The day that Leo Zifkak became the owner of the music box, his life changed forever.
Leo didn't know this at the time. His heart didn't miss a beat as he took the box from his mother and put it on his desk. He had no idea what he was holding in his hands.
He was pleased, of course. Who wouldn't be pleased to be the new owner of something that had been a family treasure for hundreds of years? His father said that the music box should be in a museum. But Aunt Bethany Langlander had left it to Leo in her will and so here it was, making everything else in his room look plain and cheap and sort of...childish.
The music box had been in Leo's mother's family ever since a long-ago ancestor called Rollo had brought it home from one of his world trips. ("Rollo Langlander was a great traveler," Aunt Bethany always said, opening her blue eyes wide as if being a great traveler was as remarkable as being a fire-eater in a circus.)
The box was about as big as a shoebox, and had four short legs. Its lid was smooth, shining black, quite plain except for a narrow, oval-shaped ring of real silver in the center. Its sides, however, were painted with amazingly detailed scenes, and this was what made it so special, and so interesting.
The long side at the front was a town filled with houses, shops, and people. The long side at the back was green and peaceful, with a castle on a hill, a queen in a long blue gown, a dragon flying high in the sky, and a river winding down from misty mountains. One of the short sides was a coast of sea and golden sand. The other was mainly forest, where tall trees rose from a sea of lacy ferns and shadows seemed to flicker with the stripes of tigers.
Leo lifted the box and turned the winder in its base three times, counting under his breath. One, two, three ...
He put the box down again and opened the lid. The familiar, chiming music began to play. His mother patted his shoulder and wandered out of the room.
And Leo was left alone with the treasure that might as well have been a bomb just waiting to explode.
The music slowed, and stopped. Leo wound the box again. One, two, three. As the music began, he heard his mother moving around in the spare room next door, and sighed. He wanted to forget that Mimi Langlander, his least-favorite second cousin, was coming to stay.
His mother wasn't looking forward to Mimi's visit, either. She hadn't said so, but he could tell. And Leo's father had, as usual, made his feelings very clear.
"Why can't Robert and Carol take the girl to Greece with them?" he'd demanded, when the news of Mimi's visit had been broken to him.
"She won't go," Leo's mother had said calmly. "She doesn't want to miss her violin lessons. And -"
Leo's father gave an explosive snort. "Then surely there's someone else who can take her?" he demanded.
"No, Tony, there isn't," said Suzanne. "Her brothers are both working, and can't possibly look after her. The twins are still in India. Chris and Kwon live too far away. Martin and Monique can't take Mutt because of Martin's allergy -"
"Mutt?" roared Leo's father. "Who's -?"
"Mimi's dog," said Suzanne, lifting her chin. "Mimi won't go anywhere without him."
Tony stared, speechless. Then he turned to look at Einstein, the dignified black cat dozing in a puddle of sunlight under the window.
"Oh, Mutt won't bother Einstein," Suzanne said confidently. "Mutt's a tiny little thing. And he'll sleep upstairs with Mimi."
Tony had groaned, and Leo had gloomily faced the fact that the matter was settled.