Monsters of Morningside
It was Friday again, and Linden was finally, finally sleeping over at Alex's house. They now had a fail-proof plan to foil the Vagabond and traverse the portal, if it was open. Linden (and his dad, to whom he had not, not, not said one word about anything magical) had checked a chart and determined that there would be no moonlight until 3 am. The hard part was waiting through the afternoon, dinnertime, and bedtime for Dad and Kuku to be assuredly asleep before creeping out of Alex's window.
They snacked on apples, pecans and cheese in the back yard while Kuku meandered with a rake, a hoe, and a basket for collecting treasures. Rare sunbeams slanted over the grass at November angles; wind that was uncommonly soft and warm touched their faces. Linden had brought their latest monster-map in progress, and they worked on that at the coffee table in the family room while Kuku rattled around in the kitchen.
Finally the dinner hour arrived, and Kuku served her signature pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread, with a salad of butter lettuce and mandarin oranges. Dessert was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Dad stayed at the table a little longer than was usual these days, leaning back in his chair while Alex and Linden chewed their peanut butter and jelly into clever shapes. A stream of drowsy happiness flowed through Alex. Without thinking, he looked up to drink in his father's eye-light.
By the time they'd loaded the dishwasher and cleared the crumbs, it was dark outside. Dad stretched and yawned in the easy chair. Kuku rattled and yawned in the kitchen. Alex and Linden exchanged excited looks.
Still, they had to watch two entire episodes of Casper the Friendly Ghost before the grown-ups finally nodded off, Dad with his graphing notebook in his lap, Kuku with a pile of yarn. With Kuku's first piping snore, Alex launched himself from the couch to her side and happily announced that it was time for bed.
The night sky was clear and full of stars. Alex and Linden stealthily grappled their way down the trunk of the Escape Tree. Crouching among the roots, Alex unslung his backpack, retrieved the lumpy pillowcase and removed the rubber band—taking care to keep the top twisted closed. Faint, papery sounds came from within.
Linden's eyes were saucers. He wasn't allowed to see the Zoombies before the action, as Alex had made them specifically to attack.
"Remember," Alex whispered, standing and slinging the pillowcase over his shoulder, "When I open this, you get on the bridge. And when the fighting starts, you run across. Okay?"
"You get across, no matter what, even if I don't make it." Alex held Linden's gaze.
Linden gulped and nodded.
"Just think: intent! And you won't be scared."
Alex thought intent to himself and felt courageous. Together they turned and tip-toed across the yard.
As they approached the gate, there was a rustle in the bushes, and the Vagabond's familiar form burst out. She took her usual stance squarely in front of the bridge, her long arms folded across her chest and her eyes coolly following the boys as they stepped up to her.
Tendrils of starry eye-light flowed from the bridge behind her. The portal was definitely open. Linden took up his position a few feet away from Alex, ready to make a run for it at the right moment.
Alex's plan had three parts. It was time for part one.
His legs suddenly felt watery. But he thought intent and set his shoulders.
The Vagabond's mouth curled and one eyebrow went up. "Going on a journey, are we?"
"What?" said Alex. "What journey?"
"The knapsack," she chin-pointed at Alex's pillowcase.
"Oh. Yes. I mean, no." Casting a lightning-quick glance at Linden, he proffered the pillowcase. Linden looked like an insect pinned to a display board.
Alex swallowed a dry lump. Intent!
"I just wanted to show you something that I have to show you that is very interesting. Here."
He took two steps sideways, slowly untwisting the bag, keeping his eyes on the Vagabond. Her eyes followed him, as he'd hoped. The plan was working!
He opened the case. Out leapt the seven fierce Zoombie monsters with their prickly teeth, claws and horns. At that same moment, he heard Linden's feet on the bridge.
But the Zoombies had changed. They were not the same creatures that he'd confined days ago in the workshop—made of crayon scribbles, through whom any light would shine. They were now solid. Starlight glinted off of their skins, furs, feathers, scales, fangs and talons as they vaulted out of Alex's pillowcase, gathered their little muscles, and sprang at the Vagabond's legs.
