Page 14 of Strangewood

The Troll backed up. The General pressed his advantage, moving in on the thing. Before he realized his error, he had stepped onto the boards his fall had broken. Wood splintered around him, and the Peanut Butter General fell. He dropped his sword and it clattered on the wood. He reached out and barely was able to gain his grip on the unbroken boards around him where they were still attached to the wooden supports that ran along each side of the bridge.

Below, the thick latticework of rotten or discarded wood that held up the bridge was broken in places. Boards jutted up at odd angles. If he did not die from smashing into the crisscrossed beams, he might be impaled instead. Worse, somewhere in that dark trap was the lair of the Troll, and who knew what horrors lay down there.

"Hmm?" the Troll said and held one thick hand on its broad expanse of gut, where the General's sword had passed. "Perhaps you'll think twice about not paying a toll when next you wish to cross, General?" the Troll grumbled angrily.

It stood, prepared to walk past him, but paused after a moment. It glared down at the General, blue blood flowing over its fingers.

"I don't think I want the boy, come to think of it," the Troll said mildly. "I think I'll just take your sword."

The Peanut Butter General's eyes widened with rage at this insult.

"And your hat. Always liked that hat," the Troll added, narrowing its eyes to study the General's peanut butter encrusted military cap.

Then the Troll licked its lips. "And since I'm a bit hungry, and you smell so very, very good . . ." it said, and then paused, reached out, and gripped the General's right hand. Now the General held onto the bridge by only his left hand, but falling had suddenly ceased to be his primary concern.

"I'll take a bit of nourishment as well," the Troll finished.

He crouched on the bridge, which had stopped its swaying, and held the Peanut Butter General's hand up to his mouth as though it were a leg of fowl. The Troll's jaw distended, tusks dropping low enough to allow the General's entire arm to pass through the jagged teeth that lined the inside of the beast's maw.

"No!" the General shouted.

The Troll snorted with amusement, smoke jetting from its nostrils.

The Peanut Butter General narrowed his eyes, struggled to keep his arm from the Troll's mouth. "No," he said again, angrily.

Dangerously.

Then he said another word, in a voice so low he knew the Troll would not hear it. The word he said was, "Swarm."

The bees rushed in by the hundreds, an angry cloud of black and yellow, the buzzing loud enough to drown out the rumble of the river below. They surrounded the Troll's head in an impenetrable sheet of stinging fury.

As the Troll began to scream, the Peanut Butter General climbed out of the hole in the bridge and got to his feet. He picked up his sword, hefted it in his right hand, and walked toward the screaming Troll.

"Away," he said grimly, and the bees obeyed.

Face lumpy and swollen from the stings of the bees, the Troll looked up at the General, his eyes pitiful. The General raised his sword.

"Wait!" the Troll said, suddenly terrified. "What are you doing? You can't . . . you can't kill me!" he cried, his tongue thick and swollen. "This is Strangewood."

For a moment, the Peanut Butter General hesitated. Then his eyes narrowed to gooey slits and he set his jaw firmly.

"This is war," the General snarled.

The sword whickered through the air, peanut butter flying off and leaving only the shining metal edge. It hacked through gristle and bone with one clean slice, and the Troll's head separated from its neck, tumbling through the air and down over the side of the Rickety Bridge to be carried by the Up-River toward the Bald Mountains in the distance.

"This is war," the General whispered, as the blood fountained from the decapitated body of the Troll, where it slumped to the rotten wood of the bridge.

Greatly saddened, the General turned toward the other side, toward home. He looked up, and only then did he notice that the screaming of the Orange Pealers had nearly ceased. Only one Pealer remained to scream, and its wail was high pitched and frantic.

Nathan was gone.

The Peanut Butter General moved swiftly but carefully across the bridge and scanned the Winding Way and the forest around it, but to no avail. The rest of the Orange Pealers were gone, as was Nathan himself. The bees followed him and began to settle on and in his body once more, but he paid them no mind.

"Nathan!" he screamed, his anger only tempered by his growing panic.

"Where?" he demanded, lifting the remaining Pealer into his hands and holding it up. "Where is he?"

