Alex Hollow
Monsters of Morningside

and the 

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FIVE
Zoombies and Whisper Stones

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Alex's eyes snapped open as something skittered over his covers—the same thing that had just skittered across his face. He lay frozen, with chills running up and down his spine, until another thing ran across his face, and then another! He sat up with a yell, flailing his hands like someone crazed before coming to his senses enough to grope for the flashlight that might or might not be on his nightstand. There it was! With shaking hands he flicked it on and swept its yellow beam around his room. Covers, pillows, stuffies, rumples of clothes and books and toys, the dresser, the desk—there!

His creatures! His creatures made out of colored pencil scribbles! There they were, all three of them!

The scribbled cat crouched in the corner between the desk and the bookshelf. The scribbled boy stood on the window frame. The scribbled monster, creepily, was sliding along the top of the rolled-up window shade. Alex slowed his breathing and slid off of his bed.

Thump, thump: footsteps in the hall! Dad was coming. Alex swung the flashlight around to the door just as Dad opened it. Dad shielded his eyes. There was a papery rustle from the vicinity of Alex's desk.

"Alex, what's up? I heard you yelling."

"Um—um—nightmare!"

"Aha. Aim that somewhere else, will you?" In two steps Dad was next to him.

Alex thumbed the beam off. "I'm okay now," he said quickly. "You can go back to bed."

"What's that noise?" Alex saw Dad's shadow turn this way and that, and then shrug. "Wind, I guess."

"Well, you can go to bed now," said Alex.

"Sure. You first," said Dad. Alex imagined Dad's single raised eyebrow.

"Oh! Okay!" As quickly as he could, Alex climbed back in bed and got under the covers with his flashlight. "Good night!"

Dad bent over him, smoothed his hair back from his forehead. "Are you sure you had a nightmare?"

Alex hesitated only for a moment. "Yes. I did. It was really scary."

"Tell me."

"It was… scary things crawling on my face."

"Ah. Spiders." Dad spider-crawled his hands over Alex's covers. Alex squealed; he couldn't help it. "Hey. I'm sorry I've been so busy lately."

"It's okay, Dad. Good night!"

"On the weekend, if I'm caught up, we can make things. I promise."

"Okay. I'm—" Alex paused to yawn loudly, "sleepy!" He could hardly hold himself still, wondering what the scribble creatures were doing and whether Dad was going to get suspicious and turn the lights on.

"How'd you like Blackmask?"

"What?"

"The martial arts studio. Mom said you did okay."

"Oh, yeah! Good! I liked it!" There was a rustle from the vicinity of the window. "Gosh, it sure is a windy night. Okay, you can go to bed, Dad."

Dad ruffled his hair. "You're a funny kid, X. Sleep tight." He kissed Alex's forehead and finally, finally got up. "Want me to leave the door open?"

"No!" said Alex, then added in a drowsy voice: "You can close it. Good night, Dad."

After Dad's footsteps faded, Alex counted to ten—slowly—before turning on his flashlight again and creeping out of bed—only to find his desk abandoned.

"Hey! Come back!" he whisper-called. But even as he shone his flashlight under his desk, into the drawers and all around his room, he had a sinking feeling that he knew exactly where they'd gone: exactly where he would have, if he could slip between wall and window and escape with practically no noise. He climbed up onto his desk, remembering the way they'd zoomed around Daoshi's workshop and vanished.

The yard was very dark. He squinted hard for a long time before he saw them: three see-through things so insubstantial that they looked like dust-motes on the bridge under a fingernail moon…

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"Zoombies!" Linden was lying on his back and laughing. He seemed remarkably unfazed by Alex's tale of having brought his scribbles to life in the workshop at Blackmask Martial Arts; but he couldn't get over what Alex had come up with to call them. "Zoombies!" he cackled, holding his sides. Alex was gratified.

 

Their corner under the tree was off limits, so they were sheltering in a yellow plastic tube that was just the right size for two almost six-year-olds.

 

"I wish I could see them." Linden slapped his palms on the plastic (Alex jumped) and sat upright. "Hey! Make more! Can you make one now?"

 

A nervous chill gripped Alex's belly. "I don't know… I think I need colors…" But in his dreams there was only dirt. He closed his eyes and started circling his hands; his mind circled too. What were Ms. Izzy and Ms. Condi doing? Were there kids nearby? He heard swings creaking and kindergarteners shouting and balls bouncing. If someone besides Linden saw him, would they make fun? And if Alex did make a real, live Zoombie, would he get into trouble again?

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Linden giggled. "You look really funny. Oh! I almost forgot! How could I forget?" He sat upright, reached into one of his pockets, and produced a pair of smooth, black stones. His face suddenly serious, he held Alex's gaze. "These," he said importantly, "are Whisper Stones. I got them from the Laboratory. I don't think my dad will notice that they're gone; all he ever thinks about is this other big thing he's working on. It's called—" he screwed up his face, thinking—"a Zero… Torsion… something. Anyway. These are for talking to someone when you're far apart. I get one and you get one." He dropped one of the stones into Alex's palm.

 

Turning it over, Alex found a button-sized indentation in one side. It felt almost like an ordinary stone—except for the faintest tremble of a minute vibration against his skin, almost like eye-light.

 

Linden explained: "You hold the stone between your hands. You have to get it to body temperature. When it's warm, you talk into the hole."

 

Alex felt breathless. "We can talk to each other?"

 

Linden nodded solemnly.

 

"Did you do it with your dad?"

"Okay!" said Alex, and then slapped his forehead. "Wait. I have Blackmask after school."

 

"Again?"

 

Alex nodded. "Almost every day. Until I learn to be good."

 

Linden cocked his head and wrinkled his nose. "That's weird."

 

"After bed time!" said Alex. "What time is your bed time?"

 

"Eight o'clock."

 

"Mine is seven thirty. But I can stay awake."

He glanced at Linden's excited face. What would Linden think if Alex couldn't do it? Concentrate, he told himself. Please come to life, Zoombies, please, please—

 

But he knew that was not how it worked. He shook his head furiously.

"Um, well, he told me how to do it a long, long time ago, back when he first invented them. They really work. I think they do. Let's try them after school! Right when we get home!"

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Wednesday at Blackmask was different than Tuesday. The kids were again all different sizes, but their belts were yellow and white, except for Mr. Ford, who took Alex aside for private drills. "Call me Oz," he said, and winked. Alex trembled.

Oz made him practice a front punch twenty times (or so; Alex lost count) and that was just his right hand. He soon realized that he was to learn a whole list of techniques in this fashion, and after the hands came the feet. With all the punching and pivoting and bending of the knees, before long he was dripping sweat, and could think of nothing but keeping up with Oz.

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So he was shocked when, after Oz called him to attention and bowed, Daoshi said: "Mr. Hollow, you will please meditate in the workshop." Alex felt as though a happy bat had started fluttering around inside his chest. Grinning giddily, he bowed to Oz and made his way on jelly-legs to the door.

He stood still just inside. White paper shimmered on the workbench in the soft glow of the lamp; the tips of colored pencils pulsed rainbow colors from a canister full of them—more than a rainbow: a whole universe! Alex thought there must be a hundred different colors in there. A sound of trickling water came from somewhere amongst the miniature trees. Alex flexed his fingers; he wanted to grab those pencils…

But, being good meant following directions. He knelt, lowered his head just like everyone had done at the opening of class, and stayed still for as long as he could. It felt like a very long time. He was just pulling the stool out from the workbench when Daoshi's grizzled face peered in through the doorway.

"I already meditated," said Alex. "So I—there's a hundred colors!"

"Very good. Also there is a clock, yes? You return to class in ten minutes." Daoshi gestured with his chin at the wall, where there hung another of the clocks that Alex didn't know how to read.

"Um…"

"Aha." Daoshi clomped over and pointed with his staff. "Ten minutes. When the long hand points to eleven, here, yes? Then you return to the studio for the close of class. In this way we show your mother and father that we do indeed practice the martial arts. Yes? Very good."

