Mackintosh loved apples. Granny Smith apples, Fuji apples, Honey Crisp apples, Peasgood's Nonsuch, Prairie Spy...he even liked the Ingrid Marie apple, in spite of the fact that it shared the same surname as his third grade teacher and faintly reminded him of her in appearance: "plump, russet-skinned, fleshy and bland."
He loved apples so much in fact, that he had eaten apples in one form or another each day of the week for the past 14 years–apple pie, applesauce, apple strudel, apple jellies, apple juice, apple crisp, apple sausage, apple waffles...
"I love apples more than anything in the world!" Mackintosh replied in defiance when his mother once lectured him about not teasing his little brother and asked him to apologize.
In a valley not far from their home was an orchard. Mackintosh delighted in meandering through it on his way home from school. One cloudy afternoon on his 16th birthday, he strolled through the succulent grove and saw a small mirror pinned to a tree.
"What's this?" He walked up to the mirror and saw his reflection. He rubbed his cheek and noticed that it had turned a light shade of rose. He thought nothing of it and continued on his way.
A few minutes later, he felt an itch above his left ear. He flicked it, but it wouldn't go away, so he tugged and tugged until he pulled what appeared to be a little green leaf.
The leaf was a dull green and oblong, with tiny fissures running along its sides. The veins were barely perceptible - nothing like the poison oak he'd put in Karin's shoes during gym class last spring. Boy, that was funny, slapping at her feet with every step as she ran down the hall. You'd think that she'd been attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes.
The thought of mosquitoes reminded him of that time when he mixed in a couple of dead ones, wings and all, in his best friend's turkey stuffing at the school cafeteria and told him they were cranberries. The look on his face when he realized what he just ate. What a riot that was!
And so it went, Mackintosh, ever the prankster, strolling through the orchard, tickled by the many uproarious moments stemming from his clever ideas.
The sunlight was beginning to fade and the crisp damp air was a foretaste of rain. It was getting late and Mackintosh knew that if he didn't make it home on time, he'd be sent to his room without dinner. So, he picked up his pace.
Flanked on either side with row upon row of blossoming apple trees, Mackintosh was tempted to reach out to their extended arms to have a taste, but he resisted. Determined not to spoil his appetite, he skipped past them. Had it not been for the intense cramp shooting up his left thigh, all would have been fine. But, the sharp pain caused him to hop a few steps and then come to halt. He grabbed his leg with one hand and rubbed it vigorously with the other. Although his leg was in pain, he proceeded to walk-hop his way forward, taking longer strides to cover more ground.
The combination of hops and steps was working. He was progressing quite nicely until a snake slithered up, cutting off the path, stopping Mackintosh in mid-stride. His eyes were fixed on the reptile's long, scaly body, and his dreaded fear of snakes bumped up his heart rate. The rush of adrenaline made him light-headed and he had difficulty breathing. It was as if a balloon was pressing against his skull from the inside. Growing bigger and bigger. The pressure became so great that Mackintosh's cropped brown hair bloomed wildly with bushy red locks. Tiny knots sprouted on his skin along his arms and legs and when he raised his arms for a closer look they petrified in mid-air. He could see his house on the distant hill, beneath the now, dark gray skies. Mackintosh started to run, but more effort was required with every step. It was as if he was running in slow motion. He was only able to advance a few feet before stiffening completely.
The curious snake slunk toward him and stopped at his feet. Mackintosh's eyes could only follow him to a point, as he was unable to move his head, which at this point looked more like a large bird's nest. Apparently, someone else thought so too, as a large black crow landed on Mackintosh's leafy head. Mackintosh couldn't see what it was, but he did see a hawk circling the sky above him. He also felt a squirrel scurry up his leg and onto his shoulder. Just as Mackintosh went to scream, his lips puckered, clipping the sound short.
"Well, what do we have here?" said Crow, plucking a leaf and holding it up to the sunlight. "This one's not like the others."
"No, he isn't," said Snake.
Hawk could see from above, beautiful emerald beads, perfectly aligned, with alternating bands of amber green grass. Except for this one randomly placed red knob poking out like a pimple. Clearly, this one didn't belong.
"Blech!" said Squirrel, after biting into one of the many apples that adorned Mackintosh's head. "So sour!" He spat out the sour bits and quickly wiped his paws on his hips.
All four continued to examine Mackintosh, carefully inspecting his crown and probing his limbs. Crow noticed how knotty and wiry he was. "What are you?" he said.
Mackintosh was unable to answer. He tried replying with his eyes, but even those were barely visible through the many-layered wrinkles that protruded from what once was his face.
"Where'd you come from?" said Squirrel.
Still, no answer.
"Why are you here?" said Snake.
Try as he might, Mackintosh failed to respond to their inquisition, causing them to lose their patience.
"I think it's rotten," said Squirrel coiling around the trunk and popping his head around the bend, before settling on a branch high above the ground.
Crow picked at the bark in one of the branch folds with his beak. "Should we tear it down?"
The animals deliberated over what to do and how best to handle the situation. It was determined that the best course of action would be to peck at it, snap its limbs, and pluck its foliage, until there was nothing left. Nature would take care of the rest.
Of course, Mackintosh could hear everything and the fact that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, whisked him into a panic. He felt hot and his muscles tightened. The tension built up so much that a handful of apples fell off. One bopped Crow on the head, another nearly knocked Squirrel off a branch and a third thumped Snake on the ground.
"Hey!" Snake said leering at Squirrel.
Squirrel stood up. "Wasn't me. It was him." Squirrel pointed his tail directly at Crow, who was rubbing his head.
Crow took offense at the accusation and reminded everyone that if anyone was to blame for throwing apples at someone, it was the delinquent Squirrel. He was the biggest weasel of them all.
Dissension broke out and a quarrel ensued between the three of them. High above the trees, Hawk continued his leisurely rounds and watched them bicker. Unaffected by the squabble, he laughed and laughed at their absurdity. His laughter drifted down below, abruptly stopping the argument. Snake, Squirrel, and Crow looked straight up at Hawk and implicated him with the undesirable act. Hawk didn't appreciate the accusation and this led to another dispute with all four of them now talking over one another.
All this commotion was making Mackintosh increasingly nervous. He simply stood there, perfectly still when a raindrop landed on his knotty nose. Stormy skies were approaching and the animals, too, noticed, as one drop after another, the rain began to fall. All at once, they retreated to their homes, still fussing as they parted ways. Their voices trailed off in different directions as they left Mackintosh behind.
A chorus of thunder rumbled in the distance. The storm was coming down hard now, loosening the soil. A gust of wind blasted through, picking off some of Mackintosh's leaves. The entire orchard was veiled in black under the heavy clouds, punctuated by the flickering lights of lightning zigzagging across the sky. Even if he had seen it coming, there was nothing Mackintosh could do to prevent the bolt of lightning from striking him right where he stood.
"Bailey, go wash up. Dinner's almost ready."
"Okay," replied Bailey, his breath fogging up the glass. On rainy days, Bailey loved to stand on the sofa with his face pressed against the living room window. He could spend hours trying to predict the trails of raindrops as they scooted across the windowpane. He never understood why the outside world looked inverted when seen through a raindrop. "Whoa!" Bailey watched with elation as a lightning bolt struck the orchard below.
In the background, he could hear the clinking of silverware. His mother was setting the table. "Where in the world is your brother? That boy will never learn, will he?"
Bailey jerked back as the front door flew open and Mackintosh rushed through the door. He was drenched from head to toe and covered in mud. He let out a breath and promptly shut the door.
"What in the world? Young man, go clean up, dinner's going to get cold."
Mackintosh ambled down the hallway.
"And pick those leaves out of your hair. You look ridiculous," his mother said.
While Mackintosh washed up, Bailey used his knife and spoon to keep time with the rain tapping on the roof.
Mackintosh turned the corner and entered the kitchen. "What's for dinner mom?"
"Your favorite, honey, Pork and Apple Stew!"
"Yum!" said Bailey.
"Um, thanks mom," he said, scratching behind his ear. "But...can I have pizza tonight?" •
They found his body contorted like a fortune cookie with dried foam at the corners of his mouth and a fallen hand-carved rosewood chair, with inlaid mother of pearl beside him.
"What are the odds," the officer said, to no one in particular, his tongue traveling a well-worn toothpick across his teeth.
The crime scene investigator noticed a faded yellow band on the dead man's wedding finger and scribbled MISSING WIFE on his tiny notepad. The man had no visible injuries.
The investigator turned the man's head to one side, wedged his thumb and forefinger in the man's cheek, and with great care pulled what looked like a ticker tape. After nearly a minute, the end of the coil popped out.
In tiny red letters, it read THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.
"It's over Ben!" Sheila threw a handful of cancellation notices onto the kitchen table, knocking over some empty soda cans and an ashtray buried under a heap of cigarette butts.
"C'mon Sheila. You're making a mountain out of an island."
"It's molehill, you moron. And I am not. What did you do with the money I gave you- huh?"
Ben hated when Sheila spoke to him in that accusatory tone; as if he were a child. Hadn't he done everything she asked? The weekly meetings, the constant checking in? He slapped the table, stood up and walked out of the room averting his eyes from Sheila's self-righteous glare, wiping the perspiration from under his nose with the back of his hand.
Ted sat at a long mahogany table overlooking the downtown skyline. His thoughts were elsewhere as his superiors demanded answers. "How could you let this happen, Ted? You know what was at stake." The more questions they asked, the more muffled their voices became. The meeting had been going on for what seemed like an eternity and a day.
Eight years. That's how long Ted played his role as the "company man" without so much as a pat on the back or a 'Job well done, Ted. Here's a bonus to show our appreciation Ted'.
"You had three days to get this contract signed," said the wrinkled man with the cufflinks and bushy eyebrows. The other starched collars sitting alongside, nodded.
A pigeon perched on the window ledge ruffled its feathers and flew away. It soon became a tiny speck in the dull gray sky until it simply vanished.
"Well, what have you got to say for yourself?"
Ted looked away from the window and faced the angry suit seated directly across from him. He systematically capped his pen, placed it inside his coat pocket, closed the latches to his briefcase, stood up and walked out.
"Who cares ball fag17! every1 and their grandma knows that move. Luzr"
Eddie was learning quickly that as much as he'd hoped, fitting in in cyberspace was no different than being in school. Kids were cruel no matter where you went. But, occasionally there'd be someone who stuck up for you.
"CThunder205, leave bolvar17 alone. take the h8 someplace else."
"whatever, you don't own this thread. anyway it took ball fag forever just to figure out how to tank. no wonder he has no friends."
The one advantage for Eddie though, was in the forums, no one could see you cry.
"hey ball fag instead of getting us killed all the time maybe you should kill yourself. for real."
Sheila remained in the kitchen. Lit only by the mustard colored street lamp directly outside her window, she gathered the empty food cartons that Ben had left on the kitchen counter. She thought of how much she cared for Ben, but knew that staying together would be the end of both of them. I'm working the graveyard shift while his ass sits around all day and he doesn't even have the decency to leave me a single bite. A cockroach scurried across the wall. Startled, she dropped the box and a stale fortune cookie fell onto the counter. She hesitated, then picked it up and cracked it open.
"Mmm...that was delicious, Ted. Thank you."
Ted set aside his chopsticks and quickly swallowed his partially chewed tea-smoked duck. "So, what do you think?" he said, pointing off to the side at the manila folder serving as a coaster for the teapot.
"It's certainly an intriguing proposition."
"An opportunity of a lifetime, really."
The man took a sip and wiped the corners of his mouth with the cloth napkin.
Ted continued, "You know we'd love to get this partnership off the ground as soon as possible. Strike while the iron's hot, right?"
The man sat up and adjusted his waistline. "Sure, sure Ted. I'll take it back to the office and have the others review it. See what they say."
Ted's eyes darted from the man to the folder to the whirling fan in the coffered ceiling. His mind was empty.
The man stood up and extended his hand. "I'll call you. Thanks again for the meal."
As the folder disappeared around the revolving door, Ted's eyes fell onto the fortune cookie at the edge of the table.
Eddie groaned when a ring sounded from his backpack. He took his time rummaging through his things hoping the phone would stop ringing. It didn't.
"Eddie, where are you?"
"The Vice-Principal called to ask how you're feeling. You haven't been in school the past three days?!"
"Mom, it's f-"
"You get yourself home this instant!"
Sheila held a little strip of paper with tiny red numbers in one hand and filled in the little numbered squares on a card with the other. She handed the card to the clerk behind the counter.
He rang up the sale and said, "Good luck," and handed her the printout.
"Thanks, I need it." She kissed the slip of paper and tucked it in her tote bag.
"You fool!" she cried throwing a suede loafer that nearly missed Ted's head as he rushed out the door with little more than a suitcase and a travel bag. Her body wilted at the doorway. "There's nothing out there for you!"
Of the three cars parked in the driveway, he opted for the one closest to the street. He had neither the desire nor nerve to delay his decision any further. The sooner he could get out of sight, the sooner he could put his oversized house and the past twelve years behind him.
In no hurry to face the trouble that awaited him at home, Eddie took a detour and stopped at a small bakery. Every afternoon around this time the store put out a fresh batch of milk pudding buns. Maybe if he got an extra one for his mother, she'd be a little more forgiving. No such luck. He dug through the pockets of his backpack and found just enough to buy one fortune cookie.
"So what have we got?" The Lieutenant pointed to a cork board on which several long strips of paper were matched with photographs.
The lead investigator stood up. "Four vics in as many days. All found with ridiculously long fortunes jammed in their mouths. From left to right, Sheila M., 31, Dispatcher. Fortune reads 'Don't face reality, let it be the place from which you leap'. Lucky numbers: 39-27-44-11-21-42. Up next, Theodore B., 42, Broker. Fortune reads 'Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become'. Over here, Edward S., 14, Student." The detective cleared his throat. "He who climbs a ladder. Must begin at the first step." He returned to his seat.
"Okay, good," the Lieutenant began, "so, we've got a torn, claimed lottery ticket from the woman's tote bag found outside an ATM, three blocks from her apartment -"
"Not the greatest of neighborhoods," said another detective.
"Right," the Lieutenant said. "We also have an unused plane ticket to Tokyo found in the man's travel bag at the site of the crash."
"Who drives to the airport with almost no brake fluid?" the officer added, with a fresh toothpick between his teeth.
"Hmm...and for the boy, all we have is a step ladder propped against the parapet of the campus clock tower." The Lieutenant stepped back. "And today this gentleman, no sign of food poisoning and no motive. Have we found the wife?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Stay on it. And let's look into these numbers and messages. Are they directed at us or the victims? Locate anyone who spoke or spent time with the victims during their last forty-eight hours. And how the hell does someone swallow a four-foot strip of paper?!"
The group separated, each detective with his assigned duties. Over the next few hours they learned the numbers four and seven were considered unlucky according to Chinese numerology. If the latest fortune, fourth on the list, was intended to be a message to the police, then three more people would die in the next three days. The question was, how?
The investigator who made this discovery sat back in his chair, looked to the ceiling and said, "It's gonna be a long night. Where do we even begin?"
"If this works, Sun Tzu, you will be a hero, remembered for generations to come," the King said. Sun Tzu bowed before the court and retreated down the Great Hall and into the courtyard to contemplate his next steps among the plum blossoms. He continued through the Capital, passing the garden of passion flowers, mullein and opium poppies and stepped into a vast room lined with bubbling cauldrons of palm oil and glowing hearths of terracotta and stone. The treats were being prepared by kneeling widows who ground the rosettes and seeds of a delicate flower into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.
"We haven't much time," he said.
The soldier gave a slight nod. "The first batch should be ready in one or two days, General." He pointed to his left where others were blending the freshly ground powder with black spice and gypsy wort. To his right, bare chested men dipped their swollen arms into large ceramic pots and uprooted snakes, scorpions and spiders to extract their venom.
Sun-Tzu placed his hand on the soldier's shoulder. "Do what you can, but remember, it's only a matter of time before they realize some of their men are missing. The fate of the dynasty is in your hands." He squeezed the soldier's clavicle and placed a crescent-shaped cookie in his palm.
Sun-Tzu walked away, leaving the soldier to revisit each step of the plan in his mind. All that was left to do was to fuse the Gu with the sweet, sugary rice mixture, press it into thin sheets and wait for the caramel-colored paper to dry just enough to enable the women to fold it into shape and bake it over the fiery coals. In two days' time, the delectable confections would be offered to their captives as tokens of goodwill. By then, the prisoners of war, feeble and famished, would consume enough of these irresistible treats for the toxins to leaden their already frail minds and leave them susceptible to the powers of hypnosis. Through suggestion they would betray their leaders, divulging the enemy's secrets before dying of asphyxiation some time later when the ingested cookies would expand in their bellies and extend into their throats, leaving behind messages that had been inscribed within the cookies' folds.
Whether or not the experiment succeeded is unknown. No written record of the events survived. What did survive were Sun Tzu's notes on the value of psychological warfare in military combat. Inscribed on bamboo slats and bound into a book, his writings traveled across continents as empires expanded, constantly changing hands as dynasties rose and fell.
Centuries later, a merchant discovered a handful of beaten laths that appeared to be part of a larger book. The threads that held it together were few and frayed. Decorated along the margins of each page was the logo of a magistrate in the form of a two-headed dragon, whose tail curled into the numeral eight. The contents appeared to be a recipe for an exotic sweet or pastry. Unlike other delicacies of the time, these were unusually addictive and repeatedly linked to irrational behavior. But demand grew and profiteers found ways to export them to every corner of the world. It was not until the decades' long Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, that distribution was pressured to skulk underground, until eventually any trace of their existence simply vanished.
Outside, the early morning sun was obscured by an intrusive fog suffocating the city streets. Inside, the intense pressure for progress on the recent string of slayings was weighing heavily on the officers' minds.
"I got nuthin', Lieutenant," answered one of the detectives, rubbing both eyes with the fat of his palms. "All my other leads went dry." He stepped up to the corkboard and removed some index cards concealed under a web of string, push pins, maps and photographs.
The Lieutenant stood up from the edge of the desk. "Well, we've got enough to bust the boyfriend, the wife and the kid from the forum."
The other detectives listened as the Lieutenant summarized the charges. It happened that Sheila's boyfriend Ben had been arrested multiple times for varying degrees of narcotics possession. Neighbors heard them arguing in the days leading up to her death. Detectives concluded that the addict followed his girlfriend to the ATM, waited for her to withdraw the money and attempted to steal it. When a struggle ensued, he did what any reckless junkie would do and took the matter into his own hands.
As for Ted, the businessman, it was no secret that he was unhappy and desperate for change. He had the means to quit his job and leave his marriage. What he hadn't anticipated was that his wife would do anything to prevent him from destroying their lives, even if it meant draining the brake fluid from his brand new convertible to prevent him from leaving.
With regard to the fourteen year old who jumped from his high school clock tower, the consensus was that the suicide was a direct result from the constant cyberbullying he had received from a peer whom the police tracked down through an online chat forum for video gamers.
Admittedly, there were two major pieces to the puzzle that still needed explaining:
"Lieutenant! What about number four?" said the Officer who ran out of toothpicks hours ago and had since tapped into his cache of lollipops.
The Lieutenant nodded and held up a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie from a pile on his desk, adding, "And how do these fortunes fit in to the picture?" He straightened up. "Let's bring in these three for questioning and go from there, shall we?"
The detectives grabbed their jackets and holsters and set out, leaving the dispirited Lieutenant behind. He plunked down onto his chair and observed the cookie from various angles, holding it cautiously between his thumb and middle finger. Eventually, he tore open the plastic and peered into the cookie through the opening of its fold. A tiny bit of the papers' corner mimicked him like a bratty child. "Speak to me, you little bastard," he whispered. Careful not to put the cookie anywhere near his mouth, he broke the cookie open and slid out the strip. "Patience is key, a wait short or long will have its reward, for your time has come. Lucky numbers 08-09-25-29-36-42."
The Lieutenant turned the paper over and saw a logo on the back. It was a 2-headed dragon whose tail curled into the numeral 8.
"Lieutenant!" The lead investigator shouted from the hallway. "You coming?"
Startled, the Lieutenant replied, "Right. Yes. Coming!" He then set the paper down, licked the stickiness from his fingers and ran out the door. •
The News Daily
13 November, 5:27 pm. Tower Hill Station.
Heading west aboard the District rail line, a group of roughly seventy to eighty young men and women swarmed several cars taking rush hour commuters by storm. Within minutes the flash mob was in and out after robbing dozens of passengers at knifepoint. No arrests have been made.
14 November, 3:54 am. Canary Wharf.
A woman's body was found floating along the southern end of the Millwall Outer dock. The cause of death is an apparent suicide as there are no signs of a struggle or evidence that anyone was with her. No witnesses have stepped forward.
15 November - 19 November, times vary. Royal London Hospital.
It has been reported that for the past few days, numerous patients have been quarantined for contacting a virus that has yet to be identified. Medical personnel are working round the clock to prevent its spreading any further.
20 November - 22 November, times and locations vary.
In the past seventy-two hours, police have received several calls for domestic violence, following the recent wave of layoffs announced at the City's nearby utility company. In each case, the offenders fled avoiding capture. The cases are being investigated and a hunt for the suspects is underway.
The Nightly News
22 November, 6:04 pm.
"That's right Nora. I'm standing here at the edge of Whitechapel Road in East London's Borough of Tower Hamlets, ground zero for what is now going on day eleven of what many are calling 'The Scourge of Spitalfields'. It all started right here at this temple behind me when, two weeks ago, a local resident, and custodian of the sanctuary reported that its halls had been vandalized overnight. Authorities have not released the scrawled messages left behind, but since then, there has been a litany of mysterious events occurring each day, beginning with the 'flash mob' robberies aboard the Tube between Tower Hill and Monument stations.
"What is most startling is that all of the incidents have taken place within a 5 kilometer radius of where I'm standing.
"It's unknown as to what exactly triggered these events, as there seems to be no logical pattern or known motive. The sheer indiscriminate nature of these acts and the randomness of the suspect's profiles appear to have law enforcement befuddled for the moment. Back to you."
It began earlier that Fall, when Detective Ruskin received a phone call. He'd been reading about the recent dips in the stock market, a matter that was of particular interest to him. He fancied himself a shrewd businessman and dabbled in speculative investments (a luxury he could afford with a modest inheritance he'd received from his grandmother a few years prior). Unfortunately for Ruskin, neither the paper nor the phone call delivered good news.
The charred remains of a man identified as an influential real estate developer was found amidst the rubble of his home in an affluent neighborhood overlooking the Thames. His petrified body was found slumped over next to the fireplace, clutching a small metal lock box.
"What was in it?" the detective said.
"Nothing. Just the melted key, stuck to the outside," replied the voice on the other end of the line.
"Jesus," Detective Ruskin said, distracted by an Op-Ed article in the paper. "Some people have no conscience."
"Sergeant! What can you tell us?" A wall of reporters assembled outside the station as a swelling wave of angry citizens holding signs surged forward, pressing against the reporter's backs, clamoring for answers.
"We're looking carefully into every available lead," the Sergeant said. "But we have nothing conclusive right now." He signaled to his officers to stay alert.