The Orange Pealer, its teeth gnashing in savage contempt, pointed into the wood at the side of the Winding Way. That was when the General heard it. In the distance, the screaming of the others of its kind. He set the screaming citrus creature on the ground and it took off into the forest. The General followed as quickly as he was able. It led him down a steep grade to the edge of a sheer rock face above the Up-River, where the black water churned below.

A thick cord was tied to a tree and hung down over the edge. Blood was splashed across the stony edge of the cliff where the Orange Pealers stamped and shrieked, pointing down at the river. The cord hung down over the cliff to the water, and as the General looked over the edge, he thought he could barely make out a dark shape on the water upstream.

A boat of some kind. And in it, he knew, was Nathan.

"Who?" he growled.

The Orange Pealers responded, scrambling into the trees, back the way they'd come. When they emerged, they held in their hands a green felt fedora that was quite familiar to the General.

"Grumbler," he said in disgust. "Traitorous little bastard."

CHAPTER 8

"It's certainly not like anything I've seen before," Dr. Gershmann said bluntly and shook his head in consternation as he glanced over at Nathan. With his left hand, he stroked his bushy mustache, while his right rested with familiarity on his prodigious gut.

"It's just so darned odd," the doctor added.

The strange odors had mostly disappeared, though Thomas could smell just a phantom hint of orange. Or thought he could. He had been taking in the depressing sterility of the room — even the walls themselves looked as though they had been washed so often they were now faded and dull — but now he blinked and just stared at the doctor.

"Odd?" Emily repeated, a horrified look on her face. "Dr. Gershmann, he's been here nearly forty-eight hours. How can you all be completely clueless? I'm sorry if this is insulting, but what the hell are we doing here if you can't help us? Should we transfer Nathan somewhere he'll be able to get help?"

A bleach-blonde nurse knocked lightly on the door, popped her head in, and reminded Dr. Gershmann he had a meeting with someone named Challis in twenty minutes. He thanked her without really acknowledging her presence and then turned his attention back to the Randalls.

"You're certainly free to make whatever decisions you feel are in your son's best interests, Mrs. Randall," the doctor said, the harsh hospital light gleaming on his bald pate. "But I assure you, we're doing all we can at the moment. He's in no danger, and if you wanted to take him home, you'd need someone there full time to monitor his condition and to handle the use of the IV and, of course, to clean him."

"I've been cleaning him for five and a half years, Dr. Gershmann," she snapped instantly.

Thomas moved to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "That's not what he meant, Em, and you know that."

They stood together in silence, and she laid her hand on top of his own. Thomas closed his eyes a moment, chewing his bottom lip. He wished he were somewhere else. As horrible as it made him feel, he wished for the quiet solitude of his office, his desk and computer, for the very act of creating. Granted, he hadn't really felt much pleasure in that for quite some time, ever since the pressures of producing had begun to outweigh his interest in the characters. But just to have a moment of that bliss . . .

For just a moment, he wondered what had happened with Francesca and the Fox people that day, and then cursed himself for even thinking of it.

"Look, Dr. Gershmann," he said, for Emily seemed to have run out of words, "I just don't understand how you can stand there and tell us there's nothing wrong with our son. Nothing on the MRI, nothing toxic in his system. It's like he's normal, but Jesus, just look at him! Does that look normal to you?"

They all looked, then, at the small boy with tape holding down his eyelids, whose face seemed frozen and distant. Unaware of anything around him. Unaware, even, of the bee that even now crawled across his lips.

"God, Thomas, get it off him!" Emily said, her voice choked with disgust and helplessness.

Thomas was already moving. He swiped the bee away without any regard to the possibility of being stung. When it settled down again, he killed it with a rolled up People magazine Emily had bought.

"How'd that get in here?" Thomas asked and looked angrily at Dr. Gershmann, though he knew he could hardly blame the man for a random insect.

Dr. Gershmann didn't respond. He was cleaning his glasses with the lapel of his white coat. When he looked up, Thomas could see in his expression that there was something he was not saying.

"What?" Thomas prodded.

"You were discussing how normal Nathan seems," Dr. Gershmann said, idly scratching the back of his head just below the wide bald spot that was partially ringed by a half-circle of straggly gray hair.

