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Sometime during your life—in fact, very soon—you may find yourself reading a book, and you may notice that a book’s first sentence can often tell you what sort of story your book contains. For instance, a book that began with the sentence “Once upon a time there was a family of cunning little chipmunks who lived in a hollow tree” would probably contain a story full of talking animals who get into all sorts of mischief. A book that began with the sentence “Emily sat down and looked at the stack of blueberry pancakes her mother had prepared for her, but she was too nervous about Camp Timbertops to eat a bite” would probably contain a story full of giggly girls who have a grand old time. And a book that began with the sentence “Gary smelled the leather of his brand-new catcher’s mitt and waited impatiently for his best friend Larry to come around the corner” would probably contain a story full of sweaty boys who win some sort of trophy. And if you liked mischief, a grand old time, or trophies, you would know which book to read, and you could throw the rest of them away.
But this book begins with the sentence “The Baudelaire orphans looked out the grimy window of the train and gazed at the gloomy blackness of the Finite Forest, wondering if their lives would ever get any better,” and you should be able to tell that the story that follows will be very different from the story of Gary or Emily or the family of cunning little chipmunks. And this is for the simple reason that the lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are very different from most people’s lives, with the main difference being the amount of unhappiness, horror, and despair. The three children have no time to get into all sorts of mischief, because misery follows them wherever they go. They have not had a grand old time since their parents died in a terrible fire. And the only trophy they would win would be some sort of First Prize for Wretchedness. It is atrociously unfair, of course, that the Baudelaires have so many troubles, but that is the way the story goes. So now that I’ve told you that the first sentence will be “The Baudelaire orphans looked out the grimy window of the train and gazed at the gloomy blackness of the Finite Forest, wondering if their lives would ever get any better,” if you wish to avoid an unpleasant story you had best put this book down.
The Baudelaire orphans looked out the grimy window of the train and gazed at the gloomy blackness of the Finite Forest, wondering if their lives would ever get any better. An announcement over a crackly loudspeaker had just told them that in a few minutes they would arrive in the town of Paltryville, where their new caretaker lived, and they couldn’t help wondering who in the world would want to live in such dark and eerie countryside. Violet, who was fourteen and the eldest Baudelaire, looked out at the trees of the forest, which were very tall and had practically no branches, so they looked almost like metal pipes instead of trees. Violet was an inventor, and was always designing machines and devices in her head, with her hair tied up in a ribbon to help her think, and as she gazed out at the trees she began work on a mechanism that would allow you to climb to the top of any tree, even if it were completely bare. Klaus, who was twelve, looked down at the forest floor, which was covered in brown, patchy moss. Klaus liked to read more than anything else, and he tried to remember what he had read about Paltryville mosses and whether any of them were edible. And Sunny, who was just an infant, looked out at the smoky gray sky that hung over the forest like a damp sweater. Sunny had four sharp teeth, and biting things with them was what interested her most, and she was eager to see what there was available to bite in the area. But even as Violet began planning her invention, and Klaus thought of his moss research, and Sunny opened and closed her mouth as a prebiting exercise, the Finite Forest looked so uninspiring that they couldn’t help wondering if their new home would really be a pleasant one.
“What a lovely forest!” Mr. Poe remarked, and coughed into a white handkerchief. Mr. Poe was a banker who had been in charge of managing the Baudelaire affairs since the fire, and I must tell you that he was not doing a very good job. His two main duties were finding the orphans a good home and protecting the enormous fortune that the children’s parents had left behind, and so far each home had been a catastrophe, a word which here means “an utter disaster involving tragedy, deception, and Count Olaf.” Count Olaf was a terrible man who wanted the Baudelaire fortune for himself, and tried every disgusting scheme he could think of to steal it. Time after time he had come very close to succeeding, and time after time the Baudelaire orphans had revealed his plan, and time after time he had escaped—and all Mr. Poe had ever done was cough. Now he was accompanying the children to Paltryville, and it pains me to tell you that once again Count Olaf would appear with yet another disgusting scheme, and that Mr. Poe would once again fail to do anything even remotely helpful. “What a lovely forest!” Mr. Poe said again, when he was done coughing. “I think you children will have a good home here. I hope you do, anyway, because I’ve just received a promotion at Mulctuary Money Management. I’m now the Vice President in Charge of Coins, and from now on I will be busier than ever. If anything goes wrong with you here, I will have to send you to boarding school until I have time to find you another home, so please be on your best behavior.”
“Of course, Mr. Poe,” Violet said, not adding that she and her siblings had always been on their best behavior but that it hadn’t done them any good.
“What is our new caretaker’s name?” Klaus asked. “You haven’t told us.”
Mr. Poe took a piece of paper out of his pocket and squinted at it. “His name is Mr. Wuz—Mr. Qui—I can’t pronounce it. It’s very long and complicated.”
“Can I see?” Klaus asked. “Maybe I can figure out how to pronounce it.”
“No, no,” Mr. Poe said, putting the paper away. “If it’s too complicated for an adult, it’s much too complicated for a child.”
“Ghand!” Sunny shrieked. Like many infants, Sunny spoke mostly in sounds that were often difficult to translate. This time she probably meant something like “But Klaus reads many complicated books!”