Her response was instantaneous. She made a noise that was something between a laugh and a growl and grasped Alex by his arms, completely ignoring the little monsters that were scaling her ragged boots and leggings. Held up in front of her, Alex saw her face close up for the first time. It had a tawny, leathery look. Deep within her eyes a golden fire blazed.
Part two. Intent!
Alex clenched his gut, twisted his hips and kicked with both legs.
"Oof!" said the Vagabond, and her eyes went round. But she didn't lose her grip. Her mouth spread in a sharp-toothed grin as she set Alex down and, keeping hold of one of his arms, dashed a Zoombie off of her shoulder. A line of dark liquid appeared along one cheekbone.
Meanwhile, Linden was standing stock-still in the middle of the bridge, framed by glittering darkness.
Part three, now or never! Intent! Alex twisted violently and, to his own astonishment, was free. He scrambled under the Vagabond's arm (to which were attached two savage Zoombies), vaulted onto the bridge, and hoisted himself onto the railing.
The Vagabond, baring yellow teeth and no longer smiling, strode after him. He sprang. He kicked, aiming for her shaggy head.
According to Daoshi, a mid-air round kick was a knock-out technique. Alex had not been taught mid-air anything yet, but he'd watched Oz do it lots of times.
Alex's foot didn’t connect with any part of the Vagabond; his torso did, with her chest, and she fastened him there with one ropey arm as she careened sideways, fell into an impossibly graceful crouch, and flung out her other arm. There was a yelp from Linden and a series of thumps.
Alex kicked and flailed, until the Vagabond hissed into his ear: "Be still, or I drag you to your house and knock-knock on the door!"
Alex stopped moving.
The Vagabond had each of them pinned to the ground, Alex with a forearm and Linden with a knee. She gave her free arm a violent shake; the final Zoombie flew off. Landing some distance away, it immediately spun around and dashed back. The others were coming too: jewel-colored beasties zipping through the grass, making squeaky war cries.
The Vagabond released the boys and got into a crouch, brandishing a menacing index finger as they started to sit up. She snatched Alex's pillowcase. Through gritted teeth, in a voice that was every bit as forceful as Mom's, she said: "Catch them, every one. Quietly!"
And so Alex and Linden chased down one after another of the Zoombies, hushing each other's yelps of pain, for the Zoombies did not want to be caught. One by one they brought them to the Vagabond, until the pillowcase in her grip bulged and writhed.
When the last Zoombie was confined, she strode toward the river.
Alex ran after her. "Where are you taking them?"
"What are you going to do with them?"
"Let them go."
Alex kept trailing her until she stopped at the bridge and whipped around. Fierceness rolled off of her in waves.
"Have you learned nothing?" she hissed. And she glared so hard that, even though Alex didn't know what he was supposed to have learned or from whom, he had to speak. He said: "I—I—I know martial arts! And Zoombies! And Kamya!"
At that she laughed. "Clearly you do not." Her face worked for a long moment, as though she were struggling to find a particular set of words. Finally she fixed him with a stare that caused him, weirdly, to come to attention as though he were at Blackmask. She held up her scolding finger again. Then she fell into a crouch, touched the soil, and drew.
She drew Kamya. She drew the maker. She drew the Jana.
"What you make," she said, very quietly. "Not things. Not toys."
She made a line connecting the three symbols; then she rubbed out the line.
"Alive," she said. "Free."
Alex shivered as a sharp pain shot through his chest.
The Vagabond pointed at his bleeding hands. "Clean water for scratches." Then she stood, and with one last severe look at Alex, stalked over the wooden boards and into the magical darkness of the other world.
Alex stood there looking after her; Linden came up beside him and whispered: "Well, we can cross now!" But at that moment the Vagabond reappeared, the empty sack in one hand. This time she simply stood in the middle of the bridge, staring them down.
Alex's shoulders slumped.
"Come on," he said to Linden. And they skulked to the Escape Tree, climbed wearily up, got band-aids from Alex's bathroom, and fell to sleep complaining about the Vagabond.
The only good part was that Linden had finally seen the Zoombies.
The day before Thanksgiving, Alex and Grandma Kuku arranged crisp, brown leaves on the dining table, which was what Mom would have been doing, had she been there. Mom always did it in a special way.
"Like this." Alex showed Kuku how: not in straight lines, but not just tossed willy-nilly the way she was doing it, either.
A smile crinkled her face. "Ah," she said, and she lifted more leaves and mimicked Alex's movements exactly.
"And the candles go in the spaces," said Alex. Kuku murmured a serious assent.
Alex felt as though his stomach were full of those leaves.
"When is Dad coming home?" he asked.
"Any little minute, with your Mom and your baby sister!" Kuku gave him a sparkly look from across the table.
Alex pictured his mother's mischievous, elfin face and got a happy, fluttery feeling. But when he tried to picture the stranger who would be in Mom's arms, the fluttery feeling turned crackly, as though his stomach were clenching around those old leaves and crushing them. He kept seeing a half-sized Jordan: a tiny goblin with pebble eyes, a squished nose, and fat, sticky hands.
The basket was empty; he pulled open the drawer of the rough-hewn chest where Mom kept holiday things, and started handing Kuku colorful candles and holders. Satisfied that she was placing them the way Mom would want, he drifted to the window that opened to the east, and the gravel road where Dad's car would appear…
Alex did not want to see the goblin baby.
Maybe he could hide. Maybe… maybe he could crawl under the quilt on his bed upstairs and pretend to be asleep until they put the Goblin to bed. When the house was all quiet he would go and see Mom, and she would read to him from her fairy tale book.
What if they came into his room and got him? He could pretend to be sick!
But the feeling of Mom being gone was like a cold squid-like monster clamped onto his back and neck. He wanted to see her, and he didn't want to wait until everyone was asleep.
"The nuts, now?"
Alex jumped as chills raced down his spine. Kuku had come up, making about as much noise as a feather landing. He turned around. She had the bowl of walnuts, almonds and acorns still in their shells. "Show me!" She pushed the bowl at him.
He sighed. "Some go on the table. Not all, though." He laid clusters of nuts among the leaves. Then they wandered around the house, placing nuts in nooks and corners, in ornamental boxes and bowls, among photos of Alex and Mom and Dad and Kuku, and on the tops of Mom's paintings, here and there and everywhere, to be discovered from now until Christmas.
He saved for last the atrium in the center of the house, where poorly pruned plants climbed walls and trellises, vying for access to the skylight among dozens of Dad's wooden creatures. Mom's mysterious, swirly vortex paintings hung in the shadows, obscured by trailing vines. Out of some of them peered twinkling eyes.
Kuku stopped in the doorway as Alex took the bowl inside and surveyed the menagerie. He felt her smiling at him and discovered he was smiling too. He couldn't help it.
Mom and Dad would get a surprise the next time they came in here. He set the bowl down, selected a palm-sized tiger with green eyes and a huge, brown and purple moth. The moth could protect the tiger.
Who else went with the tiger and the moth? A long-legged, red-winged black bird.
Besides the plants, there were stones and pebbles, and miniature furnishings made from raw branches and twigs, live moss… Alex gathered his trio around a pretend fire-pit and gave each of them a nut.
And he went on like that, immersed in a world that smelled like sawdust, wet earth and forest life, spinning stories and quickly forgetting them. With a shiver he realized that his Dream Teacher was with him, in the shadows, in his mind, singing something low and haunting, while he made up a world of his father's creatures among his mother's vortexes and voids and peering eyes.
He was considering a blue-eyed wolf and a yellow-eyed goat-man when the muted rumble of tires on gravel outside made him freeze. His stomach started fluttering again.
They were home!
Gently he set the carved creatures down. "I'll be back," he whispered.
Feeling suddenly clammy, he crept toward the front door with its fogged glass window, through which he could see ghostly shapes moving up the walk.
