Over the Bridge
Monsters of Morningside
Monday dawned brilliant and sparkly. Just the tiniest cotton balls of clouds peeked around the side of the mountain. Maybe they would wisp away in the yellow-white sunlight, and there would be no rain at all.
Alex found Linden at the cubbies. They grinned wordlessly at each other as they stuffed their jackets and backpacks into cubbies. Then Alex remembered.
Alex made a solemn face; Linden's eyes turned serious. Alex said: "I am getting a baby."
Slowly Linden's mouth fell open, the horror sinking in. "A baby sister?" He cringed just saying the words.
"Maybe," Alex answered.
The bell rang. There was a flurry of footfalls, a quieting of voices, the creaks and thuds of bottoms wiggling into desks, and the smart tap of Mr. Fine's shoes pacing the length of the blackboard. The boys scampered to their seats.
Alex sat on pins and needles as Mr. Fine led the class through what he called "Fun Damentals," which began with a slow recitation of the alphabet, followed by his tapping letters on a big chart with his ruler, and the kids telling him in unison what the letters were. Alex kept guessing the wrong one (luckily his voice was quiet) because all he could think of was telling Linden about the hole he was digging.
"Now class," Mr. Fine said after a while, "let us count farm animals." He rolled his magnet board out from behind a stack of bins and began corralling two-dimensional chickens and cows in opposite corners.
Alex heard a minute shuffling of paper nearby, looked out of the corners of his eyes, saw Linden's pale hand maneuvering the stub of a pencil.
Alex stifled an "Oh!"
He could tell Linden about the hole. He had promised not to draw, but no one had said anything about writing notes.
Moving with slow care, Alex withdrew two sheets of paper and a crayon from inside his desk.
"We have a number of chickens, a number of cows, and," Mr. Fine paused dramatically as he swooped several flat, pink pigs to their own special pen, "a number of pigs."
"Let us first count the chickens." Mr. Fine wagged his hands like a conductor and the voices rang out: "One. Two. Three."
Alex waited until the moment when Mr. Fine turned his head to check his one-to-one correspondence on the magnet board, then leaned over to elbow Linden and point at his note. Linden craned his neck and stayed that way, frowning at the crooked letters Alex had written, while the class counted chickens and Alex's hands started sweating.
"We have seven chickens. Now let us move on to the cows."
Alex pressed his lips together. He didn't know how to spell! It would be so much easier to draw.
He took a deep breath and shielded one hand with the other...
Linden's face brightened with understanding. Quickly he jotted a word on the corner of his own doodling paper. Alex leaned over to see.
To Linden's questioning stare Alex nodded vigorously.
Alex's stomach did a somersault and he froze. Even his eyes stayed right where they were, locked with Linden's. Linden gulped. In the time it took for Linden's hands to make a swift, tiny movement that concealed his doodle paper beneath a clean sheet—and for Alex to fail to do the same, since he had turned into a block of ice—crisp footsteps brought Mr. Fine to Alex's side.
"Mm-hm!" said the teacher, sounding pleased. "Nice try, Mr. Hollow." He snatched Alex's paper and held it up high as he strode to the row of color-cards in pockets at the front of the room. There, he faced the class.
"I… am…" he read very slowly, "digging?" He arched his eyebrows and read on. "A… hole… ah. I see. A hole from… my house to your house."
Alex, his eyes wide and dry, still unable to move, had the horrible sensation that the middle of his ice-block body was starting to crack.
"And here we have an illustration. Charming." Mr. Fine brandished the page in front of the class. Giggles erupted like popcorn. "Now, now, children. There is nothing funny about defacing one's schoolwork." Smiling, he crumpled the paper in his fist and beckoned to a cinnamon-haired girl in the first row. "Lucy, will you please place this in the trash can for me? Thank you."
While Lucy obeyed, Mr. Fine turned and moved Linden's yellow card to the back of its pocket, leaving orange. Then he pulled from an orange canister on his desk a zig-zaggy shape made out of black construction paper. "Mr. Lighthouse, this is for you."
While Linden, head hanging low, arose to accept his Cold Prickly, Mr. Fine fluttered his fingers along the row of cards, found Alex's brown one, and whisked it away, leaving black. This one he removed too, and fixed Alex with an icy stare.
"Mr. Hollow, take this to Principal Rowan."
Alex could not move.
Mr. Fine's sour smile collapsed. Sparks flew from his eyes, and thunder from his mouth. "Now!"
Alex popped up as though a volcano had erupted beneath him. Shaking all over, he managed to totter to the front of the room, grasp the black card, and skulk out the door.
Alex could not imagine a fate worse than facing Principal Rowan with his long black coat and his lumpy face.
Still, after being ushered into the cramped, musty office by the hall monitor, who gently pulled the black card from his clammy grip and handed it to the Principal, Alex could not keep himself from peering up out of the corners of his eyes. He never could resist a monster.