"Okay," said Alex, "very good."

Daoshi gave him a crisp nod, and left, closing the door behind him.

Alex turned back to the shining paper and the hundred colors.

"Intent!"

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And so, over the next few days, martial arts were practiced. One hundred colors were used. Alex learned how to read round clocks and how to not color in kindergarten even without sitting on his hands.

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The only trouble was that on Blackmask days, by dinner time not just Alex's arms and legs but even his eyelids became as heavy as cement, and he kept falling asleep in the middle of his floor while waiting for eight o'clock to come. It was Saturday night before he kept himself up past seven-thirty.

 

"Linden!" he whispered to his warm Whisper Stone. "Linden Lighthouse! If you can hear me, say something!" He pressed the Stone to his ear; there was nothing but that very faint vibration. So he waited some more and snuck out to the bridge—but the stars were covered by clouds and the other world was not there. The same thing happened on Sunday. Why did it always rain on the weekends?

Nor was the making of Zoombies so easy; Alex could color to his heart's content, but in the absence the delicate balance between emotion and calmness that he had learned from the Dream Teacher, his scribbles remained stubbornly on the paper. Saying "intent" helped. It was all part of what Alex began to think of as his Zoombie Spell.

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Thus, by Friday afternoon, a handful more of the little beings had arisen in the twilit space of Daoshi's workshop. They did not seem to understand English, and invariably zoomed out of sight the moment any grown-up entered the room. Alex never could catch them, even though he was sure they were hitching rides in his backback so that they could get to the bridge. He sometimes caught glimpses of them running across his desk as he succumbed to sleep.

When Alex told Linden all about them at recess, Linden said "Wow, Zoombies," and started talking about how to make the Whisper Stones work.

However, days turned into weeks, and one happy Friday afternoon Mr. Fine replaced Alex's orange card with a yellow one, just in time for Halloween the next day. Mom and Dad were going take him to the famed Black Tree Festival.

And. Mom called Mrs. Lighthouse. Her cheeks got rosy as she said goodbye and turned to face Alex, who was bouncing on the balls of his feet.

To his unvoiced question (he was too excited to talk) Mom said: "Your card isn't white yet." Alex's heart sank. "But if you keep up the good work, then next Friday, you and Linden will have your sleepover."

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Alex was eating cinnamon toast in the sunny nook, and Mom was half-way through packing his backpack for going to the festival later, when she let out an alien kind of grunting noise and stopped dead. The noise had not been very loud, but Dad came dashing into the kitchen as though she'd screamed. Then he stood there with his arms out and his eyes wide. Alex dropped his toast. Mom nodded at Dad even though Dad hadn't asked a question. Dad set his shoulders and said: "I'm calling the hosp-"

"No!" Mom said in her stop misbehaving voice.

"Veronica, what if—"

"Call Miriam," she said firmly.

She was exuding such a fierce energy that Alex saw in his mind a wall of blue flame.

She grabbed the edge of the counter and bent her head.

An icy wave swept through Alex. Without thinking about it, without even being aware of running, he rushed over and grabbed one of her wrists, trying to look into her lowered face.

Dad, who had his phone to his ear, pulled Alex forcefully away with the other hand, and started running through the house, dragging Alex with him. Alex heard his own voice chattering. "Hospital? What if what? Who's Miriam? What's happening? What's happening to my Mom?"

Dad didn't answer him; he asked for Miriam on the phone and then started stammering: "I don't know—she told me to call you—yes. Okay." He hung up and led Alex to the mud room, where he sat him down on a bench and knelt in front of him, scrolling to another number on his phone. He gazed at Alex, his eyes dark and wild.

"Mrs. Lighthouse?"

Alex jumped. Linden's big grin zinged into the midst of his dread like a bolt of happy lightning.

"Look, Veronica is—the baby's coming."

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Alex was going to spend the whole day at Linden's house! And it was Halloween!

