Page 27 of Strangewood

Francesca grunted. "I can't put that in the contract," she balked.

"You'll have to," Emily told her. "It really isn't much to ask, Francesca. If they're working on Strangewood, they ought to at least know what the source material is. What they do after that is up to them."

"How are you going to enforce that?" the other woman asked, incredulous.

"I can't. But if I find out down the road that anybody didn't read the books, I'll sue them."

"Even Thomas never asked for that."

"He should have. There's magic in Strangewood. And a little bit of genius. It's reached the point where I have to wonder if that's all Thomas Randall is going to leave behind."

Then she couldn't even speak anymore. Words failed her completely. Thomas always looked at Nathan as his legacy. That might not be possible now.

Emily mumbled a good-bye into Francesca's mutterings and hung up the phone. She was done. She'd had enough for one day. Facing up to reality was a horrible necessity. Emily wished she could immerse herself in some kind of ignorance. But there was no way to escape the terrible truth of what had happened to her already fractured family.

No way but the one Thomas had chosen.

And Emily hated him for it. Or, at least, she wanted to. But how could you hate someone you loved?

Joe had left a message earlier that she should meet him at Horsefeathers for dinner if she wanted. Seven o'clock. It was half past five when she left the hospital, and she drove without really paying attention. It was a trip she had made so many times that a mile would pass without her remembering it. Her subconscious could guide the car the way that it guided her fingers when she typed.

The stop light at Main and Broadway brought her back to herself. Emily blinked several times, realized she hated the song on the radio, and punched a preset station button to excise it from her life. The station she had changed to played innocuous soft rock, and she let her mind go on autopilot once again.

A left at the lights took her up the hill toward Marymount once more. It was as she slowed to take the right that led toward Tappan Hill that Emily noticed movement in the trees to the left. Branches swayed without any breeze, but more than that . . . something hustled through the trees.

She slowed, stared into the trees, and tried to focus on whatever had been moving in there. It could have been anything, but though the horrors of the day had taken her mind off it, the odd event of that morning came back to her now. The strange face outside Joe's apartment.

Still, nothing seemed to move in the trees. A car came up behind Emily fast, so she took the turn and started along the road that led past the school. Something darted across the street in her rearview mirror, but when she tried to focus on it, the thing was gone.

After that, as cautious and observant as she was, Emily saw nothing.

"Getting a little paranoid, aren't we?" she said to herself as she pulled the car into the driveway.

But as soon as she was inside, she locked the door behind her. And when she went back out to the car to head down to Horsefeathers Bar, she hurried, her eyes darting into the shadows of the night.

* * * * *

In the darkness of Nathan Randall's hospital room, Dr. Frederick Gershmann squinted his eyes to see the boy's chart by the dim moonlight. There was nothing new, nothing he hadn't seen before. He hung the chart back on its peg, and stood looking down at the small boy, the pitiful figure with tape over his eyes.

He should be awake. There was no reason for him to still be comatose. And yet he merely lay there.

"Can you hear me, I wonder?" he asked Nathan. "Do you have any idea what's going on out here, in the real world?"

Nathan should be awake, and according to the activity in his brain, he was. He hadn't put it exactly that way for the boy's mother, but there it was. He didn't respond to any external stimuli, and for all intents and purposes, he was in a coma.

But, somehow, Nathan Randall was awake.

* * * * *

When Thomas had first stumbled along the Scratchy Path several hours earlier, he had barely noticed the ubiquitous chirping of crickets that seemed to blanket the wood. But, as they walked, the noise lessened a great deal and finally, as they followed the Winding Way into the deepest part of the Big Old Orchard, the cricket song stopped completely.

The Orchard was gone. Burned to a hellish stretch of charred tree trunks jutting skyward. It was a horrible scene, and the silence only made it more so.

Thomas walked beside Brownie, keeping pace with the enormous grizzly, even as he watched the muscles ripple beneath the bear's fur. That was power. Strength Thomas couldn't even conceive of. And yet Brownie was so amiable, Thomas wondered if, when the time came for the grizzly to do his part, Brownie would be capable of turning that incredible strength to violence. Thomas hoped it wouldn't be necessary. Such a thing would destroy the grizzly, that was certain. But if that was what it would take to get Nathan back . . . well, he hoped Brownie would be ready.