One of those shapes is the Goblin!
Kuku was waiting with her arms held out to him. She was small for such an old woman, but when she hugged him she felt very strong and large. She smelled like smoke. He put his own hands on top of hers where they warmed his chest, and waited as the sounds of his parents' voices and footfalls, and a bird-like squeaking, came closer.
The knob turned. The door swung open.
I don't want to see the Goblin!
Kuku's arms left him. He clenched his eyes shut over the vision of Dad holding the screen door open while Mom came over the threshold, a stuffy-sized bundle in her arms. Kuku rushed to meet them.
Amidst a bustle of shoes being kicked off and the door closing and soft noises from Kuku, Alex was trapped in the entryway with the Goblin.
"X!" came Dad's voice. Now Dad's hands were on his arms, shaking him gently.
"I want Mom!" The words came out without Alex's thinking about them.
"Silly," said Dad. "Open your eyes!"
"I want—" Alex started again. Sobs rose in his chest, but then his eyes opened and there was Mom, and her eyes were full of tears even though she was smiling, and she hugged him. She smelled like summer grass.
Then, there was no stopping it; the Goblin was right there in the crook of Mom's other arm.
Under a wispy fringe of thin, dark brown hair, the face was round and squishy, with a deep wrinkle between feathery eyebrows. The eyes—her eyes—were green, with amber coming through. They locked onto Alex. Little nut-brown hands poked out of the blanket, opening and closing.
Alex stared for a long moment. He felt strange. He wanted to run away but he couldn't move.
The baby's lips puckered in; then she let out a squeak, breaking the spell that held Alex in place.
He said: "Can I go now?"
Astral Alex sat cross-legged across from Linden on the bunk-bed.
Alex said: "My mom came home. With the baby."
"Is it… is it a brother?" asked Linden hopefully.
Alex's lip curled. "Sister."
"Well. What's her name?"
Alex got up and drifted around the room, passing his hands through Linden's books and toys. "It's a goblin," he said. "A goblin named Drew."
"Uh-huh. Well. Is Drew ugly?"
"Pretty ugly," said Alex. "And she, I mean it, squeaks. You know, squeaky goblin noises."
"Yes, I know," Linden laughed.
"And everyone is always going to bed and everyone is just tired."
"Goblin power," said Linden.
Thanksgiving dinner, created by Kuku and Dad, was truly delicious. Pimento cheese sandwiches were not on the menu; something called Kitchari was, along with roasted sweet potatoes, The Only Broccoli (Dad's recipe—the only broccoli that Alex would eat) crusty brown bread, and cranberry sauce. Butter and brown sugar were on the table. Mom made the dessert: pumpkin pie with thick whipped cream, and hot cocoa.
The Goblin, wrapped tightly in mini-blankets and cushioned in a special kind of pillow, slept and squeaked in different spots—on the couch, the foot-rest, the coffee table, the kitchen counter… like an ugly new sculpture that Mom and Dad moved around the house to keep it always in view.
However, after nearly a month of sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, Alex was so enjoying whatever happened to be in his mouth at any moment that he forgot that he was angry about the Goblin; forgot about the Vagabond and the Zoombies and the Whisper Stones; he even almost forgot about the bridge to the other world.
After dinner, however, something happened that changed everything.
While Alex and Dad were helping Kuku with the after-dinner mess (Mom had taken the Goblin away for a nap) Dad's phone buzzed, and when Dad looked at it, his face went pale. He walked away as he answered. Alex followed, but then Dad went into the tiny corner office and closed the door.
When he came out, he looked at Alex and said, blankly: "My father is ill. I have to go see him."
So it was that first Mom came home with the Goblin, and then Dad left.