But the baby was coming. It was hurting Mom. Alex didn't want to say goodbye to her, but Dad made him, and he started to cry.

He'd never felt this way before: two totally opposite ways at the same time.

Mrs. Lighthouse surprised Alex with how kind she looked as Dad handed over Alex's backpack.

"Thank you," Dad said breathlessly.

"Of course," said Mrs. Lighthouse. "Don't worry about Alex. Just call us when—when  things have settled."

"Right," said Dad. "X." He pulled Alex into a bear hug. Alex forgot where he was, and wouldn’t let go; Dad finally pried his hands off of his neck and ruffled his hair. He gave Mrs. Lighthouse a little bow, pressing his hands together like a statue of a saint, and hurried away.

Fire erupted in Alex's eyes and throat as Dad's car rumbled out of the driveway.

Far away, Linden's voice said: "We might have a sleepover!"

Alex blinked hard.

"Have you had breakfast, Alex?" said Mrs. Lighthouse, closing the door.

"Linden, the cleaners still have most of the house to do. Get some snacks and take Alex outside until I call you in. Remember the rules."

Linden's face turned a delighted pink as his mother mounted the steps to the upper level. Meanwhile Alex stood frozen in the foyer, his inner eye fixed on a vision of a fat little goblin sucking the life out of his mother.

He was having a revelation: there were some monsters that he did not like one bit.

"My dad took Jordan on errands," Linden said over his shoulder, heading toward the kitchen. "No Jordan! How awesome is that? Alex, come on! Snacks!"

"Linden?" said Alex, dodging a woman with a bucket and a spray bottle.

"What?" Linden opened up a big grocery bag and set it on the counter.

"I'm getting a goblin."

Linden whipped around. "What?"

"I mean a baby. I'm getting a baby, and I really don't want to get one."

The spray-bottle woman chuckled.

"Aha." Linden looked and sounded a lot like Alex's dad for a second. Then he shrugged. "Well, there's nothing you can do. Too bad we're just kindergarteners, huh?"

Alex followed him around while he opened drawers and cabinets.

"But, the baby will ruin everything," said Alex.

"Probably."

 

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Under the trees in Linden's back yard, Linden got right down to a discussion of the Halloween, his Mothman costume and the Festival. Alex only half-heartedly chimed in. Cheese crackers and gummy worms did little to vanquish the terrifying visions of the new baby-goblin that hung over him like a wet hoodie.

"I bet my mom and dad will bring the baby to the Festival," he said.

The best thing that happened was that after the cleaning people left, Alex and Linden went to the Art Studio. Alex had almost forgotten what it was like to color with crayons: the soft, easy strokes, the earthy smell... Almost without thinking about it, and just as fat feet were heard pitter-pattering in the hallway, he produced a Zoombie.

That was when the worst thing happened.

Linden looked up sharply—not at the scribbly creature that was already dashing toward the edge of the table, but at the doorway to the hall, where the short, chubby, tousle-haired Jordan stood waving her hands in the air. In one she was clutching something green and floppy.

"Mom, no!"

"Wrong," said an unfamiliar voice, followed by a tall, skinny man with curly, black hair and dark blue eyes behind rectangular glasses. "Dad. Come on, Linden. Your sister wants to show you what she found on our hike."

Alex bent to look under the table, thought he caught a glimpse of orange, purple, red and yellow crayon marks flitting into the shadows under a shelf across the room. When he straightened up, Jordan was at the table. She flung the floppy thing—a stuffed creature of some kind—down on top of Alex and Linden's drawing. "Kip-tid!" she declared. Alex gave Linden a dubious look. But Linden was wearing a crooked, wavering smile.

"Cryp-tid," he said. "She knows I like them."

"What's a—"

"Pe-sent!" cried Jordan.

"For me?" Linden's cheeks got pink and he grinned as though he couldn't help himself. Meanwhile Alex's eyes started to sting.

Mr. Lighthouse folded himself into the grown-up chair as Jordan helped herself to crayons. To Alex's horror, she said "You daw I daw," and Linden just gave the tiniest sigh and moved over to make room.