The crowd was not interested in carbon copy speeches, and what they heard only fueled their uproar.
"We ask that you please be patient. We're doing everything we can and as soon as we have more information, we will be sure to let you know. Thank you."
As the officers walked away from the makeshift podium, the mob spread and a projectile launched from somewhere within the crowd, shattered against a parked patrol car and burst into flames.
"Did you see that Phylo?" Andromache said, nonchalantly tossing a large bubble of water, the size of an ostrich egg into the air.
Phylo was busy tapping rocks of Anorthosite with his index finger and giggling. He delighted in watching them turn into butterflies and seeing them fly away.
The water bubble remained suspended in mid-air wobbling ever so slightly.
"Something is amiss. The Arrants are at it again."
"What else is new," Phylo said, his eyes following the curlycue path of another butterfly flitting away.
The surrounding air was warm and sleepy. The sky light made their skin glow.
"Hey you two, get up and make yourselves useful," Heron said, with a look of disapproval and resignation.
"Heron, look." Andromache poked the water bubble and Heron leaned in to have a look. People were running in different directions, colliding with one another, among shattered glass and pockets of fire.
Struck with a flash of sympathy Heron directed Phylo to put away those "ridiculous stones" and to assist Andromache in devising a plan to help end the Arrant's suffering. After a deep stretch and an audible sigh, Phylo joined Andromache and got to work.
Day 12. The Palace of Westminster.
Government officials are unable to come to an agreement on the educational budget due to partisan politics. The item will be tabled and addressed at a later date.
Day 13. Shoreditch.
Three high-rise flats in the trendy neighborhood of Shoreditch are burglarized while the homeowners are away, presumably at work. Fingerprints could not be found.
Day 14. King Edward VII Park.
A jogger is assaulted at a park just a few blocks from his home by what he described as "a homeless man wearing a gold watch." The jogger is fine, save for a bloody nose and a contusion on his left leg. Nothing was taken.
Day 15. Cabot Square.
A grocery store is pilfered after-hours as firefighters battle a blaze down the street. Arson is suspected. Investigators examine a possible connection between the two locations.
"Phylo! Put that back." While Andromache was scribbling her thoughts in the sand, Phylo was twirling Hope between his fingers. It took a whack on the back of his head for him to heed his sister and take notice.
"I have some ideas," Andromache said. She proceeded to draw a complex network of lines and arrows connecting a myriad of numbers and symbols.
After several minutes, Phylo's eyes glazed over.
Finally, when the last equation was laid down, Andromache stood up and wrinkled her nose and waved her palm in a figure eight. What stood before them was a three dimensional plot of a grand organic sandcastle in the form of a beehive's interior, complete with passageways of various sizes.
Phylo's eyebrows hinted that he was impressed. "Hmm."
It all boiled down to two ways of correcting the problem at hand. As they saw it, the Arrants had lost their way and simply needed some redirection. By implanting them with the missing virtues, their actions would naturally adjust over time. The challenge was modifying their behavior undetected.
"Heron's gonna love this," Phylo said.
"Heron? There's no time for Heron. We have to act quick. C'mon." Andromache grabbed Phylo's hand and off they went.
"Be careful" Andromache said, as Phylo poured Empathy into the city's rivers and reservoirs. "We can't afford to waste a single drop." As time passed, Andromache carefully monitored the effects of the subjects below and noted their lack of reaction. She concluded that acute disinterest was counteracting any potential remedy, so she instructed Phylo to commence with Plan B.
"How come I always have to do the dirty work?" Phylo said, as his sister sitting a few meters away, peered intently into her water bubble, while Phylo wearily planted Compassion into the Earth's soil for a new crop. Upon reaching the final stage, he put on the finishing touches and plopped on the ground to rest. Flushed with excitement, Andromache said under her breath "Now, we wait."
30 November (Day 19), 6:11 pm. Breaking News.
"...and so reaching nearly three weeks of continuous turmoil, there is still no explanation or sign of letting up. If we can spin the camera around, you can see here that local grocery store shelves lay bare and mounds of rubbish continue to accumulate in the streets as collection agencies are too frightened to enter the neighborhoods. Emergency Service Personnel are overwhelmed and gravely outnumbered by the number of rioters in the streets. In fact, the only bright light, if you can call it that, is the chaos has not spilled over into neighboring vicinities. The mayhem has strangely remained self-contained within the same five kilometer radius we reported on two weeks ago. Nora?"
Nora shook her head in dismay. "Elliot. What can you tell us about the..."
"Oh! Look out!..."
"Heron, I don't know what to do. Nothing's working." Andromache was at a loss. Both she and Phylo had spent several sleepless nights refining their design, but waiting for the new crop to grow, be harvested, and reach its intended targets required time and patience; two things they were short on. The lack of access to the new crop for many of those afflicted also limited its impact. For the damage to be reversed, a more potent and far reaching solution was required.
Deep in thought, Heron tapped his chin with a quail feather. "So far, you've tried water and earth, is that right?"
"Mhmmm." Phylo said, sitting on the ground with his knees up, making a little plant dance at his feet.
Heron paced back and forth. "Well, Fire won't work, so how about Air?"
Andromache, who for a moment was distracted by Phylo's swaying sprout, sat up.
Heron continued. Phylo and Andromache were to capture Innocence and transmit it through the air from the city's highest point down to the Arrants below.
"And how do we capture Innocence?" said Andromache.
Heron looked directly at Andromache and said, "You make - a sacrifice."
It wasn't the first time Andromache and Phylo visited the World. There had been numerous times back when the Arrants began populating the Earth, that maintaining a daily account was necessary to ensure success. Shapeshifting was their way of blending in. The difference between then and now was that they had to act quickly. So, off they went in search of that one object that had to be sacrificed.
Posing as school children, they slipped into elementary schools, playgrounds and children's hospitals, but came up empty. It was when they reached the labour ward on the sixth floor of the city hospital that they knew they had found what they were looking for. They set down their backpacks and pressed their noses against the glass.
A voice sounded from behind. "Well hello, you two. You shouldn't be here by yourselves. Where's your Mum?" the nurse said. Phylo was startled. Andromache answered, "Oh, we're just looking for the bathroom."
The nurse kindly pointed down the hall. "Through the double doors and to the left." She patted Phylo on the head. "Aren't you a darling?" Phylo looked at Andromache with a smile so wide you could practically count all his teeth.
The two made their way down the hall watching the nurse's reflection in the windows of the double doors. When they saw her walk away, they ran back to the room, seized their object and vanished.
Meanwhile, Heron had been preparing the altar for the ceremony. The ritual itself would not take long at all. When Andromache and Phylo arrived, Heron said, "bring it here," and held it over an urn resting on a pedestal. Andromache and Phylo took their places and repeated after Heron, a series of unintelligible utterances. A short cry was heard, followed by a whimper and then silence.
Andromache and Phylo nodded, yes.
Their eyes followed Heron's index finger as a thin trail of smoke drew a map of the city below. "Begin here, at the periphery of the disorder. You will avoid any hindrances this way. Take the District Line toward Westminster. It's exactly one stop. It should take no more than two or three minutes. When you disembark, take the stairs up and walk south across Parliament Square. The highest point will be before you. Andromache will be watching from up here should you need anything."
Phylo offered his assurance, took hold of the cup with both hands and placed it in a satchel. Andromache took her position and Heron watched Phylo disappear through the noticeably thick air.
In the distance, the night glowed orange as plumes of smoke deposited bits of ash onto St. James Park. Two storeys below Villiers Street, a crisply dressed man stood on the westbound platform with a polished, rectangular case resting at his feet.
Unbeknownst to him, a mere three meters away was a common thief, who ordinarily made practice of slyly picking pockets and lifting unattended purses. But today, traffic was extraordinarily light and the bandit's belly was beginning to rumble. •
"Did you bring your dreams?" she asked.
I stood frozen at the gate, totally unprepared for that question. I'd been traveling for miles to get here and not once did it occur to me to pack my dreams before embarking on this trip. I hesitated before answering, because I knew that providing the wrong answer would send me back several years. I looked over her shoulder at the tall stone gate with its intricate carvings covered in moss and asked "which ones?" hoping that I could buy some time while she mulled over my response.
The worst thing about this was that I had four separate dreams just the night before while curled up in the train's passageway, none of which made any sense, the last one being of me writing them down.
The gatekeeper leaned forward, gripping her ledger with both hands. "Do you have them or not?"
I rummaged through my bag, pretending to search for them when she bellowed, "Next!" The crowd lunged forward, pushing me aside.
There had to be another way in.
"Maya, remember what we talked about."
"Yes, Miss Pax."
Miss Pax didn't like that I preferred spending my lunch hour sitting under a light post at the far end of the school yard, to picking through the same old goopy mush back at the cafeteria. But mom once told me that we all make choices in life and sometimes you have to stick by them, even if not everybody understands them. This was mine. Besides, the sky, gym and playground all mixed together into a dull, warm gray that made it easy for me to fix my eyes pretty much anywhere and easily fall asleep. Just the other day I dreamt all sorts of things that made me feel good: juicy red raspberries dripping down my chin, the twinkling sound of something Mr. K called a zither, and there was something else, but I can't remember. Anyway, Miss Pax is all grown up, so she wouldn't understand.
"Alright, kids settle down." Miss Pax tried her best to line us up by the door.
We were like horses at the starting gate. The moment the bell rang, we raced out onto the playground. My classmates turned right and the moment Miss Pax stepped back inside, I turned left to enjoy the few extra minutes of peace. It would only be fifteen minutes or so before the courtyard would begin to buzz. I kicked a small pebble out of the way, sat down on a little concrete pad under the light post and took a deep breath before closing my eyes. Just then, I heard singing coming from the other side of the auditorium. It was much too soon for the other kids to be finished stuffing themselves and nobody mentioned an afternoon assembly, so I didn't know who it was, but they sounded nice.
I sat up and saw a tall shadow sliding against the gym wall. It was shaped like someone juggling while riding a bicycle, but the bicycle had only one wheel. He turned the corner and the juggler had the face of a horse, but it wasn't a horse – that would have been weird. He rode toward me and very politely tipped his hat as if to say hello and I couldn't help but wonder whose hat it was, because it was much too small for his giant head. The rest of his outfit seemed to fit well enough, except for his coat tails; they dragged along the ground behind him.
It was awfully impressive that he could tip his hat with one hand and manage to not drop a single chicken. Just one slip up and any of the four could have fallen to the ground, ending the chorus to their song.
Che bella cosa na jurnata 'e sole,
n'aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe' ll'aria fresca pare già na festa...
Che bella cosa na jurnata 'e sole...
The song was in a language I couldn't understand, so I didn't know what it was about, but I'm sure Mr. K would have. It's too bad he isn't around to hear it. I think he would have liked it.
They rode past me, toward the library, disappearing through the double doors.
Birdie, birdie in the sky
Dropped some white stuff in my eye,
I'm a big girl I won't cry,
I'm just glad that cows don't fly.
"Wake up dormouse." Lilith and her trio of witches kicked my foot. Their giggling sounded like a squeaky mattress. The school must have used the same gray crayon used for the buildings, to color our uniforms, because looking up all I saw were four floating heads with eight buckled shoes at my feet.
"What's the matter, Sleepyhead? No one to play with?" the first head said. The others snickered, bobbing up and down. They took turns calling me names, each one applauding the other. Still in a daze, I didn't catch exactly what was said, so when I didn't fire back they finally got bored. I heard something about getting a life as they walked away.
It was obvious that I wouldn't be able to get back at them that day, but I knew that one day, when I was old enough, I'd show them. I was as sure of that as I was of the drifting cloud passing over my head. To some kids it might have looked like a sailboat, while others might say it was in the shape of a goldfish. But the one thing that was perfectly clear was the pilot sitting inside, draped in a purple cape and sporting a macaroni necklace and football helmet; no flamingo had ever looked so grand. Where he was going exactly, I had no idea, but it was in the direction of a tall misty green wall miles away. Only when he waved his pink, feathery arm as if to say "follow me," did I know he noticed me.
"Honey, hurry up or you'll be late." There was a light rap on my door.
When I didn't answer right away, the soft taps turned into a pair of much louder knocks.
I jumped out of bed and saw my clock blinking. "Crap, I'm late."
"Maya, you're late."
"Sorry, Mr. Porter." I plopped my backpack on the floor and sat down.
"Here's your paper, try to do better next time."
C -. How do you get a C- for a paper titled WHERE I'D LIKE TO BE 5 YEARS FROM NOW? According to Mr. Porter's note in the margin - TRY TO BE MORE REALISTIC.
I crammed the paper into my folder and prepared myself for one of those days.
Five periods later, the day went pretty much as expected. Unfortunately, hearing the final bell wasn't as exciting as you might think. Mainly because it was Thursday, which meant dinner would consist of Chicken Piccata, broad noodles and a cherry tomato salad.
"Would you like another breadstick, sweetie?"
"No thanks mom."
Just like every Thursday. Since the day I was born.
"Mmm...darling you've outdone yourself. This is delicious," my Dad said, picking a caper with a prong on his fork and popping it into his mouth. "This beats the gruel they fed us in the army. Why, I remember when..."
And so it begins.
Ten minutes and three bites later, Dad was finally interrupted by my little brother asking to see the same cartoon he'd seen a thousand times. That was my chance to get out of there.
"Mom, may I be excused?"
"What's wrong pumpkin?"
"M'not feeling too well. Must be something I had at lunch."
I could feel mom's concern follow me into the kitchen while I put my plate away, so I moved quickly through the hall and up the stairs and quietly closed the door to my room.
The curtains were left open to let the day's heat in, so I instantly felt the warmth wrap itself around me when I flopped on the bed. Beads of light from the afternoon sun mingled with the tree leaves outside and danced on my ceiling. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a song to match, but for the first time since I can remember, I came up empty. The harder I tried to focus, the hazier my thoughts. A thick fog rolled in, bringing with it a chill. Outside the window, everything appeared blurry, except for some occasional images that disappeared as quickly as they came, like bad reception on a TV. Someone said something, but the sound was muffled and I couldn't tell which direction it came from. I turned away from the window and an image flashed on just beyond the tree in our front yard. It was some sort of stone wall or gate with tiny carvings on the pillars. All around was lush green mossy grass. On the dewy ground laid a boarding pass. I could barely make out the destination, so I leaned out the window to get a better look.
My hand slipped on the damp window sill and I lost my footing and bumped my knee hard on the ledge before tumbling out. It was dark out when the sound of my own gasp woke me up. The clock on my dresser read 12:01 and my heart was thumping hard through my soaked shirt. Was this one of those moments where the road split and I had to make a choice? Would my parents accept it even if they didn't understand?
The pull was magnetic. I scribbled a note, set it on my pillow and then reached for my backpack and replaced my books with spare clothes and anything else I could think of that fit. Normally, the ride to the station was a good twenty minutes, but I pedaled so fast it only took me fifteen. Just long enough to avoid changing my mind.
After wandering through the hall for several minutes, I saw an unkempt man in uniform coming toward me, waving what looked like an oversized chopstick with a rounded handle. "May I help you?" he said with a slight bow. His crumpled bowtie gave him the air of someone who once mattered.
I closed my mouth. "Um, yeah, I need a one way ticket."
"Anywhere?" I said, shrugging.
"Right this way." His soiled glove invited me to follow him to a lone ticket counter with a piece of paper taped to the window: ANYWHERE was written crudely with a black marker.
When I turned to thank him, he was gone. A tap on the glass startled me.
I hesitated. "One please."
"The next train is departing at 12:43."
I looked at my phone. "That's in three minutes."
The clerk remained quiet and pointed in the direction of the platform where the remaining passengers were boarding. He looked back at me and raised his eyebrows.
"Fine, I'll take it."
The late arriving crowd was so large that I had enough time to sprint to a middle car and hop on. Unfortunately, by then all of the seats were taken and the passengers spilled out into the corridor. I did manage to squeeze into a tiny pocket in the gangway and claim a space. It wasn't much, but for the next several hours that was to be my little pad under the light post.
The energy was exhilarating. There were people of all ages, sizes and colors with a look of wonder, hope and fear in their eyes, all jostling for their little space. The shoving and shouting would have been terrifying had it not been for the sense we were all in this together. Falling asleep was out of the question with all the excitement at the start, but eventually the drama died down and the steady rocking of the train cars combined with the dimly lit passageway, lulled us all into a trance.
Outside, a light drizzle intensified. The pitatpat of tiny droplets against the windows soon turned into louder pops of popcorn kernels bouncing off in every direction. The harder the rain fell, the taller the mounds of popcorn surrounding our train. From the outside, we must have looked like we were trapped in a popcorn snow globe.
Not everyone was unsettled by this turn of events. A trio of dancing tacos tapped a perfectly choreographed routine atop an inflatable piano. Following them down the aisle was an elderly, roller skating penguin with the belly of a drum. He rolled up to me and handed me a feathered quill pen.
"Remember to record your dreams, or you won't get in," he said. He then banged on his belly and several sheets of paper flew out, landing at my feet. He cocked his head as if to say what are you waiting for, so I frantically wrote down everything I could see, noting every detail: the sound of the beating drum, the colorful outfits of the dancers, the popcorn smell outside, even the softness of the pink feather on my pen. By the time they disappeared through the other train car, I'd written three pages. It was only when I heard a loud train whistle followed by a booming voice over the loudspeaker, that I stopped writing. We all rubbed the sleep out of our eyes and gathered our things. The morning was clear and bright.
Just a few more yards. I'd come too far to be turned away now. I peeked through the luggage pile to make sure it was safe. The gatekeeper's back was several yards behind me now, so the second the cart stopped, I tumbled out and hid behind a dumpster. The streets were bustling with people and cars were zooming every which way; much like back home during the morning rush hour. In search of a quiet place to gather my thoughts, I climbed a chain link fence and walked through an alley until I came upon a residential neighborhood on the other side of a low beige wall. Walking along, I saw a woman cleaning up after her dog and some kids kicking a ball down the sidewalk. A postman smiled at me from across the street.
Did I make a wrong turn somewhere?
I doubled back to the low beige wall and walked in the other direction, stealing glances into some low-lying windows of a row of apartments. There were families eating breakfast in the kitchen, a boy tying his shoe in a courtyard and a couple kissing goodbye. Several blocks later, it was more of the same: a man changing his tire, a crossing guard standing at the corner, and a glut of other things I won't bore you with here.
Two days of riding the bus around town reminded me of home; shopping malls, tree-lined streets, gas stations and parking lots - where was this magical place where dreams come true? Was I missing something? I guess I'll keep looking. •
The early morning glade was sleepy, motionless and for the most part quiet, except for the intermittent sounds of a soft crackle coming from deep within the woods. Unlike the soothing rustle of a forest's familiar breath, this crescendo of pops and snaps hung in the air, like the splintering of enormous dry bones. The noise lasted several seconds gathering strength with each passing moment. Finally, a whoosh swept through the tree leaves culminating in a crashing thud. In an instant, all fell once again silent and still.
"You're probably all wondering why I've called this emergency meeting this evening," Mr. Quigley said, pacing back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back.
I ventured a guess without raising my hand.
"Sshhh!..." He spun around before I could finish my question. We all wanted to know: Who was responsible for the toppling? Suspicions had been whirring day and night, but when the camp leader tells you to be quiet, you do as he says. Especially, if you believe the rumors.
Louie 'Doughnut' Dawson must believe those rumors, because no one has seen him since yesterday and some of us are beginning to wonder if Ol' Quigley had something to do with it.
"Can you really trust someone with such hairy ears and pale legs?" Teddy whispered into my ear. "It's as if he only goes out at night. Like he's hiding something."
I poked him in the ribs to shut him up. I didn't want to get stuck chopping firewood tomorrow while everyone else was having fun at the lake catching fish or shooting spitballs at squirrels.
"I heard about a guy in England once," Teddy was relentless, "who was a high school track coach and he looked normal and all, but he was actually a werewolf! He'd send the cross country kids out for a long run through the hills and then he'd sprint around the other side and wait for 'em. Then when the time was right he'd pounce, drag 'em back to his tree, string 'em up on a high branch 'til they dried like beef jerky and eat 'em whole. My brother said it was in the papers and everything."
"Werewolves don't live in trees, dummy."
Teddy persisted, "Anyway, how can you be so sure Mr. Q isn't in on this. I ain't seen Louie in two days!"
I couldn't argue with him there. Louie earned his Tracker badge last summer, so it's not like he just ventured off and couldn't find his way back. He knew these woods better than anybody. And if it wasn't our rival camp across the lake who chopped down our tree house and took Louie, then who else could it have been?
"Maybe it was cannibals!" shouted Augie, a pint-sized peanut with oversized glasses and an even bigger imagination.
"Boys! Please." Ol' man Quigley put his finger to his mouth, his eyes yellow from the flickering flames of the campfire. The light of the moon was so faint that you could barely make out the shapes of the trees as they watched over our circle. Quigley extended both hands in front of him as if he was about to conduct a symphony. We piped down and sat with our legs crossed.
"As you may have all heard, around daybreak yesterday our historic and beloved tree house collapsed after fifteen years of standing proudly at the lake's edge." Quigs leaned forward, "I'm here to assure you that we are looking into this and if there was any evidence of foul play, the criminals will be severely punished." His yellow eyes slowly scanned the group as if surveying a line-up. "We've been in touch with our neighbors to the north, Camp Windyvapors and they too, are assisting us with the investigation."
From the corner of my eye I could see Teddy shaking his head at what he knew to be a conspiracy: either Old Quigley worked the graveyard shift as a big hairy beast, or he traded 'naughty' kids to flesh-eating tribes who lived in the trees. Either way, we had to save Louie.
You see, Louie's dad was The Doughnut King. Yep, you know the commercial where a guy dressed up as a Bear Claw dive bombs into a giant tub of hot chocolate and pops up wearing a crown made of Churros? That one. If there was one thing that made waking up before dawn worthwhile, it was the Doughnut King's pillowy doughnuts with cream filling and powdered sugary goodness at breakfast time. Every summer Louie's dad donated a truckload of goodies to our camp. If it wasn't for Louie's dad, we'd all be stuck eating oatmeal and yogurt, which we all know is code for twigs and swamp water. Am I right?
"Hey! You coming?" Teddy waved his hand in front of my face; the others were already several yards away marching back to the cabins.
It was lights out for the others, but for us the night was just getting started. Augie plopped his pack on his bed and stuffed it with a poncho, flashlight, compass, a pocket knife, a whistle and some bubble gum. "The natives can't eat us if they're busy chewing," he said. Meanwhile, Teddy had spread out a map of the camp and was highlighting our route into what he called "the wolf's den." I gathered some rope, water and other essentials and before heading out, we formed a triangle in the middle of the room and whispered our secret pledge:
"Forever Glazed, or Boston Cream
We won't give up our Goal
To save our Friend, remain a Team
Fritter, Twist or Roll."
We wiggled our fingers as we raised our arms, forming a pyramid, finishing with
The canopies of the trees shrouded the forest in darkness. Even the moon was oblivious to what was happening down below. Along one of the many narrow trails, there was a clearing. It was there, that a carpet of leaves was being positioned over one of many deep holes scattered throughout the field. Implanted at its bed were crudely sharpened spikes made of fallen tree branches.
Several yards away, there was movement at the base of a tree. Another shadowy figure perched on a tree branch stirred the underbrush with low-hanging vines.
The traps were being set.
Whack! Augie slapped the back of his neck. The mosquitoes were especially surly tonight. Not a good time to forget my bug spray.
"It's f-f-f-f-freezing out here," Teddy said as we slopped through the mud, "maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"You could have said that an hour ago, I'm starving," Augie said.
I inspected Teddy's map with Augie's flashlight. "Hang in there guys, only about 45 minutes more 'til we get to the den."
"Yeah, assuming the cannibals don't get to us first," Augie said. "I saw a show about them once; they live in tree houses high up in the sky and hunt with spears and bows and arrows and they're really good tree climbers. I bet they cut down our tree house thinking we were the enemy." All three of us walked with our heads tilted up toward the sky. "You know what they call outsiders?"
"What?" Teddy asked, forgetting about the cold.
"Ghost demons!" Augie said. "Heck, they're probably watching us right now!"
"Hey, dju hear that?"
Augie and I looked at Teddy frozen in his tracks. "I heard a howl."
The three of us looked like mannequins in a department store.
We craned our necks to the left as if another half inch would make the sound crystal clear.
"There it is again," Teddy said.
"Kinda sounds like a bugle," I said.
We stood there for another minute with only our eyes zipping up and down and side to side, but heard nothing. Just as we stepped forward that same sound burst through the trees much nearer to us than before. All together we shouted "Run!" Panicked, we ran off the trail, leaping over boulders and nearly tripping over fallen logs. Our hot breath looked like steam from a locomotive. If something was after us, cannibal or werewolf, it had to be riding on the back of a cheetah, piloting a rocket ship, if it was going to catch us.
Unless of course, we encountered something unexpected.
"Aack, help!" Augie's feet were stuck and he was shrinking by the second.
Teddy and I turned around to look back. "Quicksand!" Teddy said.
I quickly fastened a bowline around a nearby tree and threw the loose end at Augie, nearly knocking off his glasses. He pulled it tight, tied it around his waist and Teddy and I pulled with all our might, but the cold air made gripping the rope difficult. On the count of three, we jerked the rope with the last bit of strength we had left and Augie sprung up onto solid ground. Unfortunately for Teddy and me, the momentum threw us back several feet, head first into a deep, narrow hole hidden under a pile of dry leaves.
Augie looked up. "Hey, where'd you guys go?"
Teddy and I unfurled ourselves as best we could, with me sitting on top of him. "Augie, down here!" I threw up another rope and told him to tie a "grapevine" to the other end. Eventually, I climbed out using the back of Teddy's leg as a footstool. Teddy made his displeasure known, before unpretzeling himself and finally scrambling up too.
"Guys, these are traps. Whoever set them can't be far," Teddy said.
We quickly brushed ourselves off and repacked our supplies when we noticed Augie picking something off the ground and putting it in his mouth.
"Augs, if you're really that hungry, I have a granola bar in my pack."
He picked up two more bits from the ground and ate those too.
"I think he's delirious," Teddy said.
"Augie!" I shined a spotlight on his beaming face.
Augie held out his hand to show us what he found, "Donut crumbs."
That was the breakthrough we needed to get our second wind. We followed the crumb trail for miles zig-zagging between the trees. Every so often, we'd call out Louie's name, crossing our fingers that we weren't attracting unwanted attention. Then we'd pause and listen, but never heard a reply. Although my tracking skills weren't nearly as good as Louie's, I could have sworn we were going in circles. So we plunked ourselves onto a couple of boulders near the river to catch our breath. We scraped off the mud, sticks and pebbles wedged in our shoes and stuck in our hair.
"What now?" Augie asked.
Teddy was hunched over a rock, Augie was laying on the ground and I stared blankly at the nothingness in front of me when we heard the crunch of leaves a few feet behind us. The three of us squinted through the darkness, spinning our heads like a trio of nervous owls.
"Hey!" Teddy called out to what looked like two figures running behind a tree. He jumped up and ran after them.
"Teddy!" Augie and I ran after Teddy.
Dodging mud puddles and getting smacked in the face by low-lying branches, we sprinted wildly through the brush, crossing streams, not really knowing where we were headed. The figures Teddy was after had vanished when we caught up to him, but we kept on running.
"Do you see 'em?" I asked, ducking under a bundle of leaves.
Teddy just kept running.
"Wait up!" Augie said.
I looked back to see where he was. Augie caught up and the three of us ran alongside matching each other stride for stride when one of us must have kicked a stick or tripped a vine, because instantly we were swept off our feet and hurled high into the air bundled in a giant net.
"Aaaahhh...heeeeelllpp!" we screamed, writhing uncontrollably like fish in a bucket. Visions of werewolves and cannibals roasting us over an open fire came to mind.
"They're coming!" Augie pointed through a hole in the netting as two silhouettes raced toward us.
I could hear their heavy breathing as they desperately sliced through the rope. I couldn't see if they were gnawing at it with their teeth or using their nails, but I knew it would all be over soon. The rope snapped and we fell hard onto the ground, tangled in a web of thick twine.
One of the figures reached out his hands and unraveled the mesh.
"Hey guys. What are you doing out here?"
Turns out Mr. Quigley recruited Louie to help him catch whoever was responsible for tearing down our tree house. Aside for a couple of rabbits and three whiz kids with a deep appreciation for sugar, they never did catch the delinquent party, even though the search went on until the start of Fall.
It wasn't all for nothing though. Louie earned his Trapper badge that summer.
The evening began to cool earlier than usual, signalling the arrival of Winter. As time past, a light frost formed on the tips of the tall grasses down by the lake where a "tap-tap-tap" could be heard as a family of beavers applied mud to their newly built lodge; the final touches of a summer long endeavor. Their good fortune and hard work would once again ensure a peaceful season free from predators and a sound supply of food. •
How did I get here? That's what was on Trolley's mind when he opened his eye and found himself dangling 200 feet above the forest floor. It's not the first place you'd expect to find a Spanish-speaking frog with an eye patch, but when you owe money to Thimbleweed, anything is possible.
How did he get here? It all started with a small pearl, a red summer hat and a coconut.
It was a new day. The sun's rays crept through the cantina's doors, smuggling long shadows across the sticky wide plank floors of El Lobo. Outside, the dust had settled overnight. Sitting at the far end of the bar, Trolley nursed his coconut juice, while picking at a bowlful of stale crickets (the only luxury he could afford with the few pesos he had left from yet another disappointing afternoon at the Turtle Track). Perhaps today would be different.
The double doors swung open and for the moment, things did indeed start looking up. In sauntered the most captivating creature Trolley had ever seen. Peering out from beneath her red summer hat were large brown eyes and thick, long lashes that seemed to be calling him over with every blink. Her silk sleeves sparkled against a gown that was perfectly fitted around her shapely bustle. This creature had more curves than the infamous one-lane mountain road El Espinazo Del Diablo. But, Trolley would bet everything he had even fewer men survived her spells.
That was reason enough for him to lay low and mind his own business.
As Olinda swayed past the bar, Trolley dipped his head in his coconut juice and from the corner of his eye, saw one of her feathers float to the floor. Gentleman that he is, he picked it up and casually made his way toward the booth in the back room where Olinda was preening.
"Pardon me, miss." Trolley cleared his throat. "You dropped this." He handed her the feather hand over arm, the way a waiter presents a fine chablis.
"Oh, my," Olinda said, blushing and acting surprised. "Thank you." She blinked three times.
Now Trolley was nothing if not amicable. The least he could do was be neighborly and offer to buy her a drink. So, he called out to the bartender and signalled a V with his his fingers.
The next several minutes Trolley and Olinda shared compliments, giggling and teasing one another as they sipped their coconut juices. It appeared that Trolley's luck was turning after all.
For the worse. Amid their witty banter and light touches, a great beam of light spread across the room as a pint-sized Caiman in a Panama hat burst in through the front doors. His silhouette was unmistakable. Squatty legs, tiny hands, long, bulbous snout. This could only be...
Olinda and Trolley both gasped and ducked under the table, very nearly bumping foreheads. As the figure shuffled toward the bartender, Trolley whispered, "Rats! He found me!"
"What? Who?" Olinda said.
"What are you talking about?"
"That ugly reptile that just walked in," Trolley said, scratching his head.
Olinda turned her head to one side, wondering how many juices Trolley had before their encounter. "That's my boyfriend, Oleander."
"You're what?!" Trolley bumped his head on the table.
"It's almost eight thirty. Our train's leaving soon. If he sees us together...well, you don't want to know what happened to the others."
It was all becoming clear now for Trolley. Goddess sashays through the door. They instantly hit it off. As charming as Trolley thought himself to be, it was simply too good to be true. And now, here he was, huddled under a table with this guy's girlfriend. Did she know that her boyfriend had an alias? Or that his chosen vocation involved the seedier side of things? Trolley had no intention of sticking around to find out. Together, they peeked out from under the tablecloth and slipped out the back door just as the bartender pointed Oleander/Thimbleweed toward the back room.
"Over there!" Olinda pointed to the train platform where the Sur Express to Panama was waiting. When they reached the bottom stair, Olinda hugged Trolley so tight that her pearl necklace snapped. The train whistle blew long and hard. Trolley quickly gave her a boost and she planted a kiss on him before jumping on board and disappearing around the corner. He remained there, frozen for a few seconds, when the clanging of the bell woke him from his trance. On the ground, he saw that one of her pearls had fallen off. He picked it up and hopped along the platform peeping through each window, but there was no sign of Olinda. He did however, hear some familiar voices approaching the train. It was Thimbleweed and his entourage. So, he sidestepped under the train and scampered off.
With a final whistle, the train blew its top, billowing a funnel of white steam toward the sky. It pulled away from the station, its steel wheels grinding against the rails as it forged slowly ahead.
Trolley could feel the branch giving way as the steel teeth of the saw blade continued to grind against the bark. Alas, his only choice was to hang on for his life. When he looked down, Thimbleweed was nothing more than a tiny dot; small enough to crush between his thumb and forefinger.
"You've crossed me one too many times, amigo!" Thimbleweed said, brandishing his steel-tipped cane in the air. "First, the racket with the bananas. Then, the stunt with the bumblebees. And now, this? It's time to pay the peeper!"
Even with death staring directly at him, Trolley managed to shake his head in disappointment.
"You will learn once and for all that when you do business with Señor Thimbleweed, you meet your obligations."
Trolley wished he'd never jumped on the that train back in Mexico.
"Wooohhh...woooohh, ding, ding, ding, ding...Wooohhh...woooohh."
"Final stop! San Miguel!"
Trolley woke up, eyes bloodshot, legs cramped, and covered in soot from head to toe. He had no idea where he was, but he did see Olinda enter the second cabin on the left, back in Honduras. It was since then that he spent the next day and a half folded up in between train cars, being pelted by stray twigs and desert dust.
"Chk, chk, chk, chk, pssssshhhhhhhhh..."
As the train pulled into the station, he popped his head up through the compartment's window and saw Olinda gathering her things. His eyes grew wide and he tapped on the glass. Unable to get her attention, he tapped again, only harder. At that very moment, Thimbleweed stepped out of the bathroom, adjusted his suspenders and looked to his right. The two were face to face, with only a thin piece of glass separating them.
Trolley didn't even bother to wait for the train to come to a complete stop before jumping off and stumbling onto the platform. A few bumps and bruises were nothing compared to what Thimbleweed and his henchmen were capable of, and right now they were closing in on his tail. As Trolley turned the corner, he spotted a pickup truck piled high with coconuts, rumbling down the street. He raced to catch up and dove in head first.
"Stop, you filthy toad!" Thimbleweed and his gang squeezed into an old taxicab in hot pursuit.
For a brief moment, Trolley was distracted by a red blur, followed by a trail of dust cutting through the trees below. The blur was making a beeline straight toward them. It was Olinda. Her gown was dirty and frayed, as if she'd been running for miles.
"Ollie, stop!" Olinda said, trying her best to adjust her bodice, which now hung loosely, as if held by tattered shoelaces.
"Olinda?" Oleander stood bewildered. His thugs were pleased to see her. Even disheveled, she was a vision to behold.
Catching her breath, she said, "you're making a big mistake. He's no criminal, he's a hero." She proceeded to weave a thrilling tale of how Trolley's bravery had saved her from a large menacing bandido who tried to steal her pearl necklace back in Mexico. Apparently, through Trolley's quick thinking and juggling proficiency (acquired during a stint in a traveling circus), he managed to fight the thief off by hurling coconuts at him with tremendous accuracy.
She reached into her bustier and presented Oleander with the broken necklace. Thimbleweed squinted up at Trolley with deep skepticism that this two-bit con was ever capable of such a courageous feat. But, he knew deep in his heart that his sweet Olinda would never intentionally lead him astray. She blinked twice in Oleander's direction to reassure him.
"Is this true, frog?" Thimbleweed said.
Trolley swallowed hard and quickly nodded yes.
Thimbleweed turned toward his colleagues on the ground and up in the tree, "What do you think compadres?"
The burly one on the ground simply shrugged and repositioned the toothpick in his mouth from left to right. The smaller, more nimble associate, leered at Trolley with suspicion while plucking bits of bark from the chainsaw resting on his lap.
All Trolley could do was regret his sweet tooth for crickets, because the added weight gain wasn't helping his cause. As the tree branch was succumbing to the strain, Thimbleweed said "Then prove it, sapo."
Trolley reached into his pocket for the missing pearl and held it out triumphantly. As everyone leaned forward to get a closer look, Trolley closed his eyes tight with the knowledge that his luck had run out. His life line, the tree branch, finally snapped in two. •
The heat and bright light burned through her eyelids as she lay still, unable to speak. In the distance, she could hear sounds that seemed familiar, but couldn't be placed with certainty.
A sharp tap against a piece of glass slowly increased in frequency and the warmth on her eyes faded into darkness.
If only she could open her eyes.
"Can you hear me?"
All she could remember were those fateful four words before the crash.
A few feet away, there was a steady flow of activity as people dressed in uniforms and white overcoats walked hastily through the corridors carrying clipboards and shiny instruments under halos of white light. Just beyond the door, a hum of voices, soft and authoritative, undulated with the rhythm of blips and moving air.
"Asha, can you hear me?" The nurse repeated the question.
The room was cloaked in gray now as the light drizzle burgeoned into rain.
"Come with me." Brendan cupped her left hand between both of his, imploring her to join him on the east coast. With school now behind them, they could write a new chapter together. He reminded her of their hopes and dreams. How good they were together.
How clever Brendan was. Bringing her to the shore, the sunlight sparkling on the water as the sailboats ambled along, carefree, toward a promising horizon. Even the birds were chirping as if on cue. Asha knew all his tricks. She also knew that's why she wanted to be with him.
She took a deep breath, let out a sigh, looked deep into his eyes and lightly shook her head from side to side. No words were necessary.
"Asha, no! You're throwing your life away."
"Stop saying that mom."
"Baby, open the door."
Asha frantically packed whatever she could fit in her gym bag. She knew that the longer she stayed in the house, the worse it would get. She'd been on the phone with Brendan most of the night dreaming, making arrangements and debating whether or not this was the right thing to do. Now it was time to act. If she could get to her car she'd be home free. Brendan would be waiting at their designated spot.
"Eric, speak to your daughter." Asha's mother pleaded from the top of the stairs, gripping the banister tight. It was the only thing she could firmly maintain in her grasp now.
Asha's father had had enough of his daughter's delusions. He'd made his position known long ago. If she stepped out the front door to be with "that boy," then she better not look back. He slammed the patio door and stepped out into the backyard to tend to his sapling.
Asha quickly surveyed her room to see if she'd forgotten anything. Her head was spinning. She tossed her phone into her bag and ran out of her bedroom, leaving her mother behind to dry her own tears.
Asha's room was quiet and serene. Night had fallen and the rain had stopped. She laid there asleep, under the watchful eyes of a ticking clock above her doorway and the drip, drip, drip of her I-V. Her parents were told that a full recovery was expected, but the doctors would know more in the morning. As it turned out, they would know much sooner than that. The steady pulse of Asha's heart monitor abruptly jumped to an unpredictable rate. Her vitals were dropping. Fast.
"Code Blue, Emergency Department, Treatment Room A, Code Blue, Emergency Department, Treatment Room A..." Asha's nurse called for help as no pulse was detected and the monitor flat lined. A crash team sprung into action.
"Mom, please. I can't talk right now." The road ahead was a blur as Asha tried to fight back the tears. She knew her mother had good intentions, but at this moment, she really regretted picking up the phone.
"Sweetheart, listen to me. You're only...and...hardly...the..."
"What? Mom, you're breaking up. We can talk later."
Asha's mother had no intention of hanging up. "Baby...don't understand. What if...work...what...do?" This was her mother's only lifeline. She couldn't bear to think of when she would ever be able to speak to her daughter again if she were to lose this connection.
Asha looked out the window and switched the phone to her left hand, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her right hand. Her mother's voice continued in between pops and beeps. Asha moved the phone to her lap. Upon taking a closer look, she noticed that the battery was dying.
For a moment, the phone went silent. A burst of white light filled her car's interior from front to back as if a light switch had been turned on from the inside. Asha looked up to her right and heard a horn blast racing toward her. Seconds later, a voice from the phone said "Honey, can you hear me?"
The air was crisp and Asha could hear the crunch of the fallen leaves under her feet as she ran toward the chain link fence where Brendan loved to watch the enormous barges crawling down the East River under the immense weight of their cargo.
Was Brendan there now? Did he know where she was? Will he wait for her? Or will he fulfill their dreams with someone else?
She could see him in her mind's eye and tried desperately to get his attention, but try as she might, she couldn't form the words "Brendan, wait up!"
Smoke surged from all eighteen screaming tires as the trailer lunged forward, clipping the rear of Asha's car with all its momentum. Asha's car spiraled down the road and flipped into an embankment which mercifully stopped it from sliding into a thicket of trees.
Moments later, all went quiet. Like raindrops, fluid trickled down the side of Asha's car. Tranquil and heavy.
Asha lay still, unable to speak. In the distance, she could hear sounds that seemed familiar, but couldn't be placed with certainty. It was the cry of sirens sounding faintly in the distance.
A sharp tap against a piece of glass, slowly increased in frequency, and the warmth on her heavy eyelids slowly faded into darkness.
If only she could open her eyes.
"Miss, can you hear me?"
All she could remember were those fateful four words before the crash. •
It was the 3rd day of the 23rd month of the 16th year since the slaying. Or Butternog Day to the natives. Aromas of burnt vanilla and chilled poppy seed filled the air as The Little Ones scurried about prepping for the night's festivities.
The trees bowed down and the waters stood still as the Lourdes seated themselves along the shore.
"Play On!" cried the crow. The show was about to begin.
Once every four years the island came together to celebrate the island's bountiful harvest of herbs, crops, and spices; rosemary, thyme, basil, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, nutmeg – all grew in abundance. This island was special and its inhabitants knew it. They were never in want of anything and had no need for the outside world. If you could eat it, you could find it here. More importantly, the personal chef to the Royal family, Abdim, knew what to do with it. Coming from a long line of culinary masters, Abdim's destiny was settled long before he was born. His ancestors had learned to command fire and water back when the world endured in darkness and he too, inherited this ability. Cooking was in his blood.
Fortunately for its residents, the community was small, so everyone on the island lived and ate very well. Each day began the same way; at the first sign of daylight, when the clock tower struck five, the dwellers rose from their beds, rubbed their eyes, came down from their trees and harvested their crops. In the late morning, they lined up along the lakeshore in one single file, waiting patiently, wiggling their toes and fluffing their tails, for a breakfast of sweet banana crepes with caramelized pears, candied bacon, yogurt biscuits brushed with honey butter, roasted asparagus with pickle-poached eggs, cherry tarragon sausage, and hot peppermint-spiced cider.
The fragrance emanating from the palace kitchen was intoxicating. The meals were delectable and filling; all one could do afterwards was take a nap. In fact, that's exactly what they did. When the clock tower signified the end of the meal, the plates were licked clean and the whole community returned to their trees to sleep until noon. Lunch was served then. Indeed life was perfect. The only things to do here were eat, sleep, and eat again. Day after day after day. "Dependability through Predictability" was their motto. Routine and familiarity were paramount to maintaining a happy life.
For three hundred years, the island operated this way. And there was no reason why it couldn't continue for three hundred more. Perfectly synchronized. Tranquil and content.
That all changed one lazy afternoon at the end of another splendid meal. While all were asleep the lake's waters began to stir. A slight simmer at first, hardly noticeable, but then slowly heating up to a boil. As if it were coming alive. The heat traveled below ground reaching the tips of the tree roots, startling them awake. This in turn, rattled the tree dwellers. The clock tower hadn't rung, because dinner was not for another four hours, so whatever this disturbance was, it was neither expected nor welcome.
The royal family was alerted and news swept across the land. The townsfolk flocked to the lake's edge to see what was amiss. Trails of smoke rose from the lake's surface. Emerging from beneath the water was a bulbous mound, occupying nearly the entire diameter of the lake. The tide rose and lapped at the bystanders' feet. They jumped back and fled to their homes, fearing the unknown. Only the royal family's sentries remained to stand guard, but truthfully, what could they do? Nothing unforeseeable ever happened here. Ill prepared, they simply stood there stupefied and afraid.
They watched, paralyzed, as the large mound rose to the height of a shiny knoll. Glistening in the afternoon sun, water flowed down what they assumed was its face. It cast fearful sounds that echoed for miles as the sun's unpleasant rays pressed its unfamiliar heat onto the thing's back. The beast's incessant noise went on for hours, finally abating after the sun went down. But their supper of Mango-Radicchio Caprese with Basil Vinaigrette; Prosciutto with Persimmon, Pomegranate and Arugula; Lemony Chicken and Orzo Soup; Brined grilled Chops with Treviso and Balsamic Glaze, and Triple-Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies for dessert could hardly be enjoyed, because while they dined along the banks of the lake, the trespasser laid there. Completely still. A giant, immovable object, impossible to ignore.
Clearly, something had to be done. At dinner's end, the residents gathered to determine how they could remove this foreign invader. They bemoaned their situation, agonized over the problem, and struggled to come up with a solution. Later that evening they returned home, distressed and tired. Settled in their beds, they slowly drifted off under the dark blue moonless sky. Thankfully, not a sound was made the entire night. It appeared the sleep that had eluded everyone earlier that day would finally be enjoyed. Had it not been for the bright white glow that quietly emanated from the center of the lake, perhaps it would have. But the light traveled through the forest, beyond the glade and across the mountains. Trees shone like candles, preventing anyone from sleeping. All through the night, the strange visitor remained a bright orb in the middle of the lake. It wasn't until sunrise that its light gently dimmed, eventually returning to its normal self.
Butternog Day was a day of remembrance. A day to commemorate the eradication of an unwanted danger. A chance to praise one another for coming together to restore unity. The audience now properly seated along the lakefront, the clock tower struck one and the performers with flaming torches held firmly in their mouths, swiftly encircled the lake's perimeter.
On cue, the Little Ones went about collecting storm clouds, assembling a foggy mass directly above the stage. As if by command, a violent wind swirled the mass like cotton candy, agitating the waters below. The audience watched in awe as a whirlpool churned the water, rapidly reaching a boil. They sat forward, mesmerized at the display of bubbling water and light as they recalled that dreadful period in their history with a great sense of relief.
For the grand finale, the torchbearers, in unison dipped their beaks into the lake. The crowd watched in awe as a ring of fire radiated a brilliant glow arcing high into the sky. Then all at once, everything stopped. The air cleared, the flames extinguished and the waters became placid. Everything and everyone remained still. The hush lasted a few seconds, before the crowd erupted with a great cheer.
As they did every morning, the tower's bells signaled the start of a new day, but without a wink of sleep the night before, no one was in the mood to do anything but devise a plan, once and for all, to rid themselves of this horrendous monster. The entire town gathered within the palace's walls. The unruly crowd clamored their dissatisfaction, but nothing could be heard clearly through the pandemonium. The royal family tried desperately to quiet the crowd to no avail. Nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened here.
Chef Abdim peered through the kitchen window to see what all the ruckus was that prevented his French toast soufflé from rising properly. For his meals to turn out perfectly, he required meticulous attention to detail that could only be accomplished through an almost meditative state. All this noise was a disturbance and deemed entirely unacceptable.
Determined to put an end to this, he huffed through the palace halls and marched out to the balcony banging wildly on a stockpot with a large wooden spoon. "Silence!" he shouted as he continued to bang the pot until the clanging rang through everyone's ears. Gradually, they quieted down. "You are all ruining my soufflé!" He shook his wooden spoon at the masses. "If you continue to act this way, there will be no breakfast."
"Who cares about breakfast?" someone shouted from the crowd.
A group joined in agreement. "Somebody needs to do something!"
The royal family looked toward the palace guards, the palace guards looked toward Chef Abdim. The fact of the matter was that this peaceful island was so remote that in all its history, there was never any need to plan for security, or prepare for an invasion. The only things that even resembled weapons were Chef Abdim's giant metal pot and wooden spoon.
"How about you? You have weapons," shouted someone from the crowd. Further pointing out that the chef had a meat cleaver, a colander, a baking pan and an eggbeater, the group chimed in accord, volunteering the old cook to save their homeland. The chef dismissed this notion with a wave of his spoon, but a quick vote from the crowd and a mandate from the royal family sent the culinarian back to his kitchen to form a plan of attack using whatever he had on hand.
Defeated, he stared at his deflated soufflés, wondering how in the world he was expected to fight the enemy with a cheese grater and a saucepan. This was a suicide mission and he wanted no part of it.
To take his mind off things for a while, he did the only sensible thing he could think of. He set off to cook. He fired up the clay oven, lined up his spices, kneaded the dough, laid out his cookware and chopped up the vegetables with machine-like precision. Within minutes, he was blanching spinach, toasting sesame seeds, simmering the cream sauce, sautéing the meats and baking the bread. Darting back and forth from stove to oven to grill to fryer, Abdim whirled his way through the kitchen, checking temperatures, tasting, sprinkling and adjusting the flames. The entire room was fragranced with mint, fenugreek, tomato, garlic, ginger and a myriad of other exotic scents.
The royal family could hear the activity from the other side of the walls. Clearly, he was onto something. They were so excited to finally be ridding themselves of their annoying visitor, they approached the kitchen door, eager to know the Chef's plan. But the door was locked. Chef Abdim had a strict policy of never being disturbed while working. The suspense too much to bear, they rapped on the door.
"Chef Abdim. May we see?"
Chef Abdim was startled by the interruption and lost his focus for a moment. "Go away!" he said.
But they wouldn't go away. They begged him to let them in on his strategy for putting an end to their misery. He obviously had a brilliant solution, what with all the commotion coming from inside the kitchen.
But the commotion was actually Chef Abdim struggling to keep track of all the dishes being prepared. The distraction caused him to lose his train of thought and now something didn't smell right. He sniffed the air and detected that something was burning. His soufflé! Abdim dropped his eggs, sprinted toward the oven, and hurdled a dessert cart. His right foot landed in a pot of boiling hot water that had been sitting on the floor. He let out a yelp, grabbed his foot and hopped about carelessly knocking over trays, bowls, mixers...the kitchen was a disaster, the entire meal ruined.
Abdim looked around. Dejected, his eyes settled on a low-running flame on the stovetop. That's when it hit him.
"We'll cook it right where it lays!"
At the Lourdes's command, the entire town set to work with perfect synchronization. While the tables were being set outside, Chef Abdim drafted his recipe and assembled the ingredients. Of course, typically he would test his recipe before serving it, but there was no time for that now. He would have to rely on years of training and instinct.
As the Little Ones lined up outside the kitchen, Abdim armed them with all the necessary ingredients. One by one they flew to the lake and dropped sacks of herbs and spices onto the creature's head, who up until that time, lay soundless and serene. After all the ingredients had been dumped into the lake, the chef gave the signal. Immediately, the mantis shrimp dipped below the surface and began to stir vigorously. Bit by bit the water's temperature began to rise. The heat from below unsettled the creature. Feeling some discomfort, it let out a whimper. The villagers made final preparations as the shrimp continued to stir faster and faster. The creature's whimpers turned into wails and soon after, cries of pain that resounded throughout the land. As the water bubbles increased, the creature's color turned pale and skin became soft. Eventually, its cries subsided into faint whines, until nothing but the gurgling of the bubbling water could be heard.
Moments later, the stirring lessened, reducing the boil to a simmer. And so it remained for most of the day. Quietly, everyone retired to their homes to catch up on much needed rest, looking forward to tonight's feast.
At dusk, the bell tower sounded. The natives ventured toward the lake, where the trees had already begun extending their branches and dragging the creature onto land. With the crows' assistance, they broke down the body and served it to the eager diners. Once everyone was served, the cue was given to begin.
Night fell and only the sounds of enjoyment broke the otherwise sober mood. The food as expected, was divine. The portions, plentiful. Their bellies full, the villagers were overcome with a sense of relief and comfort, knowing that life as they knew it had been restored. All that remained was to sleep. And so they did. As aromas of burnt vanilla and chilled poppy seed filled the air. •
Only one box remained to carry down from the attic. Finally, Janus could move on with his life. With Mai long gone, he’d had plenty of time to think about all that went wrong.
“We’d better hurry, it’s getting dark,” the driver shouted from inside the cab.
Giving himself one final boost atop the ladder, Janus could see the lone box across the attic floor, sitting amongst the cobwebs. It was lit by a flue of blue dust traveling through a small crack in the north walls’ wood paneling. In spite of the unbearable heat, his tired joints, and the honking horn outside, Janus slowly straddled across the floor joists, careful not to put his foot through the exposed floorboard (the last thing he needed was the burden of repairs in the midst of a sale).
When he reached the far end of the room, he looked up, mindful of the low hanging rafters. The box was no longer where he thought it was. It had moved to the south end of the attic. Bewildered, Janus used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow, then he looked forward and then again behind him.
“Just like Mai,” he said.
He could sense the cab driver’s impatience, but nothing could preclude Janus from retrieving this box. To strangers, it may be nothing more than a battered carton of abandoned relics, like those found in flea markets or garage sales. But to Janus, it housed a lifetime of treasured memories: shiny trinkets curled into hieroglyphic patterns reminded him of their travels to the other side of the world.
“How beautiful!” Mai once said, holding a delicate chain of silver made by the hands of children who twisted, fired and buffed the alloy using primitive tools. “I must have it.”
Countless moments such as these were captured in albums bursting with faded photographs. Even those occasions that were not quite forgotten but stored in the deep recesses of the mind, waiting to reappear at one’s loneliest hours, were buried here.
There was a neatly folded turquoise scarf with flecks of gold (just one of the many gifts they had exchanged during their courtship); a pair of tickets for a ferry ride taken the night of his proposal; Mai’s diaries and Janus’ sketchbooks, an archive of recorded trips to the zoo, hikes in the wilderness, and drives up the coast. Often, they played a game in which Mai would begin a poem in her journal and Janus would complete it with a pencil drawing in his. To anyone else, each book would appear to be nothing more than random, incomplete thoughts. Janus and Mai knew otherwise.
He didn’t know exactly how many diaries Mai had altogether, but one thing he did know for certain was she had one of them in her possession during her final days. It too disappeared without a trace. He recalled last seeing it laying on the bed by her side, looking just as worn, bowed, and helpless as she did.
At least she spent it here.
How much she adored this house, with it’s storybook pitched roof, bright bay windows and arched doorway; they knew it was theirs, from the moment they drove up its cobblestone driveway to the moment they made the offer.
“It’s lovely, Janus. This will be our home forever!”
By now the attic was so hot the dripping sweat and mournful tears were indistinguishable. His sodden sleeve proved as useless as the search for his missing wife the night she left him behind. That box was all that kept her close to him.
Janus gathered himself and turned toward it. He reached for the beam above his head with his fingertips and inched forward.
With the sunlight fading it was difficult to discern exactly where it was safe to step, so Janus took his time, occasionally looking in the direction of the box to ensure that his eyes had not deceived him. A startling horn blared from outside, causing him to lose his balance. Janus grabbed onto one of the aged rafters, splitting its spine down the middle, causing it to collapse onto his shoulder. Not since that fateful evening when he stepped away from Mai’s bedside had he experienced so much pain.
“I’ll be right back. I’m going to put on a pot of tea,” he said. When he returned, she was gone. The bed, with its pristine sheets was perfectly tended. Only the faint scent of his beloved remained on one of the pillows.
Over the next few months other cases of people vanishing in the same manner befell the community. Some from their homes, others from the town hospital. All of them terminally ill. Most alarming was that no one had any answers. To this day, the disappearances have remained unsolved. The result was a suburb in delirium. In a span of two years the once vibrant town had become little more than an abandoned settlement. With its barren streets and vacant buildings, the looted development stood frozen with hollow eyes and an expression of horror.
The final bit of light now extinguished, Janus heard the distant sound of a starting motor and the cab driving off.
Stooped in complete darkness, he labored back to his feet with one hand over his shoulder. He waited for his eyes to adjust before using his foot to feel for the floor joist. When he found it, he tapped it twice with the toe of his shoe before setting it down. When he swung his other leg over, he kicked over the box, which was now directly beneath him. The box burst open releasing its contents as Janus fell hard impaling his palm on a stray nail.
He cried out in pain as the items swirled around him. The air was a cacophony of celestial bodies colliding as the objects clashed and fell to the floor. Books and souvenirs battered the attic’s deteriorated frame before striking Janus on his legs and back. The room trembled, shaking up the soot. Janus could hardly breathe. At last, the final few loose papers scattered onto the attic floor and an old tattered three by five card landed on Janus’s bloody hand. It was a photograph of the newlyweds posing in their front yard with the inscription HOME, SWEET HOME.
Resting on his elbow, Janus sat in silence, unable to take his eyes off the picture. He brushed his wife’s cheek softly with his bloody thumb, staining the photograph. When he closed his eyes a quick chill, followed by a blanket of warmth flowed through his body. “Mai,” he whispered, before releasing his grip. •
The blood-orange sky was bruised with belts of deep purple when Gnarr let out a thunderous yawn that echoed for miles. He stretched his arms and legs, stiff from their lengthy slumber, far and wide forming a swollen 'X' across the rugged mountainside. When he sat up, a forest of dry trees beside him snapped like twigs and the stale earth shifted, forming a wrinkled ridge near his lower back. Throat dry and muscles tight, he turned his head slowly, squinting far off into the distance. The weight of his eyelids made everything around him look hazy and unfamiliar. But that's to be expected after sixty three million years.