Something happened to Kuku at that point. While Dad and Mom with the Goblin hurried around finding things for Dad to take with him to the city, Kuku, red-cheeked and bright-eyed, zipped from table to counter to trash can to refrigerator to pantry as though propelled by a jet-pack. Like a Zoombie. By the time Dad had his suitcase and briefcase ready to go in the foyer, the rest of the house literally sparkled. Kuku stood with her hands behind her back while Dad hugged Mom goodbye, gently, as the Goblin was of course in her arms. Kuku's eye-light, which Alex had always envisioned as a kind of effervescent honey, held an orange crackle just now. But she opened her arms to Dad and patted him on the back when he leaned down to hug her, her lips puckering the same way they did when she was ogling the Goblin. A giggle bubbled up in Alex's chest; Dad was about three times Kuku's size. But something told Alex to keep the giggle inside.
Finally it was his turn. Dad knelt in front of him.
"I'll be back soon. I would never leave at a time like this, except my father might die. His other son, my half-brother, he's still just a kid, and—"
"He might die?" Alex interrupted. A strange awe had opened up inside of him.
Dad looked into his eyes as though trying to read his mind. After a moment he nodded. "He might die." He hunched his shoulders. "I want a chance to say good bye."
And so, instead of playing games with Mom and Dad in front of the fireplace with cheerful music in the background, nightfall found Alex trying to melt into the couch as Kuku advanced with the Goblin while weird drumming music pulsed out of the speakers. Mom was taking a nap. Again.
Kuku's eyes glinted; her smile was wicked.
"I'm too little!" Alex's voice squeaked just like the Goblin's. At least he was using words.
"Too little? For this tiny pecan?" Kuku proffered the swaddled Drew, who fit neatly in just her two hands.
Alex pressed his back into the couch cushions. "I don't know how!"
"Nothing to it," said Kuku, and to Alex's horror, she laid the Goblin right on his lap, just like that. "Take this arm—" Kuku lifted his left arm and molded it around the sleeping goblin's upper body, so that the head rested in the crook of his elbow. She felt warm, just like a cat.
She's not a cat! Alex told himself. She's a goblin!
The round face scrunched and Alex braced himself for a squawk. But Drew just smacked her lips.
Kuku's face split into a hundred smile-lines. She clapped her hands together.
"There we go! So peaceful! Now. She just ate, so she will sleep in her big brother's lap while Grandma takes a wee rest." Kuku showed him "wee" with two fingers.
"Hush, we don't want to wake her!" Kuku settled in the rocking chair, put her feet on the ottoman, and almost closed her eyes. Alex could see two sparkly, hazel slits.
"How long do I have to hold her?" Alex whined.
"Sh," said Kuku.
"Don't go to sleep," said Alex.
Kuku cackled, but didn't open her eyes.
The baby chirped. Alex whimpered. Kuku said: "Bounce her a little, there, there."
Sighing heavily, Alex started bouncing on his bottom on the couch. The Goblin made threatening quacking noises.
Kuku chuckled. "No, no, no, just tiny little bounces with your arms."
Alex tried that, listened as the Goblin's noises went from quacking to rhythmic squawking to grunts to burbling and then to lip-smacking and soft breath.
Alex looked across the room at the window, where reflections were interfering with his view of the night-shrouded back yard. He imagined what was out there: the dry, tangled grasses, the rough bushes, the thin beginnings of the forest, the river, and the bridge.
If there was no moon, then starlight would glitter on everything like superfine frost. The Vagabond would be crouching in the bushes with a mean look on her face. And on the far side of the bridge, between the sentries, the darkness would be deeper than a cloudless night sky. Within the darkness a hundred magical lights would wink and spark, and some of them would be eyes—
Something touched Alex: a stream of eye-light like liquid silver shot through with the finest strands of jewel-colors. He jumped up, clutching the baby to his chest, and ran to the window.
Outside it was indeed very dark, and starlit. The space between the sentries across the river was indeed deeply black. Magical light did indeed glimmer from its depths—Alex felt it more than saw it.
He looked over his shoulder at Kuku. She was breathing deeply, her walnut chin resting on her chest.
How he managed to open and close the door with the baby in his arms, Alex would not afterward remember.