Alex got a new sheet of paper. It wasn't long before Jordan decided to draw on that too. He pressed his lips together. The stinging in his eyes turned to burning. He squeezed them shut, and when he opened them he started yelling.

"Stop drawing on my paper! You're ruining it! You ruin everything!"

His face was very close to the goblin's face. He felt his eyes popping and his lips pulling back from his teeth.

The goblin's eyes were rounder than he'd ever seen them. Water came into them, and the red lips trembled. For a second, a squeaky whimpering was the only sound in the room. Then Mr. Lighthouse cleared his throat. "It's about supper time—"

"Alex Hollow, I am mad at you!" said someone.

Said Linden.

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Alex felt as though his friend had kicked him in the stomach. Like magnets his eyes went to Linden's, took in a blue-flame fury that he'd never seen there before. His own mouth worked wordlessly.

"You made my sister cry!"

Alex was afraid he was going to cry.

Mr. Lighthouse cleared his throat again—he sounded like he was having trouble swallowing something. "Linden, it's been a long day for Alex, and he's hungry. Let's go upstairs." Linden started putting the crayons away, but his father's long arms swept all three of them away from the table.

"We'll clean up later. Should I remind you of some of the things you've said when you were hungry?" he went on, herding them out of the studio. "Alex, please excuse Jordan. She hasn't learned not to color on other people's work. When she does that, it just means she likes you. Now. Dinner will make everything better."

Dinner did make things a little better until the phone rang, and Mrs. Lighthouse, after talking quietly for a minute, handed it to Alex.

"Hi, X." It was Dad.

He asked how Alex was doing, and Alex said fine, and Dad told him that he had a new sister, and her name was Drew, but they'd had to take her to the hospital, and she would have to stay there for a while. Dad said he and Mom were staying there too for just a short time, so Alex was going to spend the night at Linden's house. And suddenly Alex felt like there was sand in his throat and he couldn't breathe very well, and all he could say was, "Mom?"

Dad laughed softly. "Mom is okay, X. I promise."

"When are you coming home?"

"I just have to stay tonight. Then I'll come and get you. But Mom and Drew will probably stay at the hospital for a little while."

"Why?"

"Well. Being born, X. It's difficult. Sometimes babies can get hurt. Drew got hurt, and she needs to stay here until she's healed enough to come home. And Mom needs to be near her, to give her milk."

"Can't the doctor give her milk?"

"She will get better a lot faster if Mom gives her milk."

"But—"

"Alex. Your Mom is okay, and your sister is going to be okay, and I will come and get you tomorrow. And then Mom and Drew will be home before you know it."

Instead of blurting out that he wanted only Mom to come home and not Drew, Alex swallowed a very hard, sandy lump in his throat.

"Okay?" said Dad.

"…Okay."

"I love you. Mom loves you."

"I love you too."

"Be good. Don't stay up too late."

"Okay."

"I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow."

Mrs. Lighthouse took the phone from him. Alex stood still while the Lighthouse family started chattering and taking plates to the kitchen. Finally he realized that someone had said his name a few times, and Mr. Lighthouse's face came into focus.

"We'll take you and Linden to the Black Tree Festival. All right? Linden, show Alex your costume box. We'll leave in fifteen minutes."

Linden put on his black Mothman costume; it had wings almost as tall as Linden, and ear muffs that were supposed to be eyes. From a big wooden trunk he pulled out costume after costume—there were animals and monsters and super heroes, but nothing seemed right. Finally Alex settled on a black cloak and a silver mask with no eyes that Alex never the less could see through when he put it on.

But it was all wrong. Alex and Mom had made a whole zombie costume with a wig, and torn clothes, and she was going to help him put on makeup. Now he couldn't be a zombie. Linden's family did not pack a picnic in a wagon and pull it along a footpath to the black tree; they got into in their enormous, shiny car. Mr. and Mrs. Lighthouse didn't make jokes or tell tall tales; they just used big words to talk about things Alex didn't understand. Jordan's bucket-seat loomed in between Alex and Linden. She kept blurting out "Pace fate! Face pate!" until Mrs. Lighthouse announced: "Face painting first, then the Alien Adventure. That's Linden's favorite, Alex."