"Our Boy!" Mr. Tinklebum said excitedly, hurrying to catch up, as he had been throughout this first leg of their journey. "You would be so proud of Brownie if you saw him dance. He remembers everything you taught him, and does it so well."

The bell-bottom scurried after them, cling-clanging as he ran along the Winding Way. Thomas had been able to tune out the sound of the bell, but not the little lavender-striped creature's voice. Some of what he said was nonsense, but some things were actually helpful. This bit of gibberish was neither, but it hurt Thomas deeply.

It was his fault, he knew. Or at least, much of it was. Not that he was responsible, not that. They could have prevented all of this from happening if they'd only tried. But Thomas also knew that he could have stopped it. Could have prevented it from ever coming to pass. Whatever became of them now was not really his fault, but he could have made a difference.

"I love to waltz," Brownie said, confirming Tinklebum's assessment. "But I really want to learn to tango."

For a moment, sadness threatened to sweep over Thomas again. Then the wonderful absurdity of the moment claimed him, and he smiled broadly. A small chuckle escaped his lips and he shook his head as he patted Brownie on the back.

"Let me get my boy back first," he said. "Then I promise, I'll teach you how to tango."

Brownie smiled broadly, revealing long rows of huge, sharp, glistening teeth. Anyone else would have run in terror at that grin. Thomas only laughed gently and shook his head.

"We'll save him, Our Boy," Brownie said, his smile fading slightly.

They walked on in silence, with only the clanging of Tinklebum's clapper disturbing the quiet. The dead, blackened orchard on either side was ghostly, almost as if the spectres of the trees themselves were haunting the nighttime woods. It wasn't long before any trace of amusement had left Thomas's mind, and disappeared from his face as well.

A quarter mile on, he paused, glanced from side to side.

"This is the first station, isn't it?" he asked. "I recognize it."

"Indeed, indeed, Our Boy," Tinklebum confirmed. "The first of the Ranger stations. Or it was. Before . . ."

Mr. Tinklebum peered along the Winding Way as if it had only just occurred to him that, should they continue on their route, they would come to the smoldering remains of his entire hometown, where the corpses of his friends and family were only embers now. He stopped midsentence, wrapped his hands around his blue belly, and said no more.

Thomas didn't pursue the conversation. Instead, he glanced angrily about. In the light from the orange stars, he saw that several charred tree husks had been downed off to the left. Without wasting a moment, he diverged from the path, and set off into the dead orchard. A second later, Brownie and Tinklebum ambled after him.

Fifty yards into the scorched forest, Thomas stopped. He glanced around at the downed trees, and then he looked up at Brownie. The grizzly's gentle eyes met his own, the question in them obvious but unspoken.

"I know the odor of the fire is a bit overwhelming," Thomas said to Brownie, "but do you think you can catch Redleaf's scent?"

The bear stood up to his full height, which was a very imposing eight and a half feet, and sniffed the air. He gazed about through the crisped tops of trees that would never again produce apples. Tinklebum stopped moving, and thus was silent.

After a time, Brownie slouched down again. "Just to the northeast," he confirmed. "Not more than a couple hundred yards."

Redleaf was weeping. He stood in a small stream that had once separated the Big Old Orchard from the rest of Strangewood. It had served as a firebreak, and Redleaf shivered with the thought of what might have happened otherwise. The devastation was horrible.

Worse, however, was the unknowing. Redleaf could not decide what to do. If he returned to his post, might the fire not come again? He thought that perhaps he ought to report to Captain Broadbough, but he had heard on the wind that Broadbough had gone out. Had left Strangewood. Something the Forest Rangers were simply not allowed to do. Dereliction of duty and all that.

But now he was one to talk.

In the end, though, Redleaf was merely afraid. He had many good reasons for this fear, but the thought that he might be a coward was so foreign to him that Redleaf could do nothing but stand frozen, roots in the stream, and weep the tears of trees.

He did not see the strange company that emerged from the burned orchard a short way down the stream from where he stood. Nor, in the depths of his self-pity, did he hear them as they approached along the edge of the stream.

"You deserted your post, Redleaf," came a voice.