He had never moved so carefully; he felt all of those martial arts classes in his feet now, as he walked almost without making a sound. One foot after the other, he drew near the bridge, the portal, and the beckoning eye-light… and then he was there.
Standing between the moth and the chameleon, he saw it.
Into the patch of magical deep black stepped the silver-white, almost-see-through being who had called to him that first night while he'd fumbled sleepily with sea shells and glue.
It was very long; Alex couldn't see the end of its curving, twining body. It had two massive horns like a ram's, and sharp ears, and a silky fringe like a mane that stirred gently around its face. It had hairy eyebrows, a long snout, and fangs that made Alex shiver. Its mouth was slightly open; Alex could see a hundred needle-sharp teeth. And its eyes…!
The monster's eyes were like a crystalline city of infinite wonders about to be swept into a vast, purple cyclone and dashed to ruins.
Alex was drawn irresistibly forward. Feathery chills raced all over his body as he stepped onto the bridge.
Then, from the warm bundle cradled against his shoulder, which he had quite forgotten, there was a squawk, followed by a squelchy sound. Wet warmth blossomed on Alex's shoulder and chest. A sweet-tart smell filled his nostrils. He held the baby's head away; starlight glimmered on the runny cottage cheese-like stuff smeared across her face.
"What!?" he croaked. He looked again at the portal. The glorious monster framed there seemed to smile. It moved toward Alex.
At that moment, with a howl that turned Alex's stomach to ice, a ragged form leapt out of the shadows, past the monster and onto the bridge, where it crouched, snarling and hissing. That cat! Shaking all over, Alex backed away as it bristled and yammered and hissed.
Behind it, the Monster was already swiveling and retreating into the starry deeps. The cat twisted around and pursued. Alex strained to watch, but all he could see was a storm of movement: shadows and silvery see-through-ness interlocking and somersaulting until, with a boom and a blinding flash, a plume of smoke billowed over the bridge. Out of the smoke stalked the cat. Narrow-eyed and growling, it sat down calmly on the wooden planks.
Alex looked down into the Goblin's milk-caked face. Dark eyes stared back, full of a spring-green light that Alex ignored.
"You!" he said. But he could not think of any words that sounded as angry as he felt, so he left it at that, and tromped back inside.
Kuku laughed like a hyena when Alex woke her up and showed her what the baby had done (omitting everything about the bridge, of course).
After more pie, after dominoes and jacks with Kuku, after Mom, with Drew nestled against her, fell asleep trying to read Alex's favorite spider book to him, after brushing his teeth and calling Linden (Alex enjoyed breaking a little clay sculpture Mom said he'd made when he was three) to complain bitterly about everything, Alex could not sleep a wink. Over and over in his mind he saw the monster with its glorious eyes, and then that stupid cat…
He got up and colored at his desk. He even fell into an almost-dream, and was startled when multi-colored Zoombies lifted up from his paper, laughed airily at him, and skittered across the desk to the window.
Alex tried to catch the little things, but they slipped through his hands and through the crack between the window and the wall. He watched with a tired, sinking feeling in his chest as they skittered across the eave, onto a branch of the Escape Tree, and down the trunk.
There was movement in the yard.
The Vagabond was there!
In his slippers and a big sweater, Alex walked back and forth like Linden in front of the Vagabond.
"I was this close!" He made Kuku's wee sign. "And then blech!" He made a spit-up noise, glanced up to catch the Vagabond's reaction. The Vagabond continued watching him impassively, her pale green eyes half-lidded. "And then that monster cat. Why does that cat have to keep chasing me away? Why do I have to have a baby who spits on me and makes my Mom just tired all the time? Why does Kuku act like it's a big joke? Why does my Dad have to always be busy?" Alex stopped in front of the ragged old woman where she leaned against a tree. She appeared decidedly uninterested in his complaints. "Why can't I just go over the bridge? Why won't you let me? Why can’t I do what I want?"
A smile curved the Vagabond's lips as she held a finger to them. "You'll wake the sleepy grown-ups." She stared silently at him for a long moment before looking away to the woods across the River. Then she straightened up and moved toward the bridge; Alex thought she was going to leave without saying goodbye, but she half- turned.