Alex liked that one too, but he didn't want to go there with Linden's Mom and Dad and Jordan. He looked out of the car window and watched the forest go by.

He wished he were at home, with no grown-ups to know if he went over the bridge into the other world and met the Monster. The other one. The nice, silver one.

The sky was clear and moonless when Alex climbed out of the Lighthouses' car. The Black Tree, which loomed between the Library and Dad's other painted bridge, was full of faintly glowing, yellowish lamps. Paper-bag luminaries lined paths that twined between all the booths that Alex knew were waiting—besides Face Painting and Alien Adventure, there were Games of Terror, the Haunted Shack, Fortune Telling, all kinds of food and candy… and Story Time in the Library.

While the Lighthouse family started toward the Festival grounds, Alex stood still, breathing in the smells of smoke, spice and autumn leaves. He was getting an idea.

"Mrs. Lighthouse," he said, trotting to catch up. "Can I please go to Story Time? It's in the Library."

"I think so," Mrs. Lighthouse said bouncily. "Jordan, how about Story Time?"

"Pate Face!" Jordan yelled. Alex grinned in the dark.

"Well, Alex, how about after Face Painting?"

Alex kicked the dirt and hung his head. "But Story Time is my favorite. Please?"

"Fate Pace!" shrieked the goblin.

"I know!" Alex hopped for emphasis. "I can go by myself! Miss Bessie is the boss of it! And there's lots of grown ups!"

"Miss Bessie from school?" said Mr. Lighthouse.

"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Lighthouse. "It's not just stories. The whole Library is decorated; there are costumes, games, trick-or-treating and everything. Parents can drop their little ones off for up to a couple of hours, I think."

"It's for babies." Linden said this out of the corner of his mouth, but Alex heard. He didn't care.

He said: "I don't really feel like regular Halloween stuff. I just want to go to Story Time."

Mrs. Lighthouse looked past the goblin's big head at Alex for a long moment. A gush of her eye-light broke over him. There was a kind of soft and sorry feeling in it.

"Alright. Linden, why don't you go with Alex to Story Time while Dad and I take Jordan for Face Painting and Apple Bobbing."

"Bapple Obb! Face Pate!" said the goblin.

Linden was silent; Alex could tell even in the dark that he was frowning.

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After Mr. Lighthouse signed Alex and Linden in to the Library, Alex headed to the Costume Closet, where three little kids were digging through musty masks and cloaks, watched over by two smiling middle school girls.

"We already have costumes," Linden growled.

"Sh!" Alex whispered into his mothman eye-muff: "Do what I do. Pretend we're looking for costumes."

Linden cocked an eye at him, one corner of his mouth turning up. That was more like it! Alex grinned broadly as they knelt between the little kids and rummaged through the tattered dress-up offerings.

It wasn't long before one of the middle school girls went to the bathroom, and the other led the gussied up toddlers away. Behind his mask, Alex put on his most serious face. He said: "Want to see the other world?"

Keeping to the paper-scented shadows, sidling past knots of sticky children, Alex led Linden quickly to the front desk. They ducked to the other side, crept into the back room, and were surrounded by sudden darkness, silence, and stacks of books in Limbo. Linden let out a long breath. "I've never been in here before—"

"Sh! Let's go!" Alex took his arm and pulled him to a door, which he knew could be opened from the inside. The next moment, the door banged closed and a Halloween wind slapped their faces. They'd come out on the dark side of the Library, away from the Festival. "This way," said Alex. They skittered all the way around the big building and along the edge of the parking lot, to the footpath that would take them to Alex's back yard.