"Oh no," Emily whispered. "What is it?"

"Nothing worrisome," the doctor said. "Just a bit odd, is all."

"Odd how?"

"Well, I had Neurology run an EEG on Nathan today. Normally during a coma or the infrequent case of catatonia, brainwave activity ought to be at a very low ebb," he explained. "Nathan's brainwaves are spiking off the chart. The activity level is extraordinary, as if he were not only wide awake, but very, very excited. We're going to hook a monitor up in here, but it seems like a consistent condition."

Emily reached out to touch Thomas's hand, and he gripped her fingers tightly in his own.

"So he's, what, dreaming?" Thomas asked.

"Dreams come in cycles, Mr. Randall," Dr. Gershmann said. "If it were a particularly lucid dream, we might see results like this, but not on an ongoing basis. This is nearly continuous."

"How do you explain that?" Emily demanded.

"We can't," the doctor confessed. "At least, not right now. I've consulted with several department heads, and so far, we believe this condition reflects a possible psychological disorder. There may be nothing at all physically wrong with your son."

"So we should talk to a psychologist?" Emily asked, incredulous, and gestured to Nathan's prone form. "For this?"

The doctor paused a moment, stroking his mustache again. Thomas wondered if the other man was offended by Emily's tone. He found he really didn't care. But after a moment, Gershmann glanced at Nathan again and shook his head.

"We'll keep monitoring him, and we'll do another toxicology scan, just to be doubly certain. Other than that, I do think we should have a psychologist look at the EEG readings and maybe examine Nathan. If you have no objection, of course."

Thomas and Emily were both silent at that.

"Tomorrow, then," Gershmann said, before turning to exit the room.

At the door, he paused. "Mr. Randall. Mrs. Randall. I'm Nathan's doctor, not yours. But I feel I should tell you that the closeness in here, the sameness of a bedside vigil, if you will, can be maddening. I understand perfectly that you want to stay with your son, but you might consider splitting those duties. I think you would both benefit from a bit of fresh air, maybe some contact with the outside world."

Thomas frowned at first, but then he softened. It was a good suggestion, and the doctor didn't have to make it.

"Thank you, Dr. Gershmann," he said.

"For everything," Emily added.

The man nodded, both hands unconsciously patting his girth, and then he was gone.

When Emily left the hospital, a little after eight-thirty on Tuesday night, she felt a horrible guilt descend upon her. She'd left her little boy behind. Thomas was still there, sitting up with Nathan, and would be there all night. But she was his mother. Regardless of practicality, a large part of her felt that she should never leave his side.

Yet, no matter how inconvenient, life marched on. Dr. Gershmann was right. It made little sense for both of them to spend every night in the cramped confines of the hospital room. They each had lives to lead, things that must be attended to, no matter what personal crisis had arisen.

In addition, there was the small matter of sleep deprivation.

Tonight, she would sleep at home, tomorrow night, in a cot next to Nathan's bed, and on and on into the frightfully unknowable future.

With the evening slowly creeping across Tarrytown, the way it will in summer, Emily made her way up onto Tappan Hill. It was only as she guided the car into her driveway that she tasted salt on her lips, felt the moisture on her cheeks, and realized that she had been crying.

The tears were for Nathan, yes. But she knew they were also for herself. For the betrayal of her conscience.

Emily was relieved to be home, to be looking forward to a night in the peace and comfort of her own bed. The knowledge that Nathan's health might take a turn during the night, for better or for worse, was a powerful counterbalance, but still, she could not deny her pleasure at the thought of her own home. Her own bed.

Nor could she deny the small thrill she felt as she noticed that, once again, Joe's grape twelve-speed was propped up in the drive just in front of the garage.

The guilt was severe. But she was a practical woman, and she knew that it would, if not pass, at least recede enough for her to function. Already, she was resigned to this new arrangement as a fact of life, at least until Nathan recovered from whatever it was that ailed him. And that was the kicker, wasn't it? Gershmann had no idea. Nathan had been a funny, smart, imaginative little boy, and then someone, somehow, had turned him off, easy as pushing a button on the remote control.

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