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EIGHT
Zarazura

Alex Hollow
Monsters of Morningside

and the 

For almost a whole day, Alex had no thought of breaking his promise to the Vagabond. Since the Saturday after Thanksgiving was Decorating Day, it was up to Kuku and him to get a tree from the woods, carry the Christmas boxes up from the basement, and decorate the whole house while Mom shuffled around with the Goblin in one arm, trying to dust and sweep with the other. Kuku untangled tree lights and garlands; Alex adorned tabletops, counters and shelves with all kinds of sparkly red, green, white, silver and gold things. Mom and the goblin went to bed in the middle of the afternoon.

The sun slipped behind the Mountain before Alex and Kuku were half-finished. Then Kuku thought they needed a fire in the fireplace, so Alex helped build it. He thought that winter-time in the Hollow house was brighter by far than the hottest summer day outdoors. It reminded him of the other world.

I said I wouldn't go, he told himself. But. He remembered that his hands had been folded, which meant he had fingers crossed, and he recalled hearing somewhere that fingers crossed meant you could break your promise. And anyway the Vagabond was not his mother and he shouldn't have to do what she said. Besides, the only reason he wasn't supposed to go to the Great Dark was because the Vagabond said it was dangerous. By now, he thought, I bet… I bet she figured out the ghost things and… trapped them in a sack. Put them in a cage. Scared them away.

When everyone else was asleep, he crept onto his eave with his backpack. He took out his flashlight as he crossed the yard. He just wanted a glimpse of the starry forest. What if people decorate for Christmas in there just like out here?

The space between the sentries did glisten; eye-light did flow out of it to him like many melodies; before he knew what he was doing, both of his feet were on the bridge.

One more step, and one more after that…

Still haunted by the memory of the void in the sack, he halted in the middle and stood there, opening and closing his hands, squinting into the shimmering confusion of light and darkness. A silver glint some distance away caught his eye.

Is it the monster? Maybe it'll come close again!

He had his thumb on his flashlight button when it happened.

Right in front of him something gleamed—like moonlight on water—and an icy wind flowed past him.

For one beat of his heart he was frozen with terror. Then he ran as fast as he could to the back door, which of course was locked. Raking winter air into his lungs, he dashed for the Escape Tree and scrambled up.

Long after he was safely in his room with his window closed and locked, he sat wrapped up in blankets with Heavy in his arms and Heavy's friends all around him, his mind filled with the image of a ghostly face with holes for eyes and a gaping red mouth.

His heartbeat was just beginning to soften a little when he heard a sliding sound from the nursery where Kuku was sleeping; he whispered "Intent," and tiptoed in to check on her. Between her snores he heard a shuffling in the hall, so he tiptoed out there. Then there was a rustle in Mom and Dad's room, so he tiptoed in there, and found Mom and Drew asleep on the big bed, like a moon and a star. Shivering, he got under the covers on Mom's other side, and finally went to sleep.

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On Sunday night, by the yellow glow of his flashlight, Alex at his desk made trembly little lines with his silver crayon. A bulbous head, wispy, reaching arms, a body that just trailed away. He found the black crayon and bored two little holes for eyes. Then: Crimson Red. Alex gulped as his hand hovered over the picture.

"I swooshed!" said a voice, right behind him. Alex jumped and yelped as chills spider-crawed all the way from the top of his head down to his toes. He spun around.

"Sh!" he and astral Linden both said at the same time.

Linden laughed. Alex didn't. Linden vaulted to Alex's bed and sat cross-legged in the middle of the stuffies. "I only did one lesson and I swooshed." Linden made zig-zag motions with both hands.

Alex only half-noticed; his eyes were drawn to his Crimson crayon. He turned back to his unfinished ghost-picture.

Linden kept chattering. "Did you ever swoosh? It means skiing. Did you ever ski? You get spaghetti or cheeseburgers for lunch. And chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate. With marshmallows and whipped cream."

"My mom gives me that," said Alex absentmindedly.

Linden said a few more things that Alex didn't really hear. Finally Linden whisper-shouted: "Alex!" Alex jumped again, and turned around.