“He’ll tell you what to call him,” Mr. Poe continued, as if Sunny had not spoken. “You’ll find him at the main office of the Lucky Smells Lumbermill, which I’m told is a short walk from the train station.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Violet asked.
“No,” Mr. Poe said, and coughed again into his handkerchief. “The train only stops at Paltryville once a day, so if I got off the train I would have to stay overnight and I’d miss another day at the bank. I’m just dropping you off here and heading right back into the city.”
The Baudelaire orphans looked worriedly out the window. They weren’t very happy about just being dropped off in a strange place, as if they were a pizza being delivered instead of three children all alone in the world.
“What if Count Olaf shows up?” Klaus asked quietly. “He swore he’d find us again.”
“I have given Mr. Bek—Mr. Duy—I have given your new caretaker a complete description of Count Olaf,” said Mr. Poe. “So if by some stretch of the imagination he shows up in Paltryville, Mr. Sho—Mr. Gek—will notify the authorities.”
“But Count Olaf is always in disguise,” Violet pointed out. “It’s often difficult to recognize him. Just about the only way you can tell it’s him is if you see that tattoo of an eye that he has on his ankle.”
“I included the tattoo in my description,” Mr. Poe said impatiently.
“But what about Count Olaf’s assistants?” Klaus asked. “He usually brings at least one of them with him, to help out with his treachery.”
“I described all of them to Mr.—I have described all of them to the owner of the mill,” Mr. Poe said, holding a finger up as he counted off Olaf’s horrible associates. “The hook-handed man. The bald man with the long nose. Two women with white powder all over their faces. And that rather chubby one who looks like neither a man nor a woman. Your new guardian is aware of them all, and if there’s any problem, remember you can always contact me or any of my associates at Mulctuary Money Management.”
“Casca,” Sunny said glumly. She probably meant something like “That’s not very reassuring,” but nobody heard her over the sound of the train whistle as they arrived at Paltryville Station.
“Here we are,” Mr. Poe said, and before the children knew it they were standing in the station, watching the train pull away into the dark trees of the Finite Forest. The clattering noise of the train engine got softer and softer as the train raced out of sight, and soon the three siblings were all alone indeed.
“Well,” Violet said, picking up the small bag that contained the children’s few clothes, “let’s find the Lucky Smells Lumbermill. Then we can meet our new caretaker.”
“Or at least learn his name,” Klaus said glumly, and took Sunny’s hand.
If you are ever planning a vacation, you may find it useful to acquire a guidebook, which is a book listing interesting and pleasant places to visit and giving helpful hints about what to do when you arrive. Paltryville is not listed in any guidebook, and as the Baudelaire orphans trudged down Paltryville’s one street, they instantly saw why. There were a few small shops on either side of the street, but none of them had any windows. There was a post office, but instead of a flag flying from the flagpole, there was only an old shoe dangling from the top of it, and across from the post office was a high wooden wall that ran all the way to the end of the street. In the middle of the wall was a tall gate, also made of wood, with the words “Lucky Smells Lumbermill” written on it in letters that looked rough and slimy. Alongside the sidewalk, where a row of trees might have been, were towering stacks of old newspapers instead. In short, everything that might make a town interesting or pleasant had been made boring or unpleasant, and if Paltryville had been listed in a guidebook the only helpful hint about what to do when you got there would be: “Leave.” But the three youngsters couldn’t leave, of course, and with a sigh Violet led her younger siblings to the wooden gate. She was about to knock when Klaus touched her on the shoulder and said, “Look.”
“I know,” she said. Violet thought he was talking about the letters spelling out “Lucky Smells Lumbermill.” Now that they were standing at the gate, the children could see why the letters looked rough and slimy: they were made out of wads and wads of chewed-up gum, just stuck on the gate in the shapes of letters. Other than a sign I saw once that said “Beware” in letters made of dead monkeys, the “Lucky Smells Lumbermill” sign was the most disgusting sign on earth, and Violet thought her brother was pointing that out. But when she turned to agree with him, she saw he wasn’t looking at the sign, but down to the far end of the street.
“Look,” Klaus said again, but Violet had already seen what he was looking at. The two of them stood there without speaking a word, staring hard at the building at the end of Paltryville’s one street. Sunny had been examining some of the teeth marks in the gum, but when her siblings fell silent she looked up and saw it, too. For a few seconds the Baudelaire orphans just looked.
“It must be a coincidence,” Violet said, after a long pause.
“Of course,” Klaus said nervously, “a coincidence.”
“Varni,” Sunny agreed, but she didn’t believe it. None of the orphans did. Now that the children had reached the mill, they could see another building, at the far end of the street. Like the other buildings in town, it had no windows, just a round door in the center. But it was the way the building was shaped, and how it was painted, that made the Baudelaires stare. The building was a sort of oval shape, with curved, skinny sticks sticking out of the top of it. Most of the oval was painted a brownish color, with a big circle of white inside the oval, and a smaller circle of green inside the white circle, and some little black steps led to a little round door that was painted black, so it looked like an even smaller circle inside the green one. The building had been made to look like an eye.
The three children looked at one another, and then at the building, and then at each other again, shaking their heads. Try as they might, they just couldn’t believe it was a coincidence that the town in which they were to live had a building that looked just like the tattoo of Count Olaf.
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