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?" •
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. •
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. •