Startled, Redleaf splashed his roots a bit as he turned to face them. Brownie was among them. Redleaf had always liked Brownie, but at the moment, the grizzly looked quite displeased, even angry. Upon his shoulder rested a bell-bottom, and Redleaf was greatly relieved to see him. He'd thought all the bell-bottoms dead after the firestorm that had destroyed the Land of Bells and Whistles.

It didn't occur to him to wonder why the bear was carrying the bell.

Redleaf wasn't very bright. Though he was bright enough to know that much, at least.

With them was the other. The one who had spoken. The anger on this other's face could not be mistaken for anything else. He looked familiar, this other. But, well, he just couldn't be.

"Halt!" Redleaf said, straightening his limbs. "I am Redleaf of the Forest Rangers. Make no hostile move, 'less you wish a swift reprisal."

"Not much of a Forest Ranger," said the other.

Redleaf was offended, even though he didn't think this newcomer was wrong. He watched as the grizzly put the bell-bottom down on the soft earth by the side of the stream. He regarded this other more carefully, uncertain how to respond to such anger.

"You know, I could arrest you," said Redleaf.

"You're an idiot," said the newcomer.

Redleaf trembled. That was enough. Now he was angry. With a cry of frustration, humiliation, and even a bit of fury, he whipped an upper limb down toward the man. Brownie shoved the man aside, ducked under the offending limb, and roared loudly in Redleaf's face.

"Stop that, you fool!" Brownie growled.

Redleaf stopped.

"Don't you recognize him?" the bear asked.

"I don't want to," Redleaf confessed.

"It's Our Boy," said the little bell-bottom.

"I was afraid of that," admitted the Forest Ranger.

He quivered a moment, then stopped himself and stood tall, staring down at the bear and the bell and at The Boy. The Boy glared up at him, but Redleaf did his best to feign courage. It wasn't as if Our Boy could do anything to him, hurt him in any way. But it was obvious that leaving his post had angered Our Boy. Worse, Redleaf had disappointed him.

For it was Our Boy who had first conceived the idea of the Forest Rangers, oh so long ago.

"I'm sorry," Redleaf said, defeated by his own train of thought.

"Sorry isn't enough," The Boy said. "You abandoned your post, but you've done no worse than the others. Where are they all? How can all this . . . horror have happened here without the Rangers putting a stop to it? That's what you are here for! How can the Jackal Lantern have . . .”

"The fires," Redleaf said quickly. "That's what the fires are for. The Lantern uses them to frighten us. Split Trunk and Short Branch were . . .” the Forest Ranger glanced quickly at the little bell bottom. "They were burned in the fires, trying to stop the flames that came for the Land of Bells and Whistles and the Big Old Orchard."

The tree's branches drooped.

"I ran," he confessed.

"And now you're here," Brownie growled. "You've lived to fight another day. Perhaps that's best."

"The best," chimed the bell-bottom. "All the other Rangers will help."

"I don't know," Redleaf said doubtfully. "The Lantern has fire. I know he has the little boy." He looked at The Boy. "Your sapling. But maybe it's something the two of you can work out amongst yourselves."

Our Boy, whom Redleaf knew was named Thomas, though he would never presume to use that name, shook his head sadly. He snorted, though in disgust or grief, Redleaf did not know.

"If anything happens to Nathan . . . if the Jackal Lantern is not stopped . . . I don't think Strangewood will survive much longer. If we go against old Jack and lose, you'll probably burn in the end anyway."

The grizzly stared up at the tree, but The Boy looked away. Redleaf chose to look at the back of The Boy's head, and he felt a terrible sadness. He had been a coward before, and he was still afraid. But fear would drive him. If the choice was fight or die . . .

"I'll send the word through the wood," Redleaf said. "The other Rangers will have to choose for themselves. Most of them are more courageous than I, so perhaps . . ."

The Boy turned away and began to walk across the stream and up toward the still pristine forest beyond.

"Do what you must," The Boy commanded. "When we reach the Jackal Lantern's fortress, we'll need all of you."

The bell-bottom's clapper cling-clanged as he hurried across the stream and followed The Boy into the forest. Brownie the Grizzly gave Redleaf one last glance, and then he, too disappeared into the forest. Through it all, Redleaf said nothing more.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com