Look backward to find the way forward.
—Sheepflattener Family Lore
Erik’s heart hammered in his chest as though Thor himself were tunneling out of his rib cage. His mother sat next to him, reading a romance novel.
Erik whispered, “Please. Please don’t make me go in there.”
“What?” Mrs. Sheepflattener put a finger inside the book to mark her place and turned to Erik. “You’ll need to speak up, dear, I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” she said. Loudly. Loudly was the only way Mrs. Sheepflattener said anything.
The other children and parents glanced over. A dozen eyes focused on Erik. He had opened his mouth to try begging for mercy again when the door marked STUDIO #3 opened. It was too late.
A blond girl with a neat ponytail walked out. “Very good, Emma. Keep practicing those minor scales, now,” said Mrs. Loathcraft, waving goodbye. She saw Erik cowering in his seat, and her face creased into a frown. “Erik,” she said, as though his name had a funny taste. “You’re next. Come in.” She turned and disappeared into the room.
Erik didn’t move. His insides prickled, and the hammering in his heart grew more insistent—ka-thump! Ka-thump! KA-BLAM! KA-BLAM! The veins in his ears throbbed. The arteries in his eyes pulsed. His whole body said NO.
Erik’s mother clucked her tongue. She grabbed his arm and lifted him out of his seat. “Honestly, show your teacher some respect. Hupsy-daisy!” she said. In three steps, she dragged his entire body across the waiting room and propelled him into the studio. “Have fun!” The door shut behind him.
Forty-five minutes later, Erik’s weekly piano lesson was over. It is safe to say that having fun as his mother had commanded was never an option.
After Erik and Mrs. Sheepflattener arrived home, Erik shuffled in from the garage and found his older sister Brunhilde had her battle-axe out and did not look pleased. Her twin, Allyson, was clutching a sweater to her chest and yelling, “I told you, this sweater is MINE. Yours is, like, gray! This one is SLATE!”
Brunhilde squinted at the sweater for a few seconds and shook her head. She started hefting her axe from hand to hand and growled, “Mine.”
Erik knew better than to get in the middle of this. He stayed near the wall.
Allyson grabbed a vial of nail polish off the kitchen counter and said, “Don’t wave that old axe at ME, sister. You come one step nearer, and I’ll totally douse the sweater with this and neither of us can ever wear it again!” She started to untwist the cap, glaring at Brunhilde.
The axe-wielding twin rocked back on her heels, assessing Allyson with clear blue eyes. “You would ruin it rather than let me claim it?” she asked.
Allyson snarled and nodded.
“Well played.” Brunhilde put the axe down next to the pantry and tossed a blond braid over her shoulder. Their mother came into the room with bags of groceries from the car. “Mother, by Valhalla’s rafters, I am hungry. My victory in the soccer scrimmage will be sung of for centuries to come. What is for dinner tonight?” Brunhilde had been speaking and acting this way ever since the last time Granny Vigdis had come to visit. After Granny announced that the teenager was the spitting image of some Viking-era relative known for her battle-planning skills, it was if she’d flicked some switch connecting Brunhilde with the Middle Ages. Erik might have been irritated by his sister’s obsessive channeling of her ancestral Viking spirit if it hadn’t suited her so perfectly well.
Their mother, ignoring the axe in the corner, started sorting groceries on the countertop. “Fish hunks, fish chunks, fish lumps, and mutton, dear,” she said. “Both of you, start setting the table, please. We’re eating early so Erik can make it to baseball practice. Erik, go find your uniform.”
Allyson slipped the slate-gray sweater over her head and bounced over to the cupboard. Disagreements between the sisters were easily forgiven and forgotten, especially when Allyson ended up wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. “Your scrimmage actually was pretty songworthy, Bru. Did you hear the cheer I was working on with the squad? I was trying out rhyming leap tackler with Sheepflattener, although you’re not, like, technically supposed to tackle anyone in soccer.” The girls discussed tricky rhymes and why more sports need tackling while they got out the silverware and dishes.
Erik plodded upstairs to his small bedroom. He gathered himself on the threshold, took a flying leap, and landed on top of his bed. He jumped up and down three times as hard as he could, huffing, “Out! Out! Out!” He then flopped down flat on his stomach and peered into the dusty space below his quilt. If he saw any hint of a squirrel under there, he was ready to leap back out the door in three-quarters of a second—he’d clocked himself—but he saw nothing more than empty wood floorboards and his stack of comic books. As he saw every day. There had never yet been a squirrel under his bed, or any animal of any kind, for that matter. But every day was a new day, which was why he always came into his room the same way.
Satisfied it was safe, Erik slid to the floor and crawled under the low-hanging quilt. His bed was shoved up against two walls in the corner, plus he’d layered rocks and bricks to block off most of the rest of the space between the floor and the bed frame. There was only one opening big enough for a skinny nine-year-old to slither through.
His mom had been annoyed when he’d blocked it off, since she couldn’t fit a broom under it, and insisted that Erik keep it clean himself. He didn’t. He lay among the dust bunnies and Scooby-Doo comics with barely enough energy left to dread his upcoming baseball practice, falling into an uneasy doze until Brunhilde knocked on his door to announce dinner was on the table. He glumly changed into his uniform and went downstairs.
Thorfast Sheepflattener towered over the head of the table. His wife passed him a slab of bread, and he got busy slathering it with butter and honey. His father, Granddad Golveg, visiting for a month from Norway, sat to Thorfast’s right with a bowl of mashed turnips. (Granny Vigdis had stayed home, saying she needed a month without her husband underfoot to do a really good spring cleaning.) Granddad was smiling to himself and sneaking bits of turnip to Spjut, the family’s tiny terrier, whose name meant “spear.”
“Spee-yoot, Spee-yoot, Spee-yoo-hoo-hoo-hoot,” he murmured in a creaky singsong voice. “Even the littlest spear can slash.” Spjut thumped his stubby black and white tail on the ...