Page 15 of Strangewood

With a sigh, and a quick check in the rearview to see exactly how horribly red and swollen her eyes had become, Emily shoved her door open and stepped out of the car. As she slung her purse strap over her shoulder, she fumbled with her car keys and they slipped to the pavement. She bent to retrieve them and felt all the breath go out of her in a rush. For a moment, the emotion washed over her, and Emily could only bite her lip and clutch her keys. Then she inhaled deeply, stood up, and slammed the car door.

By the time she reached the front door, she could hear the music coming from inside her house. Music. Part of her had forgotten all about music and remembering was bliss. It was "You Bring Me Joy," an old Anita Baker song; one of her favorites. Her key turned in the lock, and she pushed the door open.

Joe stood at the dining room table with a plastic bag of fortune cookies in his hand and the goofiest look on his face. He wore crisp new blue jeans and a chambray shirt that looked almost like stonewashed denim itself. His hair was a bit wild, and he shrugged, holding up his hands as if he had no answers to anything. When, in fact, at that moment, he seemed to have the only answer she could hope for.

On the table were more than half a dozen white Chinese food take out cartons in three different sizes. There were plates and wine glasses, not to mention a bottle of dry Italian wine. And candles. He'd lit candles.

"I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head, a look of utter despair on his face now. "I know it's a little much, just with Chinese food, but when I finished correcting papers, I didn't have time left for anything but take out. I hope you like fried rice, because it didn't occur to me that you might prefer white until after I'd ordered, and . . ."

Ignoring his stream of words completely, Emily dropped her purse, marched across the room and melted into his embrace. He held her tentatively at first, and then with more confidence. That was all it took, the warmth of him. The strength of him.

With the odor of Szechuan cooking and fried rice in the air, she hurried to undress him, and then herself. She caught his gray eyes as often as she could, needing his attention, needing him.

* * * * *

The sky above Strangewood was lightening. The orange stars had begun to disappear, as sable turned to deep navy above them, and then slowly to a powdery blue. Not a cloud in sight.

Nathan sat in the prow of a small rowboat, staring at the mountains that rose up around them. The Bald Mountains, and on their highest peak, where the Up-River splashed over the edge and began to run down once more, they would find the Jackal Lantern's fortress.

He wasn't afraid anymore. Not really. Now he was more mad than anything else, and he sat there, arms crossed, with the grumpiest expression he could summon on his face.

"I'm sorry, kid," Grumbler said, his deep, scratchy voice as rough as a friend of Nathan's Daddy's who lived in Brooklyn.

The dwarf was examining the slashes on Nathan's back and shaking his head, grunting.

"Ol' Jack Lantern never shoulda sent Longtooth. That boy's a savage. Always has been," Grumbler said angrily. "Looks like it's gonna be all right, though. That peanut butter ought to heal it up nice. Let's get you dressed, then."

Nathan had on a clean pair of underwear and tan jeans he recognized from his dresser at home. Grumbler had brought the clothes for him. Nathan had been reluctant at first, but when it seemed like the dwarf wasn't going to hurt him, he stripped and used a bucket of water to wash himself off as best he could. Neither Grumbler nor Gourdon Squashhead, the quiet scarecrow who was using oars to guide the boat along the Up-River, watched Nathan as he washed. Afterward, Gourdon put an oar down to toss Nathan's soiled clothes into the river.

"Damn, what a stink," the squash-headed scarecrow snarled as Nathan's clothes swirled out into the current, only to be snagged on some reeds at the side of the river.

Now Grumbler handed Nathan a Batman T-shirt that was a little too big. That had also come from his drawer at home. When he'd pulled it on, Nathan wanted to cry. He felt so tired, and so sick of being afraid, that he just wanted to let go and have the tears come and sink himself into that place he went when he cried. Away. Safe in misery.

"Can't believe I lost my damn hat," Grumbler said unhappily, and sat on a bench that stretched across the center of the rowboat. "Took me seven years to break that one in."

"Shut up about the hat," Gourdon snapped.

Nathan watched him nervously. The scarecrow seemed anxious and angry at Grumbler, though the boy didn't know why. Maybe he wanted Grumbler to take a turn at the oars, Nathan thought. Though it wasn't much work, just guiding them along, keeping them from hitting the shore.

He turned his eyes to the mountains again, squinted, and the fear began to return. Then he looked at Grumbler, and only felt sad. He'd never loved the dwarf, even when his father first read the Strangewood stories to him. Grumbler always seemed too angry, and a little scary. He was four and a half feet tall and wore a gray, pinstriped, cashmere suit. Under either arm was a leather holster in which he carried huge Colt revolvers, like in the old Western movies.

And the hat. Gone now.

Without it, and now that he was so close to Grumbler, Nathan thought he was just grumpy, and maybe a little sad, too. Just like Nathan, but not afraid. Even as he thought it, Nathan wondered if Grumbler might really be afraid, just a little bit.

"Why does the Lantern want to hurt me?" Nathan squeaked, afraid of the answer that might come.

Grumbler shook his head, and now Nathan knew for certain that he was both afraid and sad. The boy felt better. Less alone. But that didn't last, for he had to also think that if Grumbler was afraid, maybe they were all in danger.

"He's not going to hurt you, kid," Grumbler said. "We won't let him, even if he wanted to. That's not why you're here, Nathan. You'll get home one day. I'm sure."

"Who's this we?" Gourdon asked suddenly, and he pulled the oars in a moment to rest, staring at Grumbler with a look that made Nathan shiver.

"Me." Grumbler lowered his head and glared at Gourdon, the morning sun shining on his gray hair and throwing dark shadows on his face. "Me. Feathertop. Barry."

Gourdon laughed, and Nathan moved farther up onto the prow of the rowboat. The boat was drifting with the current, moving toward the left bank of the Up-River, but Nathan barely noticed. For the first time, however, he did notice that Gourdon's big yellow squash of a head looked soft.

Rotten.

Everything was rotten in Strangewood now, he thought.

"A fucking munchkin, a pony, and a bird," Gourdon said menacingly, and shook his squash. "What the Lantern ought to do is cut the boy open and spill his guts out along the Winding Way. That'd get Our Boy to toe the goddamn line, I'll tell you."

The scarecrow rose up in the back of the boat. A look of wary concern crossed Grumbler's features.

"Sit down, Gourdon," the dwarf said. "You're going to tip the boat, or we'll crash into the bank. Pick up the oars."

From behind his back, in the burlap rags that made up what little the straw man had for clothes, Gourdon withdrew a long knife. The squash grinned, and rotted seed dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

"I don't think so," Gourdon said. "I think it's time somebody took some real action here. It's all falling apart too fast."

Grumbler reached under his cashmere coat and drew a long iron Colt, so fast Nathan barely saw his hand move.

"Pick up the fucking oars," Grumbler growled.

Nathan studied the gun and Grumbler's stubbly face — the gray hair and sideburns, and the blue eyes that made him look almost like a real person, almost like a real dwarf, a human one, that you might see on the street. But the pointed ears gave it all away. That, and the way all his teeth tapered down to a needle tip, a mouthful of sharp fangs.

Gourdon laughed.

Nathan's eyes were wide, and he hugged himself tightly.

The scarecrow came for him.

Grumbler lifted the Colt and fired, and rotten squash splashed across the rear of the boat and into the water. What was left of Gourdon stumbled back with the impact, fell, and then slid over the side into the water.

Nathan screamed and began to babble incoherently. Something was coming from his mouth, but it didn't make sense, even to him. Grumbler holstered the Colt and went to the oars. He got them back into the middle of the river and then put the oars up again. Cautiously, he approached Nathan, and the boy drew back from him, whimpering. But slowly, the dwarf was able to pull Nathan into his arms, and then he just held him tightly as he cried.

"I'm sorry, Nate," Grumbler whispered, voice scratchy and low. "But it's gotta be like this. There ain't no other way."

As the river held on straight for a while, and there weren't many obstacles in the water, Grumbler sat that way with the boy for quite some time. The morning came on fast after that, the orange sun bright in the sky and the trees — here at least — as green as ever. The mountains rose around them and the river swept up, up and up until it began to get cold.

Grumbler took off his cashmere jacket and slipped it on Nathan, and the boy lay down and cried in the prow of the boat. Grumbler rowed. After a time, the crying stopped, and the dwarf realized the boy was asleep. He was glad for Nathan. The boy had likely had precious little sleep since arriving in Strangewood, and it would be a blissful escape for him.