Mr. Rowan, though, merely pointed to a child-sized chair in the corner, returned to his desk, searched for a number on his phone, and waited. Alex could just hear the ghost of his mother's "Hello?" He shrank down as far as he could into his plastic chair while she and the Principal exchanged solemn yeses and I sees, until Mr. Rowan finally ended the call with a mirthless chuckle. "We'll see you," he said, and hung up. Then without so much as glancing at Alex, he let his rectangular glasses slide to the end of his nose, and proceeded to draw his crooked fingers slowly down a document that lay before him.
That was all that happened until Alex heard Mom's light rap on the office door.
Mom didn't say anything on the way to the car, but Alex didn't feel like she was angry. Her eyes had their familiar, soft shine. She did grunt, folding herself awkwardly into the driver's seat, which reminded Alex of the Goblin in her belly.
Mom might not have been angry, but she still made Alex do nothing but chores until dinner time.
Dinner was deeply pink salmon and buttered corn. It was gone in minutes, and Alex was sipping his warm apple juice, when Mom folded her hands under her chin and looked at him through half-lidded eyes. This was a serious look. Dad folded his lips inward and lifted an eyebrow at him. This was a trying-to-be-serious look.
"Well, Alex," said Mom, "your card is now black. So. There will be no outside time for you, except to do chores with Dad or with me. And there will be no coloring, at school or at home."
Alex felt a hot tightness in his throat.
"And you should know," she went on, "that Linden's mother called."
Alex straightened up. A smile took over his whole his face.
"She wants to keep the two of you separate until both of your cards are back to white."
Alex's smile disintegrated. He burst out: "But can I play with Linden?"
"Alex, no. Separate means you cannot be together. Now. What do you have to do to make your card white again?"
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to recall all the things Mr. Fine had said way back at the beginning of kindergarten. "I think I have to…" His eyes popped open. "I have to have good behavior for a whole week."
"Two whole weeks," said Mom. "When your card is white again, then you may have your crayons and your outside time back. And maybe a play date with Linden."
"But—I want—" Alex found he couldn't say what he wanted. Two whole weeks. He felt as though someone had thrown a cold blanket over him.
While Mom went to the kitchen, he stared blankly out the window, seeing not the grasses and the forest and the bridge, but fourteen huge, gray fields: two rows of seven big blocks full of cold colorlessness.
He hardly noticed when Mom returned, carrying something golden that smelled buttery and sweet. He just kept looking out the window.
"You may still make things with Dad," she said.
"On the weekend," said Dad.
"And we can make cookies, and even watch movies."
Alex wiped away a tear as, across the yard, the space between the painted guardians of the bridge glittered to life under the starlight.
Deep into the night Alex sat on his bed with Heavy in his lap, his other stuffies and blankets piled around him like indifferent mountains, thinking only this: no going outside, no coloring, no Linden.
At some point, he found himself on top of his desk.
With two hands, very slowly, he did the trick that Mom and Dad didn't know about. He turned the little crank that opened the window, removed the screen and, securing one of Heavy's ears between his teeth, slipped into the night, feeling less and less like a five-year-old boy as his hands and feet registered textures of wood, brick, and bark. Like a squirrel in pajamas he scurried down the tree-trunk.
The ground was cold and rough; animals don't mind, and Alex didn't mind. Bent almost double to keep from being seen by Mom if she was looking out the window, he ran across the lumpy lawn to the bridge.
He kept his eyes on the glossy, black river for a few moments. He did not want to look up and see just the same ordinary world on the other side.
Everything seemed uncannily quiet and still; the sound of the water was like a low music. He could hear no wind, but the intrepid weeds around the ankles of the wooden guardians tickled his ankles.
He realized, as his eyes strayed a little from the shining water, that there were moon-white flowers among those weeds.
Whispery voices passed his ears.
His heart stopped; a feeling like a wind laden with music and the scent of wildflowers filled him; he looked up.
Between the sentries on the far side of the wooden bridge, a kind of tunnel opened upon a deep, dark, thick, wild wood, sparkling with pin-point lights.
Alex got up and looked over his shoulder. The windows of his house were black. He set one foot on the bridge, then the other. Bare wood had never felt so good.
He could not later have described what he saw or felt when he stepped off of his father's bridge into the other world.
As black as shadows can be in the ordinary world, the darkness of that enchanted wood, though pierced with a thousand lights, was deeper and fuller. It was as though every pocket of black or indigo or dark purple held a kind of music, low and pure.
For a moment that felt like forever, Alex was lost to himself.
A rustle and a flurry of movement roused him. A soft voice cried, and some fuzzy shapes nearby assembled themselves into a form: a person not too much larger than Alex. A pair of faintly luminous, pale green eyes blinked above a tiny nose, hardly any lips, and a pointed chin. Her downy skin glowed rosy-gold. A filmy cloud widened around her shoulders—wings! The voice sounded again; it was musical though hushed, sweet somehow; the way a mountain bell might sound, if a mountain bell had a voice. But Alex didn't understand the words.