"Meet me here tomorrow night," she said over her shoulder. "I will take you into the Great Dark."
All day Friday, Alex watched the progress of the sun across the pale November sky. He helped Kuku with all of the chores, because Mom and the Goblin had fevers—which also meant he didn’t have to hold the Goblin at all. When the kitchen was clean Kuku let him play and color as much as he wanted to. She even went with him to the Shed that he could make things. It wasn't the same as being with Dad.
All he really wanted was for bedtime to come so that he could meet the Vagabond and cross the bridge.
And at long last, the deepening gray-blue of evening chased a berry-red sun behind the mountain. The stars came out. After dinner, Alex ran out the back door. There were only tatters of clouds in the sky, and no moon at all. Alex jumped up and down in the middle of the yard.
The Vagabond was going to take him to the other world! She was going to show it to him! What would he see? Would she introduce him to the monster? Would she show him a new magical creature he'd never even dreamed of?
"Baby X!" called Kuku. "Jacket!" She stood on the porch wrapped in Dad's thick wool blanket, holding Alex's parka.
To while the hours before bedtime, Alex practiced coloring in the dirt by porch-light. And he made designs with sticks and pebbles and bits of moss. From the outdoor rocking chair Kuku told her Raccoon and Rabbit story, Alex's favorite. He knew all of Kuku's tales by heart and the funny parts always made him laugh.
Bedtime finally came. Alex almost whispered Linden's name to his Whisper Stone; in stead he sat on his bed with the stone clutched tightly in his hand and listened for Kuku's bed-time noises to cease. Then he escaped.
With Heavy and a flashlight in his backpack, Alex stood still beneath a sky that was as deep and star-spangled as it had ever been. Behind him, even the house looked enchanted, the windows gleaming silver. The River sang its song of low laughter, and pale flowers glowed among the whispering weeds. The painted chameleon and moth seemed almost to breath and stir and shift on their pedestals, and the space between their heads glittered with magic and with eye-light. But Alex was alone.
He waited and waited for the Vagabond to arrive.
She must have changed her mind, he thought.
He thought about the monster. He thought about the vicious, long-legged cat. He thought about what the Vagabond had originally said: The Great Dark Forest is no place for a child.
He thought: Intent, and crossed the bridge.
As he stepped into the glittering, eye-light filled darkness, the ground was yanked out from under him.
That's what it felt like. He choked on a shout as he was thrown backward. The glimmering lights were blotted out. He was crumpled into a helpless bundle; he could see nothing at all. He felt himself being lifted up and swinging to and fro.
Alex heard his heart stampeding, and his breath coming in ragged gasps, and hoarse words torn from his throat: "Help! Help! Mom! Dad! Help—"
Then for a terrifying instant nothing was holding him up. Everything was so black that he might have been falling into an endless void, all alone... until he was caught. And he didn't know what he was doing or saying, but he must have been moving around because someone was whispering: "Hush, hush, be still. I have you. Be still. Alex Hollow! I have you!"
That was the Vagabond's voice. It must have been her long arms that were setting him on the ground.
"Let me out!" he cried.
"Hush! I will. Just stop moving—there."
The darkness was peeled away, and there was the Vagabond's haggard face and keen eyes, low-lit by all the unidentified things that glimmered in the enchanted wood.
"You weren't there!" Alex blurted. "You weren't—"
She clapped a hand over his mouth. Her eyes looked dangerous. After a second she seemed satisfied that he wasn't going to yell any more. She took her hand away and straightened his backpack for him. "Many monsters nearby. I have been busy fighting them. Come. We must get you home while we can."
Alex said: "But—"
Alex whispered: "But I want to stay. You said you would take me. And I'm a good fighter now."
She half-smiled. "I know what a good fighter you are." Then she gasped and grabbed his shoulders.
"What!" Alex whispered.
The Vagabond put her head next to his and pointed.