In a language only he could understand he called out, "Momma, I'm hungry!" and pounded a fist-sized crater into the ground. The only answer was his own series of grunts and grumbles bouncing back at him.
He was accustomed to waking up every morning to the smell of his mother's favorite recipe; his family's version of freshly baked cookies with a tall serving of cool milk. This morning was different. There was no sweet warm fragrance wafting in the air. And no sign of his mother.
"Where is everybody?"
Were they playing a trick on him? Was it his turn? He often played Hide and Seek after dinner with his siblings but that was when the light went out over the horizon. Camouflaging oneself was much easier then.
Several miles west, a red light flashed. "Sir, come quick!" A young man, wearing a white lab coat and spectacles was hunched over an 'L' shaped needle nervously plotting "2.6 at 21° 8' N, 86° 44' W. Foreshock?"
The head researcher peered over the young man's shoulder. "Hmm..looks like a small temblor. Nothing to worry about."
To the south, a shipping container, suspended 30 feet in the air swayed momentarily while being loaded onto a freighter due northwest. Aside from raising a few heart rates, all was well and the container was safely loaded. Work resumed.
In the north, throngs of families awaited with great anticipation as final preparations were made for the latest launch. The buzz of the crowd swelled to cheers as the earth began to tremble ever so lightly. Moments later, an announcement was made postponing the launch until further notice, pending future seismic activity.
With nothing but miles of desert before him, Gnarr slightly disoriented, rubbed his bloated belly with one chapped hand and braced himself on a large rock formation with the other. He stood up with great effort, casually blowing a low hanging cloud out of his way and then made his way eastward, each step covering no less than a city block. As he ambled along, his stomach bellowed and gurgled with increasing intensity. Locating his family and being fed were the only two things on his mind.
From one mountainside to another, Gnarr wandered around aimlessly, kicking over boulders and stomping his feet in frustration. If this was a game, it wasn't fun anymore. Upon reaching the coastline, he plopped down to rest and listlessly jabbed his finger into the sand. As the sun continued to set, Gnarr scooped up a ball of sand and chucked it into the sea. Moments later, far across the great expanse, he noticed the rippling of waves.
"Aha!" he said as he lifted himself up and bumbled into the water. His family loved playing water games and Gnarr was thrilled at the prospect of finally joining them. As he waded through the ocean, he flapped his arms with glee. He shouted their names and called out to his mother. Just then, some lights in the distance began to flicker and smoke began to rise. Dinnertime. With fervor, he quickened his gait.
Thrilled with their day's boon, Amani and Josef pulled back their lines and redirected their dinghy back toward shore. Their mouths salivated at the thought of filling their bellies with mackerel stew, peas and rice and an ice cold Kalik Gold or two.
"All crab fine dey hole, eh, Josef?"
"True, true. We be da best fishermen in all de island Amani."
The tiny boat sputtered along. The two friends reached across the seat to give one another a congratulatory fist bump when an unexpected wave surged from behind, causing them to lose their balance and slip.
"Wybe! De sea, she shakin' her bunggy," Josef said, propping himself up and clutching his elbow. "Amani, you alright?"
Amani wasn't alright. His nose had struck the cockpit and split open just below his brow. Sitting up carefully, he looked over the boat's stern and saw an enormous wall of water rushing toward them.
There was to be no mackerel stew dinner for these two this evening. Nor for anyone else residing along the coastal village. The upheaval hit shore unexpectedly and was unlike anything they'd ever seen before.
Breathing heavily and slightly dazed, Gnarr arrived at the site of the smoke and fire. Heaps of flames and embers were spread for miles, but his family was nowhere to be found. Confusion soon turned to anger and he released a ferocious roar that radiated a blast of hot air across the already charred fields. Undeterred, he saw that his only option was to continue northeast. So off he went.
Trudging through miles and miles of earth and water, Gnarr eventually grew weary, but with nowhere to lay his head, he pressed on until he saw up ahead a second patch of land. Unlike the one before, there was no light beckoning him to hurry and no sign that a reward awaited him this time. He paused and tried to remember when and where he last saw his family. His last memory of them was playing Hide and Seek on a warm, humid late afternoon. It was his turn to hide and up to his family to find him. He knew all the usual places to hide, but this time he was determined to win.
While his friends and family merrily scrambled about, dipping their heads into the seas, peering over treetops, and splashing through rivers, Gnarr was keen on finding the perfect spot in which to tuck away. The moment the others covered their eyes, he tiptoed into a valley and slipped into a hollow place in the ground. They'll never find me here. And right he was, for seconds turned to minutes, and minutes turned into hours. As time passed our stealthy friend grew increasingly tired. He curled up against a ledge, and deep inside the mouth of the underground cave, quietly fell into a deep sleep. Nothing in the air even remotely hinted at what would happen next.
Hundreds of crags the size of train cars hailed from the sky with great force, blistering the earth, splitting it apart and swallowing everything within reach. Dust and rubble shot up high into the air and a thermal pulse fired off in every direction. The result was a rain of molten rock and storm waves of radiation evaporating anything and anyone out on the surface. If it wasn't burrowed in the ground, or deep underwater, it was vaporized to extinction.
For years, debris remained in the atmosphere, blocking out the sun and dropping the temperatures to unbearable degrees. Covered in an enduring frost, life on the earth would never be the same.
That was to be the last time Gnarr would ever see his family or friends, but he didn't know it at the time. He had so cleverly found the perfect hiding spot and as he'd intended he did indeed win the game. But, now he was not happy. Though spared from the devastation, his friends were gone. His family disappeared. And now standing in the middle of the Atlantic he had nowhere to go. Helpless and afraid he had difficulty breathing. Weeping turned to sobbing, until all he could do was look up to the sky and cry.
It was the end of another six straight day, twelve-hour shift and Davi was looking forward to his three-day furlough. In just seven more minutes, he'd be driving the long road home high up in the hills where his girlfriend, a home-cooked meal, and a soothing hot bath would be waiting.
"Davi! The boss wants you to head over to the mixer and check the temperature. The sugar pulp isn't separating. Over."
Davi rolled his eyes and reached for his two-way radio. "Sir, you're breaking up. Can you repeat that? Over?"
Standing on the catwalk, high up near the top of the extraction tower, Enzo tried waving his arms and shouting as loud as he could to get Davi's attention, but the noise from the steam turbines down below drowned out any attempt at success.
Unanticipated high winds were interfering with the two-way radio's signal and both Enzo and Davi and the hundred other workers were unaware that a colossal wave was bearing down on them. The wave crashed down, collapsing the processing plant as if held together with paper clips. The assault was so immediate there was no time to react. Boilers exploded in succession, fires flared up, and water swept up everything in its path.
Seven thousand miles away, tourists visiting the Boca Do Inferno were snacking on Bifana sandwiches at a seaside cafe. Hundreds of feet below, the faint sound of the crashing waves played in concert with the hum of conversation among the guests. Further inland, vacationers were traveling north toward the Capitol, approaching the bridge over Rio Trejo.
It was another quiet evening in this part of the world as families and friends gaily spilled out into the streets to share some wine and break bread with one another as a way of welcoming the long weekend. How could they have known that all around them, the fortified structures designed to protect them were quickly undergoing immense amounts of pressure? Tiny pops sounded off, followed by hairline fissures extending in every direction as if mocking the way the slow rising rivers snaked across the land.
Before long, fractures turned to gaping holes and massive amounts of water burst through. Millions of gallons rushed through the streets, raising automobiles, carrying them away, devouring homes, and ripping buildings off their foundations. Screams were muffled as entire neighborhoods were submerged at once. What once was a vacation destination featured in high-end travel brochures was now a cesspool of shattered dreams and unfulfilled memories.
Just as the big ball of light dipped into the sea, Gnarr caught his breath and slowly let it out. A soft, pillowy cloud floated past him offering a moment of comfort. He watched the cloud caress his left shoulder and followed it with his eyes, as it gently pulled apart into smaller fragments, quietly disintegrating into nothingness.
Engulfed in darkness, Gnarr was overcome with the real sense that he was alone. The grief over losing his family and friends was overwhelming. A quiet rage bubbled up inside until he could no longer contain it.
He stomped his feet crushing large chunks of coral; reached down, grabbed fistfuls of oceanic crust and threw them as far as he could. Sunken ships, truck wreckage, crashed airplanes, anything his enormous paws could find as he thrashed about, flew great distances into the air, like tiny plastic toys. His outcry could be heard for miles and long after his tantrum tapered off, his voice continued to reverberate, fracturing the otherwise silent night.
Defeated and weak, Gnarr struggled to remain standing. He gazed out into the horizon and watched the sky and sea turn white as his eyes rolled back. His knees buckled. His body went limp.
"It's getting late Mithan! We better hurry or Aunty will be mad," Feni said, prodding the lead bull with a tree branch. Five cows back, Mithan threw small pebbles at his lazy cow as it trailed far behind the herd. Though it did quicken its pace, it wasn't without protest. "Bahan, look!" Mithan said, pointing to the top of the nearby hill where plumes of smoke were rising under the glow of the moon. Just around the bend, a stream of red-orange liquid meandered its way downhill toward the neighboring village. Bits of ash fell from the sky.
Four thousand feet above the valley of El Chalten, Benito and Alex were mere flecks against the soaring peaks of Cerro Torre in southern Patagonia. The cloudless sky was a deep blue, but that was little comfort as the ice cold wind cut through like a knife's blade. Even so, this was a dream come true, as they'd spent years training for this trip and few climbers could match their natural instincts.
Which is why when Alex felt the rope tug at his belt he called down "Benito! Todo bien?" It wasn't like Benito to not maintain the proper slack in the rope. Benito repositioned his body after letting a few stray pebbles tumble pass and replied "Hold on!" He inspected his harness to ensure that all was secure and then looked up to give Alex the thumbs up. As he gave Alex the signal, a stone slab sheared off, and shot straight down the rock's face, just missing Alex's head. Benito was not so lucky.
The rope snapped and instantly, Alex too, was free falling. A stampede of rubble and boulders followed closely behind.
Just west of a remote island near the Bering Sea, a pair of Sail drones self-maneuvered the icy waters, continuously taking measurements of meteorological and oceanic activity.
A phone rang at home base. The on-call engineers received data indicating that sensors had picked up a rapid increase in temperature. As the engineers scrambled to determine the cause, opposing currents collided forming a maelstrom several miles wide, sucking the Sail drones into the ocean's depths and losing its signal.
Across the Americas, nuclear families were settled in for the night and tuned in to their favorite late night talk shows. In between the sprinkles of laughter and commercials for auto insurance, entire city blocks caved in as enormous projectiles slammed into homes and apartment buildings, dropping entire neighborhoods below the street's surface. A single point of origin could not be detected due to the fact that the assault was partially caused by the nation's own satellites which had been inexplicably veered off course.
Regaining consciousness, Gnarr struggled to raise himself up and crawled on all fours across a wide stretch of desert land where he could lay himself down and catch his breath. The water around him was warm and milky white, much like what his mother once gave him each morning. He was tired and hungry; his eyes could barely stay open. But, they remained open just long enough for him to see the early stages of the waning moon. Its various shades and textures formed familiar faces that appeared to speak to him. He stared at it for quite some time. A blanket of calm and insight draped itself around him. Measured, he reached out toward the heavens with an open hand, plucked the moon from the sky and plunged it into his pool of milk. "Mm...peculiar," he muttered, his utterances sailing off into the starry sky. "Tasty."
Savoring its nooks and crannies, he licked the cookie's sides and dipped the waning moon back into the milk until it fell to the bottom. "Gulp!" He drank every drop of the moon milk and soon fell asleep in the black night. •