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Hugging the riverbank, the path wove through the occasional thicket and briar. It was a narrow trail that was perfect for bumping your wagon the fifteen minutes it took to walk from the Hollow home to the Black Tree. Alex and Linden went more quickly, on excited kindergartener feet, with no wagon. A mischievous gale whistled through trees and grasses; the river laughed beside them; an owl cried in the distance. From all directions, Alex sensed all kinds of eye-light, keen, fierce and wild. He smiled in the dark. Soon he would be back in the other world—with his friend!

Linden clutched Alex's arm and turned around, pulling him to a halt.

"What!" Alex whispered.

 

"Sh!" Linden hissed. Both of them stood stock still, scanning the darkness.

Alex didn't see anything, but a delightful shiver wrapped itself around his shoulders.

"It feels like…" Linden whispered slowly, "…we're being followed. Doesn't it feel like that?"

"Well…" said Alex. "I don't think so! No one except my family goes this way. Come on."

"But I saw something moving—" Linden pointed into the thicket behind them.

Alex took Linden's arm this time, and pulled him along the path. "Remember the last time you saw something?"

"You saw it too!"

"Well, I wasn't sure."

"So how come you went with me?"

"I just think you see things that aren't there," said Alex. Then he noticed how mean that sounded and added: "Just sometimes."

Linden let out a huff. "Well, I've never seen a Zoombie!"

Alex stumped along without saying anything.

The truth was, he wasn't sure that they weren't being followed—but he was sure, from the scintillating tapestry of eye-light he'd felt moments ago, that nothing nearby had any bad feelings toward himself and Linden. Though, just now, his eye-light sense was being smothered by his anxiety that Linden was going to turn around and never go with him across the bridge.

"Just come on," he said. "I promise everything I told you is true! I'm going to show you! We're almost there!"

"You better not get me in trouble," Linden muttered.

"Linden," Alex said, "sometimes you just have to be bad."

Linden laughed and they tromped along quietly for a time, occasionally pointing out the possible face of some kind of gargoyle, goblin or ghost among the trees.

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Finally Alex descried Dad's carved moth and chameleon, bristling with starlight. Sliding his mask to the back of his head, he ran with Linden across the crunchy grass and fallen leaves in his back yard, but stopped just in front of the bridge and grabbed his friend's cold hand. He found that, just as on that first night, he'd lowered his eyes, afraid to look up and see nothing but the ordinary world. However, there next to the carved feet were the faintly glowing flowers amid the persistent weeds.

"Linden," he whispered, his eyes still fixed on the ground. "Are you looking?"

Alex felt from his friend a soft stream of awe; felt him sag just a little, as though all his muscles had gone loose, and stop breathing. A thrill of joy coursed through Alex, and he looked up.

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There it was, right in the middle of the bridge: the tunnel of star-filled darkness. Many of the stars were shifting and flitting, and many were eyes. And besides the laughter of the water, there was also a soft moaning of wind, and a faint rumor of haunting music.

Alex tore his eyes away from the enchanted land to look into Linden-Mothman's astonished face.

"Let's go!"

Together they stepped onto the bridge, and took one slow step after another.

In the middle, the magical atmosphere began to close around them; this, Alex realized, was the location of the "portal" that the magical beings had spoken of. He and Linden were crossing it right now—

Foosh.

 

The wind was knocked out of him as something long and strong swooped around his waist, lifted him, twirled him around and set him down in his back yard, right next to a gape-mouthed, wide-eyed Linden.

Gasping for breath, it took Alex a few moments to register the stranger who had lifted them off of the bridge and now backed gingerly away from them, like a big cat. It was a tall, lanky person with shaggy hair, seemingly dressed in rags. Her face was haggard, though calm. For some reason, Daoshi's face flitted through Alex's mind, even as it hit him that this stranger had usurped his and Linden's adventure, and both of them yelled: "Hey!"

The shaggy person's keen eyes crinkled in an almost-smile. "The Great Dark Forest," she said, in a voice like a low growl, "is no place for children."

TME River Stone.jpg
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End of Chapter Five

Coming March 31, 2022:

Chapter Six:

The Vagabond

© 2021 by Katherine Hahn