Before the real horror began.

Before he met the Jackal Lantern.

* * * * *

The cot was almost unbearable. Thomas was reminded of a floral-print cot mattress his parents had kept on a wire mesh frame in the basement when he was a child. For sleepovers, his friends always had to use the thing, which resembled an arcane torture device, even to a boy who knew little of such things. What was worse, however, was when a relative might come to stay, which meant Thomas would have to "take the cot."

What the hospital provided for him to sleep on was a bit closer in appearance to a bed than that sadistic bit of fluff and wire from his childhood, but it was hardly more comfortable. Had he been anything less than completely exhausted, he would have been up all night.

Instead, he was asleep before the ten o'clock news.

Nineteen minutes after his eyes closed, Thomas was awakened by the most peculiar sound. At first, he thought the television was malfunctioning, but when he looked up, he saw that the news was still on, though the volume was low. No, the white noise was coming from somewhere else in the darkened room.

Turning to face the wall, pulling his legs up into a fetal position, he tried to ignore the sound at first. But it was annoyingly insistent. Almost like whispering, if mosquitoes could whisper.

When he realized he would not be able to sleep until the noise had ceased, Thomas surrendered to destiny and sat up on the cot. He glanced around the room, trying to pinpoint the origin of the noise. Maybe the phone was off the hook. But no, the sound seemed to be coming from all over the room.

"What the . . .?" he began, and stood up, his bare feet cold on the ammonia-stripped tiles of the hospital room.

Something moved up in the blue glow of the television screen. Thomas glanced at it, tried to focus.

Finally, truly, he came awake.

He'd been an idiot not to recognize the sound. Now, as he saw one of them crawling across the screen, crackling with static electricity from the set, his eyes went wide and he froze.

Bees.

There was no way to tell how many there were, but they were growing louder. Thomas hated bees and always had. But Nathan was in the room as well, breathing softly on his bed, and protecting his son was more important than trying not to get stung.

How in the hell did they get in here? he thought, as he shuffled silently across the tile toward the light switch on the wall. But how was secondary to what to do about them.

At the wall, Thomas reached out, found the switch, and paused a moment before flipping the lights on. A part of him had expected the room to be blanketed in bees — the part that was slowly slipping away from reality. That part was relieved at what the lights revealed. The rest of him was horrified.

"Oh, Jesus, Nathan," he whispered.

Thomas was at the door a second later. He opened it quickly but quietly and stepped out into the hall. The nurses' station was abandoned. He gazed up and down the hall and heard someone laughing a short way down, around a corner.

"Hello?" he called, afraid to shout in case he riled the bees.

For a moment, he stood on the threshold, wanting desperately to get help, and yet unwilling to leave Nathan's side. There would be a nurse back any second, he knew it. If he just left the door open, help would arrive. What decided if for him was the sudden image that came into his mind of the cord with the nurse call button on it. If he pressed that, they'd come quickly.

Thomas turned back into Nathan's room, and bit his lip as he saw his son again. The bees were crawling across Nathan's sheets, buzzing around the bed, alighting on the window and in the corners of the room. A few dozen, that was all. But it was more than enough to cause Thomas to cease breathing for a moment as he stared at them. At Nathan. There didn't seem to be a single sting on his exposed flesh, and that calmed Thomas somewhat. But he couldn't just let them stay there. He had to do something, but what? Once he began to attack them, the bees would likely retaliate, stinging him time and again.

Thomas was allergic to bee stings. He would swell, perhaps enough to close off his breathing passages. In which case, he might die. His only positive thought was that he was in a hospital, so at least someone might get to him in time.

Someone.

His eyes found the white cable and small plastic button that he was supposed to press to call a nurse. It lay across Nathan's bed, next to the boy's legs. To reach it, he would have to put his hand on the sheet with the bees.

It had grown more difficult to breathe, as if he had already been stung, and Thomas tried to push it away. Anxiety, that's all it was, he assured himself. But still, he did not know what to do. He stared at the bees crawling on his son's bed, watched Nathan's face carefully, looking for any sign that his son might awaken, feeling the tiny pressure of the bees on him.

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