Another voice answered that sounded like wind through hollow wood, and another, high and breathy. More and more voices chimed in. And the faces peering out at him, and up at him and down at him... monsters upon monsters!
Monsters who looked like they were made of trees, of tiny cottony clouds, of fire, of smoke; monsters who looked like they were part toad and part goat; part leaf and part grasshopper; monsters with insect eyes; monsters with fangs and claws, furry monsters, naked monsters, nearly invisible monsters.
All around him their voices rose and fell for what seemed like a long time, and Alex couldn't understand any of what was said. Finally most of them fell silent, and the first person who had spoken, the one who sounded like a mountain bell, drifted close to him and held his gaze. The feeling of looking at her reminded Alex of maple seeds pinwheeling through afternoon sunlight.
"You are a human child," she said, carefully pronouncing each word.
"Yes, I am!" said Alex, jumping. "My name is Alex Hollow and I'm almost six years old. What's your name?"
But the person was already frowning before Alex even got to his second sentence. She shook her head, held up a finger.
"You go back," she said.
"I don't want—" Alex began, and a noise stopped him—not the whisper of one of those gathered round, but a shivery rustle.
That's the noise the monster makes!
Alex craned his neck to see past the people who were blocking his view—and who apparently had also heard the sound, for they hushed and pointed. Far off among the trees, something shimmered.
Ducking between two of the forest-dwellers, Alex shot off.
"Stop!" cried Mountain Bell. "Child! Stop!"
Alex put on a burst of speed. He felt like he was dreaming, his eyes keen and his feet light and fast! He leapt over roots, logs and fallen trees, chasing the silver shine. He heard his own giddy laughter. This was fun!
Some at least of the crowd from the river were in pursuit; he heard their quick, soft footfalls and flutters. Out of the corners of his eyes he caught sight of people dashing through the woods on either side of him, reaching for him—but he swerved aside. Laughter rippled through the air behind him. The strange voices began to fade.
His pursuers were falling farther and farther behind, and he was catching up to the monster! He was winning the chase!
He could now see a mass of shifting light through the trees… the light resolved into a curvy form. It did not seem quite solid—but it was as big as his house! There were wings, and horns, and a winding tail…
"Monster—monster—" he heard himself panting.
He was almost there! The translucent form shifted. The maned head turned, a flame-bright eye glinted…
Alex skidded to a halt, clutching Heavy to his chest.
That was when, with a gale of hot, moist, salt-smelling breath on his face, quite a different sound blasted his ears: a feline howl.
The cat! Alex scrambled backwards through the undergrowth. That cat was much bigger than it had looked from far away, bigger than the biggest tiger in the zoo. Pale gold eyes squinted at him out of a shaggy, tufted face with notched, weirdly tapered ears. It hunched to spring. Alex got to his feet and ran.
The cat leaped past him and almost got him, but he dodged and changed directions. The cat leaped from the other side; Alex escaped again. He was running very, very fast.
But it occurred to him, even as his pumping legs carried him through the glimmering magical forest, that he could not see anything that looked remotely like home through the folds of starry darkness.
Pounce! The cat was in front of him, its wicked eyes narrowed to slits and its yellow teeth bared in a hiss. Changing directions again, Alex tripped over his own feet, scrambled up and ran again—
The familiar thump-thump of his feet striking wood told him he'd run right onto a bridge. Not stopping to be sure it was his bridge, he vaulted across, landing on his knees in the scrubby, crunchy grass of his own back yard—only to look over his shoulder and scramble to his feet.
The big cat was not finished with him yet.
It pursued him right up to his escape-tree. For a terror-filled instant he pressed his back into the trunk while the beast crouched in front of him, growling.
There was nothing for it but to climb. All the way up, Alex was saying to himself: cats love climbing trees! It's going to get me—
But when he stepped onto the eave under his window and turned to look down, the cat was still at the foot of the tree, glaring up at him, its mouth open though silent.
Alex's chest felt ragged and cold, and his arms ached—they were empty! Heavy was gone!
But no, there he was, caught in the branches half-way down the tree.
Too terrified to move, Alex crouched on the roof like an uncertain gargoyle, until the cat's face twisted in a horrible hiss that sent him scuttling across the shingles to his bedroom window, over the sill, and onto his desk, where he turned and looked out, squinting to see through branches to the yard below.
A sleek shadow streaked across the turf to the bridge, and over. The woods on the other side looked to be merely the modest woods of Alex's own ordinary world, but they swallowed the cat just the same.
A mild wind cantered through the leaves of the Escape Tree to touch Alex's flushed face with coolness. Taking a deep breath, he clambered once more out onto the roof, scuttled through the branches, and rescued Heavy.
End of Chapter Three
Coming January 31, 2022: