Helga's benefit. She simply said that it was kept closed, to protect some "delicate heirlooms" stored inside. Her abrupt change, from information overloading to taciturn single sentences, shook me from my stupor. It also sparked my interest. What 'delicate heirlooms" required such protection, or an entire wing of a castle to house them?

I slowed my steps, edged my way to the outside of the group, and then let them walk away. When I couldn't hear even the echoes of their voices any longer, I raced back to the door to the west wing. To my surprise, it was unlocked. However, it weighed what seemed to be six tons, and groaned like a dying animal when I tried to pry it open. Finally, the thing opened enough to allow a skinny, flexible, and determined teenaged girl to get through.