Alex looked, and his whole body turned cold.
Something was coming. Something human-shaped but insubstantial, see-through… like the Monster. Only this thing wasn't very big—perhaps a little taller than he was. As it got closer, Alex made out its face. If the Vagabond hadn't been holding him in a vise-like grip, he would have run away as fast as he could.
There were eyes like two black holes, and one spot of color: a dark red mouth. The weird head swiveled this way and that as though searching for something.
"Is it a—a ghost?" Alex said in a scratchy voice. He didn't think it was. He liked ghosts.
"I don't know what it is," said the Vagabond. "I have been trying to find out." She waited another beat, while the ghost-like being kept advancing on them. Its eyes roved—Alex cringed.
"Shall we stay? Get a better look?" said the Vagabond in Alex's ear.
"N—no!" he stammered.
With one movement, she picked him up like a toddler, and in a few long, nearly silent strides they were on the bridge, Alex looking back over her shoulder into the Great Dark at the horrible creature.
"What if it follows us?" he squeaked as the Vagabond set foot on the earth his back yard.
"No one can cross, if the portal is closed." She set him down, crouched, and started yanking at the weeds around the bridge. She was much faster than Mom. "We work to guard the crossing, my friends and I. But you distract me."
Alex crouched down too.
"The weeds," he breathed.
"This kind of weed," said the Vagabond, matching his whisper, "beside water, with starlight and no moon."
Alex stared at her, waiting for more.
"These make a crossing between your world and mine."
Alex felt very strange. He felt as though he had just that instant become larger and older than he should be.
"Weeds. Water. Starlight." He stared at the bridge, which was now just an ordinary wooden bridge, except for the carved and painted animals guarding it.
"Alex Hollow." The Vagabond sat down cross-legged and rested her forearms on her knees. Alex copied her. "Do you see now why you should never, ever cross into that world, or bring anyone you love anywhere close to it?"
Alex looked into her eyes.
"What does that thing do? That ghost thing?"
Her eyes flickered away from him and back. "We do not know. Do you want to be the one to find out?"
Alex swallowed. In his mind's eye he saw the silver-maned Monster with its sad eyes.
I'm never going to meet him now.
But it wasn't just the Monster that made his throat ache and his eyes burn. It was the whole magical world, full of musical darkness and stars in the trees and beings who shed their own light…
…and the little ghost-monster that scared him more than anything he'd ever seen.
But I love monsters, he reminded himself.
"So," said the Vagabond. "Will you stop trying to go to there?"
Alex studied the ground. Just now he felt a hair's breadth more curious than sacred… but he liked having the Vagabond talk with him rather than snarl at him. He nodded.
"Excellent," she said, springing up. "Goodbye, then." And she turned away and started padding south along the River, but then stopped and turned again, raising her teaching finger.
"One more thing. You remember the bag that caught you?"
Alex looked up at her. The sight of the ghost-being had driven the black bag from his mind.
"I was thinking," she said, with the air of someone musing to herself, "that was just the same thing you did with those little creatures, the ones with so many teeth and claws. Remember? I wonder how they liked your bag." She shrugged. "Anyway. Go to bed now. Goodbye."
Alex rubbed his eyes, got to his feet and watched as shadows enfolded the Vagabond's lanky form.
The truth was, the bag had been even worse than the ghost-thing. He'd felt as though he were vanishing from being alive, or as though he wished he could vanish, if being alive was being trapped in endless darkness.
That black bag was the last thing he wanted to think about.
It wasn't until he'd climbed back up the Tree to the eave under his window that he began to wonder what had become of those Zoombies since the Vagabond had let them loose in the Great Dark. They had turned out to be pretty dangerous: all shiny teeth and claws, and he was glad they weren't living in his room.
Still. What were they up to? Had they found creatures with whom to do battle in the enchanted wood? Had they maybe gotten tired of fighting? Were they hungry? What do Zoombies eat? Where would they sleep? Alex wondered. He had made them, after all.
End of Chapter Seven
Coming May 31, 2022: