Elizabeth let the door of Marcus’s townhouse slam behind her. “Good,” she thought, “he hates it when the door slams.” She was sick of doing his housework, laundry, and errands. But he was her cousin and her legal guardian. She was under his thumb, at least until she turned 21. That was ten years away. There were days like today when she didn’t think she would make it.

Without thinking, Elizabeth headed across town to her old house, which she had shared with her father until the fire. She missed that house, but most of all, she missed her father. Elizabeth’s Mom and dad had parted ways when Elizabeth was just a baby. She had been too young to have even the slightest memory of her mother. Maybe that’s why Elizabeth and her dad were so close. They did everything together; they finished each other’s sentences, and each seemed to know what the other was thinking. Elizabeth felt the loss of her dad every day, like a hole in her heart. She wandered back to her old house whenever she could slip away from Marcus’s townhouse. Her father had died there, and she felt something of him remained.

Most days, she sat in the garden remembering the
happy occasions she had celebrated there — sunny afternoons filled with balloons, laughter, and frothy birthday cakes. She remembered, too, the elegant dinner parties her dad had hosted in the garden with ladies and gentlemen dressed in fine, shimmering clothes. Elizabeth was allowed to stay up late — she was the hostess, after all. She had held her father’s hand, listening to his deep voice and ringing laughter. She liked listening to the grown-ups, even if she didn’t understand all of the conversations.

Today it was cloudy and threatening to rain. Elizabeth walked through the blackened remains of the house. From time to time, she poked the ashes with her foot. She sometimes found things that had survived the blaze — a spoon, a broken dish, a bit of metal, or a blob of glass. Here was the kitchen, where their housekeeper had read gossip magazines in the afternoon. Here was the living room fireplace, its marble mantle blackened but still standing. And here was the library, where Elizabeth’s father had spent hours reading to her, even after she was old enough to read books on her own. The Narnia books were Elizabeth’s all-time favorites. When she played pretend with her friends, Elizabeth liked to be Aslan, a strong, wise lion who saved the day. When she played by herself, she pretended that the grey stone lion in the garden was Aslan and she was Lucy, the youngest girl.

Elizabeth poked around the spot that used to be her father’s office. She had found things here before — a charred pen and burned bits of paper. She used her toe to push aside a clump of cinders near where her father’s desk once stood. Underneath, she spotted something shiny. She bent and picked it up. It was a gold necklace, but not what a woman would wear. It was an old-looking medallion on a gold chain, like a ceremonial necklace used by some ancient civilization. Elizabeth quickly stuffed it into her jacket pocket. Marcus would take it if he found it. He said everything valuable had to be given to him for safekeeping, and it seemed as if “valuable” meant anything she wanted for herself. Elizabeth knew she needed to go back to Marcus’s house. The sun was low in the west, and the already pale light was fading. Marcus didn’t like it when she went out on her own. But before she left, she stopped by the garden and kissed the old lion on the nose.

Marcus was in a snit. “Where were you?” he demanded. Elizabeth looked him in the eye but declined to answer. “You little sneak. Was he out prowling around the neighborhood again? It sounds like you don’t have enough to keep you busy. Here,” he said, thrusting a list at her. “Get started. I want these done by morning.”

“I have homework,” Elizabeth retorted.

“You should have thought of that before you went off on your little trip down memory lane, shouldn’t you, Lizzie?”

“Don’t call me Lizzie,” she muttered and headed for her room.

The list was long: Marcus’s laundry, Marcus’s ironing, Marcus’s dirty dishes, and so forth. Elizabeth sighed. Her only chance of doing her homework was getting started on the list immediately. As she hung up her jacket, she felt the weight of the necklace in the pocket. She took it out and rubbed off the dirt. The medallion was a small rectangle with beveled sides. On it was what looked like a scattering of stars. “Could be a constellation,” Elizabeth thought. She tucked it carefully into the toe of her dress shoe. Marcus was so meticulous; he would never look there. Then she trudged downstairs to start her chores.

The next day, as Elizabeth was getting dressed for school, she remembered the necklace. She pulled it out of her shoe and lowered it over her head. She wanted to examine it more carefully, away from Marcus’s eyes.

She showed it to her school best friends, Rachael, Zoe, and Louis.

Rachel had been Elizabeth’s closest friend since kindergarten. She had always been a truly loyal friend and always willing to help Elizabeth when she got the chance.

Zoe had met Elizabeth and Rachel in the schoolyard three years ago and immediately became friends. Though sometimes she was a little too fashion-conscious for her own good, she was still a very nice girl and fun to hang out with.

Louis was a small boy a year younger than the girls, but he liked to hang around with Elizabeth and her friends. They all peered closely for a good look. “What do you think?” Elizabeth asked.

Rachael and Zoe didn’t think much. Zoe shrugged. “It’s not very pretty,” she said. “I would never wear it.”

Rachael was only slightly intrigued. “It’s cool,” she said. “But your dad had lots of stuff way cooler than this.”

Only Louis was a fan. “Awesome!” he said and asked if he could try it. The necklace hung like a heavy rope around his skinny neck. “I bet it has magical powers,” he said. This prompted an eye roll from Rachael.

On the way home after school, Elizabeth stopped by the ruins of her old house. She used rainwater accumulated in a flowerpot to polish the necklace with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. The gold shone with a rich, dull luster. She could more clearly see the constellation of stars picked out on the surface of the medallion. She took out a piece of paper and carefully copied it down. Then she hung the necklace around her neck and sat for a while, listening to the insects and birds to whom the garden now belonged. Suddenly, he felt her father’s presence so strongly that she jumped up from the bench and looked around. “Dad?’ she called quietly, then caught herself and pressed her lips together sheepishly. Ridiculous. Her dad had been dead for over a year. But still, she felt his presence. This time she asked the question in her mind without speaking. “Dad?” There was, of course, no answer.

Elizabeth made one more stop on her way home: at the public library. Luckily, one of the computers was open. On the internet, she looked up maps of the constellations and quickly identified the pattern of stars she had copied from the necklace. It was called Leo. The Lion.

That night, Elizabeth woke up to a strange smell. And a peculiar sensation. In the darkness of her room, she could make out a large shape beside her bed. As her eyes focused, she saw a huge lion looking down at her with gentle golden eyes. The lion gently licked her hand. She heard her father’s voice, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.” Elizabeth struggled to wake up and opened her mouth to speak. “Go back to sleep. It’s late,” the voice said. And as if on command, Elizabeth closed her eyes and fell into a deep slumber.

In the morning, the whole thing seemed like a dream. It had to be. Her father had died, leaving her in Marcus’s care. Elizabeth had been in court when he was appointed as her guardian. She had heard the judge announce the rules for his guardianship. He had complete control of the money she had inherited from her father and his family. Marcus was supposed to use the money in her best interests. So he had to send the court an accountant once a year. And every six months, an inspector from the Department of Children’s Services was supposed to visit Marcus’s house every six months to ensure that it was an “appropriate environment” for her.

Elizabeth was unsure precisely what it meant to use the money in her best interests. Still, she doubted it had anything to do with the expensive things that started appearing after Marcus became her guardian. A new black convertible sports car. High-end stereo equipment — lots of it. Season tickets to the professional basketball team. Elizabeth had noticed that Marcus was studying the newspaper’s real estate section on Saturdays before leaving for the fancy gym he had recently joined.

At the same time, Marcus had quickly become hateful towards her. At first, it was just the chores. When she resisted, he yanked her into her room and locked the door, keeping. And kept her there for hours. Then he would and added more chores and start belittling. Then he had begun belittling her. She was a fool and an idiot, he said. Each time the inspector from Children’s Services had come, Marcus had made it clear that if she expressed one word of dissatisfaction, he would have her home-schooled, and then she could say goodbye to her friends forever. And so, she said nothing.

At breakfast the morning after her dream, Marcus handed her a list of chores for the afternoon. Elizabeth tucked it into her backpack without a word and pulled on her sweatshirt to leave. “My dishes?” Marcus said, nodding to his breakfast dishes still on the table. Elizabeth automatically started clearing the table and loading the words into the dishwasher. “How does it feel, Lizzie, to have fallen so far?” Marcus asked maliciously. “Cleaning up after me instead of having servants clean up after you? I wonder how your father would feel if he could see you now?” Elizabeth knew better than to answer. “When you wash the car this afternoon, be sure to get the windows clean. Last time you left them streaked.” Marcus smiled. “I’m thinking about getting another car, so you’d better learn to get the windows right.”

At recess, Elizabeth’s friends gathered close to hear her story of the lion. They were spellbound by her description of the lion’s fur, its rough tongue, and its kind and knowing golden eyes. And it’s possibly a connection to her father. So why did she hear his voice while the lion was there? They hardly listened to the bell sound, marking the end of recess.

The following morning, Elizabeth was settling into her seat when her teacher, Mrs. Clark, called her name. Mrs. Clark beckoned for Elizabeth to come to her desk. Mrs. Clark looked annoyed, but that was normal. She and Elizabeth did not get along. “Mr. Dunn would like to see you in his office,” Mrs. Clark said. Elizabeth was startled. “The principal?” she asked. Mrs. Clark looked more annoyed, “Yes, Elizabeth. Mr. Dunn, the Principal. Unless you know another Mr. Dunn in this school.”

“Do you know what it’s about?” Elizabeth asked.

Mrs. Clark shook her head in a non-committal way. “There’s something he’d like to discuss with you,” was all she would say.

A short time later, Elizabeth was seated in a chair in front of Mr. Dunn’s desk. He looked as uncomfortable as she felt. “This is not good,” Elizabeth thought.

“Elizabeth, the last year has been hard for you, hasn’t it?” Mr. Dunn began. Elizabeth nodded. He didn’t know the half of it, she thought. “I know it’s been difficult adjusting to your father’s passing and your new living arrangements.” Mr. Dunn put his fingertips together, making a steeple of his hands.

“Uh-oh,” Elizabeth thought. That is another bad sign.

“Mrs. Clark let me know earlier in the year that your grades were falling. And although I was sorry to hear that, I decided not to take any action. It’s understandable, after all.” Mr. Dunn frowned, getting to the point. “But yesterday, I heard a more troubling report, a report that you are having . . . let’s say, fantasies. But some people might call them delusions. And I’m told you believe these delusions are real. I’m very troubled by this development, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth had resolved to say nothing, having learned from her experience with Marcus that it was best not to answer powerful adults. But her outrage got the better of her. “Who told you that?” she cried.

Mr. Dunn shook his head. “That doesn’t matter, Elizabeth, and I’m not prepared to share that information with you. What matters is that you get some help. I’ve made an appointment with the school therapist, Dr. Hess. You’ll start with him today during recess.”

“No recess?” Elizabeth asked.

“Just for today. After today, Dr. Hess will decide when and how often to see you,” Mr. Dunn continued. “So, please come to my office after lunch, and I’ll introduce you to the doctor.”

On the way back to her classroom, Elizabeth fumed. Some rat must have overheard her telling Rachael, Zoe, and Louis about the lion. And told on her. If she ever figured out who it was, she would make that person pay . . . somehow. But the more she thought about it, the more she wondered whether this might not be a good thing after all. She knew that therapists were supposed to help their patients. And that they had to keep secret whatever their patients told them. Elizabeth had seen a court-appointed therapist after her father died. She had been a kind lady, harmless enough. Her report to the court had been an incomprehensible mishmash of words that Elizabeth suspected was long on terminology and short on meaning. But what if Dr. Hess was someone different, someone, helpful? An adult with whom she could confide and who might help her with Marcus. Maybe, Elizabeth thought, this was a blessing in disguise.

After lunch, Elizabeth sat in the waiting room outside of Mr. Dunn’s office. The office door opened, and Mr. Dunn walked out, speaking to another man. When he spotted Elizabeth, he broke off his conversation abruptly. “Elizabeth, I’d like you to meet Dr. Hess,” he said.

Dr. Hess held out his hand to Elizabeth. She took it tentatively, looking him over as she did so. He had wavy dark hair mixed with grey and wire-framed glasses. He looked at her intently. She did not see any warmth in his eyes but no hostility either. “Nice to meet you, Elizabeth,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with you. Will you please come this way? We’ll be meeting in the Vice-Principal’s office.”

Elizabeth inwardly groaned. The Vice Principal had left suddenly and without explaining (to the students at least) the previous year. Now his office was used for miscellaneous things — like meetings with the school counselor. The office was known as “the Cave” because of its windowless walls, dingy furniture, and the damp smell that seemed to come out of the carpet.

Dr. Hess turned on the lights and settled himself into the only comfortable chair in the room. Elizabeth perched nervously on the edge of a plastic side chair. “So, Elizabeth,” he began. “Do you know why you’re here?” Elizabeth nodded her head yes, but said nothing. “It’s been reported to the school that you’ve seen things — animals, maybe — that you believe are real. Would you like to tell me about these animals that you see?” Definitely not, Elizabeth thought to herself. Elizabeth looked at Dr. Hess but said nothing as she considered what to do. Dr. Hess leaned forward and said in a reassuring voice, “It’s OK, Elizabeth. I know you’ve had a difficult time, and I understand it’s hard for you to trust new people. But you can trust me. My only goal here is to understand what you’re experiencing and to see if I can help.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and thought, here it goes. She told him how much she missed her father and how the lion had appeared by her bed in the night, speaking, or so it seemed, with his voice. Elizabeth explained that she somehow felt that it was her father and was comforted by his presence. Dr. Hess listened carefully, jotting down notes in his little spiral notebook. He asked some questions to clarify what she was saying and nodded thoughtfully at her answers. “Anything else?” he asked when she was done. Elizabeth thought of the medallion around her neck. She decided to keep that to herself. She shook her head no. Then they were done. “Thank you for talking so openly with me, Elizabeth.” Dr. Hess stood and walked toward the office, and Elizabeth understood that she was dismissed.

As Elizabeth walked back through the quiet hallways — classes were already in session — she wondered whether she was supposed to come to see Dr. Hess after lunch tomorrow. Or maybe every day. She decided to go back to the office and ask Mr. Dunn. His secretary was not at her desk. Elizabeth walked towards Mr. Dunn’s door but hesitated when she heard voices inside. As she considered what to do, she listened to her own name being spoken in the office. She crept closer to the door, where she heard snatches of conversation between Mr. Dunn and Dr. Hess.

Dr. Hess was speaking in a grave voice and saying something about “paranoid delusions.” She heard Mr. Dunn ask a question, although she couldn’t identify the words. Dr. Hess answered. She overheard the words “very serious” and “medication” before she took off running back to her classroom.

At home that night, Elizabeth was doing her homework when she heard Marcus’s car pull into the driveway. A few minutes later, he stood at the door of her room. He was holding a small white paper bag from the drugstore. He gave her a malicious smile.

“I don’t know what game you’re playing at, dear cousin, but I can tell you this — it backfired.” Elizabeth gave Marcus a questioning look. “I hear you made up some story about seeing lions standing beside your bed. Did you think you could weasel your way in to see some therapist who would help you get a new guardian? Well, he didn’t.” Marcus held up the pharmacy bag. “But he did give me these.” Marcus took out a bottle of pills. Elizabeth could see that they were prescribed to her.

“What are those?” Elizabeth asked. “These pills, Lizzie, are anti-psychotic medication. When Dr. Hess called to tell me how concerned he was, I told him I was concerned, too. Very concerned. So, he prescribed these. So to help control your delusions.” Marcus waited for that to sink in, but Elizabeth said nothing.

“You don’t realize this, do you, Lizzie?” Marcus asked with a gleeful look in his eyes. Elizabeth shook her head; she didn’t. “What this means is that you’re a half step away from the loony bin. One move I don’t like, Lizzie, and you’ll be taking these by the handful in the psych ward.” Marcus shook the pill bottle and then headed downstairs.

Tears filled Elizabeth’s eyes. She’d been a fool to tell Hess about the lion. Now Marcus had yet another thing to use against her. She resolved never to mention the lion again to anyone.

For several nights after that, Elizabeth dreamed about the lion. She felt safer and more hopeful each morning when she woke than the night before. A couple of times, she spotted a few rough, golden hairs on her bedspread. She quickly brushed them off and told herself they could be from anything. Maybe they weren’t even hairs at all. But she continued to wear the gold medallion under her clothes every day, where it felt warm and comforting against her skin.

About a week later, Elizabeth woke to feel something gently brush against her hand. Even before she opened her eyes, she knew what she would see. The lion stood next to the bed, gazing down at her. Lizzie sighed. She wasn’t sure if she was glad to see it or not. Maybe she was going crazy.

In her head, she heard her father’s voice. “I’m sorry to wake you, Elizabeth.” The lion gently licked the back of her hand. Its golden eyes look at her kindly. “Dad, is that you?” she whispered. Then, as she reached out and stroked the lion’s soft head, she heard her father say, “It’s complicated, Sweetheart. But we’re here to help you.” The lion padded softly to the door and nosed it open. “Let’s go see what your cousin Marcus is up to,” her father said.

The lion padded down the stairs, with Elizabeth following close behind. The sound of their footsteps vanished into the thick new carpeting. She followed the lion to Marcus’s office. This was his most private room. Elizabeth was forbidden to enter it unless Marcus specifically permitted her to do so. The office walls were lined with glass-fronted display cases where Marcus kept his collection of electronic weapons. He was fascinated by things like stun guns and tasers and had other weapons Elizabeth suspected were just experimental. On the one hand, the weapons seemed like a Star Wars fixation gone bad. But on the other hand, the weapons looked menacing, and Elizabeth had no doubt they could be deadly.

The lion stopped several feet from the lighted doorway, and Elizabeth stopped. They stood in the dark hallway and listened. Marcus was on the phone, talking in a loud and animated voice. After listening for a few minutes, Elizabeth figured out he was talking to his friend Victor Gee, Marcus’s accountant. Victor was Marcus’s B.F.F., or he would be if Marcus had a B.F.F. “Wait,” Marcus said, “let me put you on speakerphone so I can look.” Elizabeth heard Marcus’s fingers clicking on his computer keyboard.

“OK,” Marcus said. “We need more cash, and I want to get it now. The older she gets, the harder it’ll be to control her. Although,” Elizabeth heard a chuckle in Marcus’s voice, “I’ve had some new ideas about that.”

Victor’s high-pitched voice came over the speakerphone. “I see a couple of options,” he said. “The fastest way would be to sell some of her investments. You have the authority to do it. But we’d have to come up with something to say about why you did it and what you did with the money. We could also try some bigger false invoices. Maybe we could find a private school to let us overpay for tuition and funnel money back to us. That would work.”

Marcus seemed unimpressed. “What else?” he asked.

“We can stay with the wrong invoice thing we’ve got going, but I feel like we need to find something else to say you’re doing with the money. We can put through only so many clothes, computers, and lessons. We need something expensive but hard to check up on.”

Marcus was silent for a moment. “I have an idea,” he said. “The school sent Lizzie to see a therapist because she’s having visions. Of animals,” Marcus scoffed. “I talked to the shrink, and there’s something about that guy that makes me think we might be able to work something out.”

“What do you mean?” Victor asked.

“Maybe he could bill us for therapy–maybe daily therapy, maybe twice a day– then send the money back to us, as long as there was a little something in it for him.”

“Dude, that’s awesome! The court will never question therapy for a kid who’s seeing things,” said Victor, his shrill voice breaking with glee. “You think he’ll do it?”

“I do. It only took a little encouragement to get a prescription out of him last week. I wonder if he’d be willing to move to something stronger for our Lizzie. It could solve a lot of problems in the long run.”

In the hallway, Elizabeth was stunned. He was robbing her, stealing the money her father had left her. Her face flushed red with anger, and she fought back the urge to burst in and confront Marcus. But looking at the lion standing between her and the office door, Elizabeth thought better of it. Instead, she and the lion crept back upstairs.

In her room, Elizabeth couldn’t even get into bed. She was furious. The lion sat calmly near the door. After a few minutes of angry pacing, Elizabeth heard her father speaking to her. “I wonder, Elizabeth, whether Marcus and his friend Victor send each other emails about how they plan to steal your inheritance?’ “Of course they do!” Elizabeth stormed. “I see Victor’s name pop up on Marcus’s Blackberry all the time.” “Hmmm,” he murmured. Her father’s voice was deep and soothing. “And he also gets email on his home computer, the one we saw tonight?” he asked. Elizabeth nodded. “We need to take a look in his office.” her father said. “But I’ve kept you up too late, all ready for tonight. Please, Elizabeth, get into bed.” She obeyed. “And now go to sleep.”

The next thing Elizabeth knew, she opened her eyes to the morning light and turned off the alarm. She lay in bed for a few minutes, thinking about the previous night’s events. Marcus was stealing her inheritance. He would leave her penniless and all alone. A wave of anger rose in her: “No!” she thought. “Never. I won’t let that happen.” The gold medallion felt warm and almost alive this morning. She did not know the connection between the medallion, the lion, and her dad, but she knew there was one and that their power would help her.

Elizabeth was preoccupied at school. Mrs. Clark first scolded her and then snapped at her to pay attention. At recess, her friends asked several times if she was OK. Elizabeth hated keeping things from them. Her secrets felt like a wedge pushing them a little farther apart each day. But for now, Elizabeth kept her secret. She complained of trouble sleeping and left it at that.

That night, the phone rang at about 8:00. Elizabeth answered. A man’s voice asked, “May I speak to Marcus, please?” The voice sounded familiar. “Yes, may I tell him who is calling?” Elizabeth said. The man paused and then said, “Is this Elizabeth? This is Dr. Hess. I’m returning Marcus’s call.” Elizabeth walked downstairs and handed Marcus the phone. Looking him in the eye, she said, “It’s Dr. Hess. For you.” Marcus took the phone and walked quickly to his office, closing the door behind him,

That night, Elizabeth was instantly awake when the lion licked her hand. Her father’s voice said, “Sweetheart, we need to visit Marcus’s office. Let’s try, shall we?” Elizabeth tiptoed downstairs behind the lion. The medallion was fairly humming against her chest. When they came to the locked office door, they stopped. The lion dropped into a crouch and looked intently at the door. Elizabeth’s father said, “He thinks he can get through.” With that, the lion gathered its strength and sprang towards the door. Elizabeth choked back a cry, certain that the crash would wake Marcus. Instead of crashing wood, Elizabeth heard a soft swoosh, and the lion disappeared through the door. A few moments later, the door opened, unlocked from the inside.

Elizabeth stroked the lion’s head as she passed him on her way to the computer. She sat down and quickly got to work. Password? Elizabeth bet correctly on Marcus’s fanatical devotion to the city’s basketball team. She was in. She quickly found Marcus’s email account and his many emails to and from Victor. She quickly realized that there were too many to read that night and too many to print. If she forwarded them to one of her friends, Marcus would see. She shuffled through the top desk drawer. Yes! A thumb drive. She copied the emails onto the stick-like device. A thick file on Marcus’s desk was labeled “E.A.B. Records.” Her initials. Elizabeth wished she had time to look through that, too. “Elizabeth, look under the file,” her father said. Elizabeth carefully lifted the file folder. Underneath was a tiny recording device about the size of a pack of gum. She found the play button on the side and pushed it. She heard Marcus’s voice saying, “The school sent my darling niece to see a therapist because she’s having visions. Of animals. . . .” It was a recording of Marcus’s call with Victor Gee from the week before. “Where did this come from?” she whispered. “You know we’re here to help you,” her father answered. Elizabeth tucked the recorder and the thumb drive into her pajama pocket. Then she followed the lion upstairs, locking the office door behind her.

The next day at recess, Elizabeth gathered her friends around, her face flushed with excitement. “What’s up, E?” Rachel asked. Elizabeth looked around carefully to make sure there were no eavesdroppers. “Can you meet me at my old house after school?” she asked. “What for?” asked Zoe. Elizabeth shook her head. “I’ll tell you then. Louis, can you go by your house and bring your laptop? It would mean a lot to me.”

Louis looked unenthusiastic about this idea. “My Mom doesn’t like me to take it out of the house. And she doesn’t like me to go to your old house. She says it’s not safe. Besides, I could get in trouble. My Mom is very overprotective.”

Elizabeth grabbed Louis by the shoulders. “But you could hide the laptop in your backpack, couldn’t you? I promise it won’t get wrecked. And we won’t go inside the house–just outside.” Reluctantly, Louis agreed.

Later that afternoon, Elizabeth, Louis, Zoe, and Rachel gathered in the ruined backyard of Elizabeth’s house. Louis set up his laptop on a stone bench and inserted the thumb drive. Marcus’s emails to Victor filled the screen in a moment, and the kids gathered around to see. “Who’s Victor Gee?” Zoe asked. “Marcus’s crooked accountant,” Elizabeth said. Louis scrolled to the most recent message. It was the last in a string of emails back and forth between Marcus and Victor. “Go to the earliest one,” Elizabeth said. Louis scrolled to the bottom of the string, and the kids’ jaws fell open as they read. “Isn’t Dr. Hess that dude, the school, made you see because of the lion?” Louis asked. Elizabeth nodded. “He’s in on it, too?” Rachel asked. “They’re trying to use him to steal from me,” said Elizabeth.

Louis opened another email and read it quickly. “Whoa!” he said. “Marcus is saying that an inspector from Children’s Services is coming to meet with him and you, Elizabeth.” “Yeah, she comes twice a year, but Marcus never lets me talk to her alone. When is she coming?” Elizabeth asked. “What’s the date today?” asked Louis. He thought for a moment, calculating, and then said, “She’s coming tomorrow.” Louis turned away from the computer and looked around at the group. “What do we do?” he asked.

That night, Marcus called to Elizabeth as she headed upstairs. She stood at the door of the T.V. room, but Marcus ignored her and continued to watch his program. At last, still facing the television, he began speaking. “Tomorrow, you’ll stay home from school in the morning,” he said. “That ‘”inspector'” from Kiddie Services is coming.” Marcus twisted around to face Elizabeth. “No funny stuff, Lizzie. Don’t forget that you’re hanging by a thread.” He picked up a bottle of pills from the table beside him and shook it. “Dr. Hess is very worried about you, Lizzie. And so am I.” Elizabeth turned and went to her room.

In the morning, Elizabeth was still cleaning up the breakfast dishes when Marcus came and took her arm. “Let’s go, Lizzie. Our friend from Kiddie Services will be here in a few minutes, and I want you out of the way.” Marcus gave her a creepy smile, “Out of sight, out of mind.” “I don’t think she’s going to forget about me, Marcus,” Elizabeth answered. “I’m the whole reason she’s coming here.” “There’s always hope,” said Marcus with another smile that wasn’t a smile. Instead, Marcus escorted Elizabeth to her room and locked the door behind her.

Elizabeth rushed to her window and peered outside. When her face appeared in the window, the bushes near the front of the house rustled. Then Louis’s, Zoe’s, and Rachel’s faces popped into sight. They gave Elizabeth the thumbs-up sign. Elizabeth nodded and waved. A few moments later, Elizabeth heard a car pull up outside. She heard footsteps on the walk, and then the doorbell rang. Marcus greeted Mrs. Robinson from Children’s Services and invited her into the living room. Ms. Robinson was a serious, middle-aged African American lady who was all business. Elizabeth liked her because she scowled at Marcus when he tried to charm her. Elizabeth could tell that Ms. Robinson was not charmed.

Elizabeth looked out the window again. She saw Louis, Zoe, and Rachel heading for the front door. Marcus was carrying his backpack. A few moments later, the doorbell rang again. Marcus answered. Elizabeth pressed her ear against her door and heard Rachel speaking loudly that Mrs. Robinson was sure to overhear, “But it’s really important that we talk to her. We just found out there’s a math test this afternoon, and I need to give her the extra credit homework.” Elizabeth shook her head, thinking, “That made no sense.” But it worked. Elizabeth could hear the kids crowding into the front hall and introducing themselves to Mrs. Robinson.

Meanwhile, Marcus climbed the stairs to Elizabeth’s room. When he opened the door, he said quietly, “I don’t know what you’re up to, Lizzie, but if you are trying to pull something, think again. Unless, of course, you want to spend the next eleven years in an institution — which, by the way, would be very expensive.” Elizabeth shouldered past him and headed downstairs.

Mrs. Robinson and the kids were now seated in the living room. Rachel, Zoe, and Louis were so nervous they could hardly sit still. Louis was clutching his backpack to his chest. Marcus said, “OK, guys. You wanted to tell Elizabeth about a math test?” The three kids sat frozen for a second. Then Louis unzipped his backpack and pulled out a stack of papers. “Actually, we wanted to give these to Mrs. Robinson,” he said, handing them to her. She took them and looked at Louis questioningly. “What are they?” she asked. Rachel found her voice. “These are emails between Marcus and a man named Victor Gee. He’s an accountant. We thought you should see them because Victor is helping Marcus steal money from Elizabeth.” Rachel fixed her eyes on Mrs. Robinson, trying hard not to look at Marcus, whose face was black with rage. Marcus strode across the room and grabbed the emails from Mrs. Robinson. “Let me see those. What a bunch of lies!” But Mrs. Robinson held on and pulled them back. She flipped through the pages, her eyes quickly scanning the messages.

Meanwhile, Marcus was sputtering with anger. “I have no idea what this is all about, but whatever it is, I can tell you that these are forgeries. You should know, Ms. Robertson, that Elizabeth is mentally unstable. She’s delusional; did you know that? She’s on medication!” he cried with increasing panic. Elizabeth edged over to stand near her friends.

“Forgeries?” Louis said bravely. “Really? Well, listen to this.” He pulled out the miniature recording device and hit the play button. Marcus’s recorded voice filled the room. “We need more cash,” his voice said. Marcus looked stricken, and Ms. Robinson looked furious.

Ms. Robinson reached into her purse. “I need to make a call,” she said, throwing an angry look at Marcus. “Here, use mine,” Marcus said, reaching into his jacket for his cell phone. But what he pulled out wasn’t a phone; it was a stun gun. He stepped close to Mrs. Robinson and pulled the trigger before she could react. There was a loud zapping sound, and Ms. Robinson slumped sideways on the couch. Zoe screamed. The kids huddled together, glancing around the room for an escape route. But there was none. Elizabeth spoke up. “What now, Marcus?”

Marcus shook his head. “I’ll deal with her later, but I think, for now, you geniuses will spend some quality time in the basement.” So he pointed the stun gun at them and said, “You first, Lizzie. Lead the way.”

Just then, a blood-curdling roar filled the room. The lion crouched in the doorway. Zoe, Rachel, Louis, and Marcus screamed in unison. Marcus was frozen, but his eyes darted from side to side, calculating. He could never get close enough to use the stun gun, and who knew if it would even work on an animal that size? Aiming, he threw the heavy gun at the lion, hitting it in the face. At the same instant, he shot out the doorway and into the hall. Elizabeth heard his footsteps on the stairs. “Quick!” she said. “He’s heading for the office. He has guns there. Weapons.” The lion was after Marcus in a flash, taking the stairs in a single, graceful bound. The kids ran after the lion.

As they approached the office, the kids could see Marcus inside. He is wearing a helmet and pointing a powerful-looking gun at the lion, which lies in a menacing crouch in the doorway. As the kids came into view, Marcus swung his gun to point it at them. At that moment, the lion pounced and, in a nanosecond, pinned Marcus to the ground. Then, with one blow from the lion’s giant paw, Marcus’s head sagged sideways onto the carpet. Then the lion lay down next to Marcus with its front legs across his chest.

“Awesome!” Louis yelled.

A few weeks later, Elizabeth walked out of the County Courthouse with her friends, her new guardians, and Rachel’s Mom and dad. Elizabeth was glowing with happiness and smiling from ear to ear. She didn’t notice the black and white Sheriff’s Department bus pulling into the parking lot or Marcus’s bitter face staring out the window. She also didn’t feel the gold chain around her neck break a link and slip gently off her neck. It lay in the grass near the sidewalk as Elizabeth and her group climbed noisily into their car and headed for a celebration lunch.

The End