"Why am I here?" Nora surveyed the alley.
She was really hoping Roland's answer wasn't what she was think it would be.
But it was.
"You know why." He told her, as he flung odd objects from a nearby pile of trashbags.
"To see my family."
When Roland Lawrell talked about family, Nora always imagined the Laurell's residence as a huge mansions. No one really considered that a boy dressed in long black pants and ironed shirts would lived in a dump.
Roland, however, seemed unaffected by her visible discomfort.
"...Key...the key..." He muttered over the dim, stench.
It wasn't long before Nora considered Roland delirious. She was ready to knock him out with a stray glass bottle and drag him to a psychologist.
But he found something. From particular bag, infested with the flies and rotting fruit, Roland fished an antique golden key.
He held the impossibly shiny object high in the air.
Nora froze. How could such a key get there? Now, she was just confused.
"What's the key for?" She edged closer to get a better look.
Roland traced the decorative carvings, shrugging, "to see my family."
"Not exactly...You'll see."
Roland strode to the narrow brick wall. He tapped on particular bricks with a ruby red colour, until one sank into the wall. Brick by brick, the rest unfurled in tiny crunches and scratches to unveil an artfully styled double doors.
Nora's jaw fell.
"You live in a secret lair." She tried to process this.
"Yeah," A silly grin curled over his face, "sorta."
He inserted the key and twisted it twice. The mechanisms in the door gave a satisfied click and swung inwards into a royal blue hallway.
"After you," Roland held one side of the door open.
All the awestruck Nora could only manage a murmur of thanks, before stumbling into the Lawrell's mansion.
She gazed at the patterns etched on the marine walls that seemed to swirl in mysterious glyphs--like the ones on the Lawrells' key.
But the mansion wasn't done with surprises. As the classmates wandered down the hallway, the glyphs started to fade. Ultramarine walls slowly transitioned to damson purple. And a warm glow sprung from the other side of the hallway, as Nora and Roland moved closer.
They found themselves entering the kind of room hidden among the woods, complete with rustic wooden furniture, wooden sculptures and a glowing fireplace.
Not too far from the fire sat a middle-aged lady, rocking back and forth in her rocking chair. Down her tulip pink dress ran a caramel coloured scarf, rippling as she knitted it. And on the backrest of her chair lay a white coat; bleached, ironed and folded to show the name tag "Dr. Lawrell".
The lady turned to greet them with an ecstatic grin.
"Welcome home Roland, dear. Who's this?" She smiled at Nora.
"Mum, this is Nora. Nora, Mum." Roland introduced them.
Dr Lawrell's aquamarine eyes stared at Nora with surprising intensity.
Then, she blinked.
Her pupils morphed a ghostly pale shade.
But as she blinked again, it was vanished.
"Hi Dr Lawrell, I'm Roland's classmate." Nora decided to assume she didn't just see...that.
"Nora!" Dr Lawrell spoke her name with such cheerful enthusiasm.
Nora tried her best to smile in spite of her surprise.
"Aunt Phoebe will do." She patted Nora's arm, gently.
"Have a seat my dears. I'll get some snacks." She set down the half-finished scarf and rose from the rocking chair.
Roland watched his mother stroll into the depths of the ocean blue hallway.
"What do you think?" He finally asked.
Nora sat beside him.
"What do I think? About what? Your mum? The place? You?" She twirled her backpack straps.
The crackling fire filled the silence for Nora as she thought carefully.
"It's nice. We could come over here for the schools project--if you don't mind. But-" she turned to look at Roland "-ever got any burglars? I mean, it's awesome that your family spends money on this instead of a mansion but--no offence--people might find the key and...yknow."
"None taken. And we have systems for that. So, people only come in when we want them to."
"Systems?" The word stuck in her mind.
It was Roland's turn to fall quiet.
"It won't exactly be mysterious if I told you, would it?" He smirked, tilting his head smugly.
"True." Nora lowered her head to untangle the backpack straps.
When she was done, she prompted, "Is it the key?"
He shook his head.
"Kind of, but no."
"Okay." Nora gave up. For now.
"Anyway, wanna see something cool?" Roland switched subjects.
When Nora nodded, he beckoned her out of the room and into the hallway. She watched as Roland shut the door and pressed his palm to its shiny surface, brows furrowed in concentration. He stretched his fingers to grasp the ornate doorknob and twist its crystal handle to reveal the room with wood sculptures and rocking chair.
But it didn't.
It led to a far bigger place, built of caramel coloured walls and a glass dome for a rooftop. Sunlight seeped down in bright, skinny rays that spread itself over a butterscotch duvet sprawling its bed and a huge desk sitting beside a sturdy bookshelf.
"This is my room." Roland flopped on his bed.
"Like it?" Nora ran fingers through her hair.
"Roland, you have a huge room all to yourself! I'd die for a place like yours."
The silly grin returned to his face.
"We're definitely moving all our sleepovers with the group here, from now on." Nora decided.
"Nooo my hideout will be exposed." He rolled himself into a blanket burrito.
Nora laughed. She reached for the duvet and pulled it off. But Roland's grip on it was firm. So the pulling escalated into a tug of war, until the both fell on the king-sized bed in peels of laughters.
"I take you both are close friends?" Aunt Phoebe leaned by the door with a bowl in her hands.
Roland sat up.
"Mum!" He whined.
"I know, Roland. I know. I'm not intruding. I just came to bring cookies. See?" She sat the bowl on the bed.
"I'm going now. Have fun, you two!" Aunt Phoebe waved.
The two of them waved as she left.
"Here. Take one." Roland held out the bowl. "Trust me, they're good."
Nora peered into the glass bowl. Inside was a whole array of peculiar cookies. Some she knew, some she didn't.
There were chocolate chip cookies, gingerbread cookies, pretzels, digestives, the fortune cookies they gave you at Food Panda, ones that looked like curly white strands of batter fried into a delicious tangle...
There were just too many to choose from.
"Hey, no pressure," Roland set down the bowl. "my mum just likes to flex her cookie baking skills. Picking one won't offend her or anything."
"What do you recommend then?" Nora wondered.
"I guess her newest batch of shortbreads are awesome."
They did seem promising. Nora picked the cookie.
Roland found a pearl white macaroon and broke it in half. The eager boy pulled a white paper from its sugary cream.
"yOur paff ahead 'ill grow stormier." He read the tiny slip, mouthful of macaroon.
A wave of apprehension rippled over his face. But it quickly retreated to show a bright grin.
"Thanks mum." He swallowed the cookie and set the slip on top of the whole stash of other tiny papers on his desk.
"What does yours say?" Roland craned his neck.
"Mine?" Nora was still new about the whole 'paper in cookies thing', as she snapped her rectangular cookie down its middle.
Crumbs rained into the cookie bowl as she pulled the waxed paper out.
Nora read the cursive letters curling over the white paper.
"Your ultimate test is yet to come."
"Ultimate test?" Roland mumbled, "Never heard that one before..."
"Anyways-" Roland picked another cookie out of the bowl "-don't take them too seriously. They're just-" he takes a bite "-a random fact about the future you probably already know."
Nora didn't really know to take the advice--given Roland's previous unease over his own slip of paper.
But really, it was just a paper. Wasn't it?