"I said, do you have a snowsuit?"

"I went in the Other World again," said Alex. "I got swooshed up in a black bag and the Vagabond rescued me."

Linden's eyes widened and his mouth closed.

Alex said: "There are some bad things in there," and told his tale, wandering around his room and looking at his toys and books so that Linden wouldn't notice how frightened he was.

But when Alex finished, astral Linden seemed to prickle with excitement. "If the Vagabond didn't want us to go in there, she shouldn't have told you all those things! Now we know everything about how the portal opens!"

"Yeah…" Alex squinted at his glittering friend. "But how do we get past her? She's always, always there." He held up a finger. "Brainstorm!"

Linden joined him in pacing around the room; they circled in silence for a few moments before Linden held up his finger. "Renaissance Trigger! My dad is working on it and it's not ready yet but it will be soon."

 

Reno-what?

"My dad says it can make you face shift. It's like the Whisper Stones but for your real body."

Alex envisioned Linden's face shifting and changing into the face of one of his favorite cryptids. "So we could be disguised and the Vagabond wouldn't stop us—" he began.

"Disguised?" Linden interrupted. "No, it's for going places. How it works is—" but at that moment, he winked out.

Later that night, when Alex sneaked into Mom and Dad's room and crept under the covers, Mom turned over, kissed him and ruffled his hair, and did not make him go back to his own room. He slept more deeply than he had in a very long time, and in the morning remembered no dreams.

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During the opening meditation in Monday night's advanced class at Blackmask, Alex could not quiet his mind. At school, paying attention and not coloring had been twice as hard with Linden being all the way across the room, and three times as hard with thoughts of the Monster and ghost-things and black bags continually popping into his mind. His behavior card was now red.

He couldn't wait for the opening meditation to be over. Since he was not advanced, instead of exercises and drills he would do chores for Daoshi. He would sweep the dust clots out of the corners, clean the bathroom, mop the hallway, water Daoshi's penzai—his little trees—and then he would sit down in front of the big window with the hundred colored pencils and the silky white paper.

A sharp rap of Daoshi's staff called everyone to attention. Alex jumped up and trotted toward the broom closet.

"Chánito!"

Alex about-faced.

"Mr. Ford will teach you Traverse the Swamp."

Alex's heart bumped down into the region of his stomach as he followed Oz to the back of the classroom. They faced each other and bowed. "Do what I do," said Oz.

Alex's anger about not getting to do chores lasted for about one minute. That was the amount of time he had to parrot the four techniques Oz had demonstrated before Oz barked: "Attention!" and pointed with two fingers to his own eyes. Then he started counting out repetitions of the movements, going faster and faster, so that Alex could think of nothing but keeping his eyes on Oz and keeping up with the count.

There was no break in Mr. Ford's relentless drilling until Alex slipped in his own sweat.

Oz helped him up and let him sip from his water bottle. "Right. Those were the hand movements and footwork. We have fifteen minutes to add in the kicks."

Alex felt his throat swell. "But Daoshi lets me go in the workshop at the end of class, sir!"

"Not today, Chánito!" Daoshi grunted from the front of the room.

Oz smiled.

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When Alex tiptoed into Mom's room in the deep of night, she rolled over and opened her eyes. The goblin bounced a little on the baby blanket, but did not wake up. Everyone said that baby Drew was a very good sleeper.

"Alex," Mom whispered, "You are such a grown up boy. One of my favorite things is how brave you are. Good night."

Alex thought about that for a long time before he finally fell asleep.

The next night, he said to himself: Intent, and he stayed in his own room.

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That week, Mom started to worry about all the Goblin's fussing, Kuku started to worry about how tired Mom was, and Alex learned to fear Oz.

Whenever Alex missed a movement, he received a lightning-fast blow to whatever part of his body ought to have been inaccessible. Alex began to notice a peculiar smile on Oz's lips every time this happened.

When Kuku brought him home on Wednesday, he was surprised to find Mom in the kitchen making dinner, with the Goblin swaddled across her front in a sash. There were spots of color in her cheeks. She smiled at him.

He dropped his backpack in the family room.

"Mom, look! I know two whole forms!"

"Which ones?" she asked, setting macaroni-and-cheese on the table.

"Wash the Hands and Traverse the Swamp."

She nodded knowingly. "Show me."

Wincing a little from the pain of strained and bruised muscles, Alex performed the forms. He was halfway through Traverse the Swamp, which involved a lot of pivoting, bending low, and kicking high, when the Goblin squeaked, and then wailed.

Kuku scurried into the kitchen to take over setting the table. Mom sighed and started bouncing and patting the Goblin. When Alex finished, she clapped a few times and then took Drew out of her sash.

"Very good, Alex," she said. "I need to find out what Drew needs. Kuku, the peas are in the microwave." Then she hurried down the hall and up the stairs.

Alex stood still in the middle of the family room. He had a stomachache in the region of his heart.

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A week later, two days before the start of winter break, Alex had just changed into his sweatpants when there came a knock at the door.

 

Funny: usually people rang the doorbell. He heard Kuku's quick feet, the door opening, and her voice—surprised, delighted. What was going on?

He was halfway down the stairs when Kuku said "Well, yes! Thank you for inviting me!" and stepped outside. Alex couldn't quite see who it was that had knocked; it looked like at least two people were on the doorstep.

 

At that moment, Mom appeared in the foyer with the Goblin. When she saw the open door, her eyes went wide, and she did a strange thing: she froze, stiff as an ice sickle. Alex had never seen her look quite this way before.

Her eyes were the first part of her to move. They darted to Alex, then down to the sleeping Goblin, and then to the visitors, who now stood in the doorway. Alex inched down the steps, the better to see them.

They seemed just ordinary people: a woman and a man dressed in brown and gray. Both of them wore hats.

"Veronica!" said the woman. "How wonderful to see you, after all these many years. And the child."

Mom took one jerky step forward. "Hello," she said. "Kuku, come back inside—"

The woman interrupted her. "There's a party, and everyone is invited. The old woman too. We heard the good news about the baby. Sahdri—" she broke off as Alex came up next to Mom.

"Another one!" she exclaimed, her eyes popping as though Alex had three eyes, fangs and antennae. "This one is also yours?"

Mom put her arm around Alex's shoulders. He felt the chill in her hand through his T-shirt.

The woman said: "More to celebrate, then! Sahdri has arranged a surprise party. A Baby Blessing. He's waiting for you along with the rest of our friends." And she stood aside, and gestured with her arm. Alex could see four more people—also with hats!—plus Kuku, clustered on the walkway, chatting and laughing quietly.

Mom let out a soft but forceful breath; Alex felt her energy change from dread to stony resolve.

"One moment. We need jackets, and supplies for the children," she said. "Alex, get your backpack and the baby bag from the kitchen counter."

"Where is this party?" Mom asked while Alex ran to the kitchen.

"Not far," he heard the woman reply. "At the edge of town there's a remarkable tree."

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At least ten people were waiting under the tree, all dressed in earth colors and wearing hats—as they would be, of course; Mom had explained that everyone from her home-town wore hats. That's who these people were, she said: old friends who had heard about Drew and wanted to give her a surprise Baby Blessing Party.

Alex felt a minute tremor in his mother's hand; she kept a tight grip on his as one of the people under the tree—a tall man whose hat looked like a wizard's—wove through the others to meet them just under the tree's farthest-reaching branches.

"Veronica," the man said, extending a hand. But Mom's were both full. He reached and touched the top of the Goblin's head—and as he did, a very peculiar thing happened to Alex: a cold charge pounded through his body like slow waves in an icy sea.

He did not like this man touching Drew. At all.

Mom said: "Hello, Sahdri. Nice hat."

Sahdri had long, black hair, black eyelashes so thick that he seemed to be wearing make-up, and golden eyes.

"Welcome," he said, as though this were his town and not hers, and he waved an arm toward the Black Tree. Mom led Alex along a different trajectory from the man's, and they found a good spot between humpy roots for Alex to play. Alex felt the eyes of the hatted people watching him curiously, even as they all began to sit down in a circle. Mom crouched in between them and him, wiped her brow, and drew a shaky breath.

Alex felt shaky, too. "Mom, are you okay?"

"Drew and I just have colds," she said. "Listen. This will be a very boring grown-up party. But there's a tradition I never told you about. People bury treasure under this tree. You bury your treasure, and if you find someone else's treasure, you get to keep it. So that's something you can do if you get bored."

Alex had an immediate vision of golden coins and sparkling jewels nestled in the velvety darkness beneath him. "Real treasure?" he said.

"Why don't you find out? Soil's soft." She plunged her hand into it. "Good for digging. And remember all the things in your backpack." She stood up. "No wandering off. I'll be watching you."

She got up and stepped over the roots with the baby; Alex watched her sit down between Kuku and Sahdri in the circle.

He leaned against the tree's trunk and opened his backpack. His heart leapt. There were, of course, a sketchpad and a box of crayons—and also a brand new Puzzlebot, which, once you figured it out, you could transform from a machine-looking thing into a wonderfully pose-able robot, and back.

Alex ripped open the packaging and began swiveling and shifting the oddly shaped parts. Vaguely he registered soft grown-up voices using big words, talking about the years, and changes. It seemed a very solemn party. Though he did hear the words "gift" and "toy" repeated a number of times. Occasionally he looked up to see someone crossing the circle and laying a small, pastel-wrapped package at his mother's feet.

When he'd finally puzzled out the Puzzlebot, Alex stood it up in a deep groove of the tree's bark. He could not bring himself to bury it.

So what could he bury instead?

A drawing, of course.

As he laid down the first stroke of midnight blue, he realized he was probably missing his martial arts lesson. He didn't mind; he'd just be drilling with Oz again.

A soft and curiously warm wind stirred his hair and clothes, easing the November chill. The adult conversation droned on. Alex's hands with soft, waxy colors made little circles, as the grown-up voices faded before a subtle music that seemed to come both from inside Alex and from somewhere in the region of the River. A shadowy presence arose there…

The Dream Teacher was with him.

His eyes were half-closed; he saw through the lashes the image that was forming on his sketchpad.

A round face; curly, brown-black hair; green eyes.

Alex felt exceedingly strange, just as he had when Sahdri had touched the baby and he'd gone all cold.

The Goblin was not ugly enough.

Alex tried adding spots and lumps and protruding teeth.

There: a hideous goblin leered up at him. A treasure to bury.

He tore the page from the sketchbook, folded it, and began digging. The soil was fine, cool, damp… he tucked his folded drawing deep in and covered it up.

Now to find some real treasure! He started another hole a few feet away.

It wasn't long before he felt something tangled in the fingers of his left hand, and lifted it out of the earth.

Soft clumps of black soil fell away. He opened his palm, brushed away more dirt.

It was a necklace: a small pendant on a cord, all black—from being buried, Alex thought. He rubbed at the pendant; the blackness would not come off. Maybe it was just made that way.

A sudden rush of movement amongst adults made him look up. Sahdri was on his feet, one arm held up before him; upon it sat a large black bird, settling its wings. Others in the group were rising as well, whispering furtively to each other while Sahdri bent his head as though listening to the bird.

Something was happening. Alex tucked his treasure into his pocket.

In moments, all of the strangers were fastening their jackets and setting out together—not south toward home, but north, along the River that flowed past Morningside. Sahdri stayed behind long enough to loom over Mom as she was adjusting her baby sling and shouldering the baby bag.

Before Alex knew what he was doing, his feet were carrying him toward them, just as Sahdri turned sharply and caught up with his comrades in a few long strides. Mom hurried to meet Alex, Kuku coming behind with a shopping bag full of baby gifts.

"Pack up," said Mom breathlessly. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed. "Time to go home!"

Alex ran back to gather his crayons and paper. "Why did they leave?"

"Hurry up."

"Does Sahdri talk to birds?"

For a half-second, Mom had an expression Alex had never seen before, her gaze far away, her forehead lightly creased, her lips pressed together. Then her features resolved into a familiar look of calm determination.

 

"That was just a trick."

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The black necklace did not really look like treasure, but Alex found he enjoyed wearing it under his shirt like a secret magical charm.

At the cubbies the next day, Alex started to tell Linden what had happened, but before he could get the words out Linden launched into a description of his dad's almost-finished Renaissance Trigger, and then the bell rang. As Alex hurried to his seat, a prickle on his neck made him glance at Mr. Fine. The teacher smirked at him, his eyes glinting coldly. Alex sat down with a hollow feeling in his stomach.

At Fun Damentals time, he understood.

"Boys and girls, please take out your Fun Damental Workbooks, and turn to page 5."

Like all the other students, Alex reached into his desk for the book. He felt pencil, eraser, glue, scissors… no workbook.

As the rustle of movement faded, Alex heard the tap-tap of Mr. Fine's shoes approaching. With that familiar top-of-the-roller-coaster feeling, he slowly raised his eyes.

There was his workbook in Mr. Fine's long fingers.

"Looking for this, Mr. Hollow?"

Alex gulped.

Mr. Fine opened the dog-eared book, turned it around to display the pages, and began walking up and down the rows of desks. "Defaced. Defaced. Defaced," he said, and ripped out the pages, one after the other. "No giggling!" he barked as laughter erupted. Alex did not move. He tried to recall what was in there.

Monsters, of course. Chickowkins. Plenty of green-eyed goblins.

And more than one drawing of a wrinkly man in a black suit.

Striding slowly down the last aisle between desks, Mr. Fine stopped in front of the trashcan.

"And, defaced." He held up the sheaf of torn pages, crumpled them, and threw them away. Locating Alex's red card in its pocket, Mr. Fine threw him a smile and changed it to purple. "You will spend your recess with me, Mr. Hollow." He brandished the half-empty workbook. "Come and get it, please."

And so instead of unraveling the mystery of the night-time noises in Mom's room with Linden, Alex was forced to write I will not deface my workbook over and over on the whiteboard until the bell rang.

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Mom looked as though she might cry when she saw the report in Alex's Report Folder. "Do we have to take away your crayons again?" she said. "And your time with Linden?"

"I'm sorry," Alex said miserably.

Then Drew, in the kitchen with Kuku, began to whimper. Alex was almost grateful, for Mom and Kuku switched places, and Kuku drove him to Blackmask. She tuned the radio to her weird drum music, and didn't say anything about color cards or kindergarten.

When Alex burst into the studio five minutes late, it was not Daoshi but Oz who, kneeling at the front of the class as they meditated, turned a cool gaze on Alex and raised one hand to indicate that Alex should stay put until further notice. Then he clapped twice, and the students got to their feet.

"Twenty push-ups, Mr. Hollow," said Oz.

"Where's Daoshi?" said Alex.

Oz smiled thinly. "Daoshi has an important meeting. I'm teaching this class. Thirty push-ups."

"You said—"

"Forty."

Alex set down his backpack and dropped to the floor.

He was doomed.

After the forty push-ups, the class proceeded in pretty much the same way as Daoshi's classes, the differences being that Oz shouted more loudly, counted more quickly and dished out more push-ups. Everyone was panting and sweating by the time Oz allowed them a one-minute break for water. Gulping from his bottle, Alex looked at the clock. Twenty minutes left.

As he had every day this week, he wished he could go the workshop. But at least the torture wouldn't go on much longer.

"Miss Springer, please teach the first eight movements of Wash the Hands."

Alex couldn't believe his luck! He knew the whole form by heart. This was going to be easy.

"Mr. Hollow, with me."

Alex started to protest and thought better of it. His heart sank as he followed Oz into the hallway.

"Attention."

Alex snapped to attention.

"We are going to spar."

Alex's stomach dropped and his mouth fell open.

"Use Traverse the Swamp."

Alex didn't understand. His heart was thundering so loudly that he could not think.

"Alex. Use the form and you'll do fine. Bow. Hands up."

Oz had fists like hammers, and one of them was headed for Alex's face. He batted it aside; Oz's other hand smacked his ribs. Alex tried to back away and hit the wall.

"The form," said Oz quietly.

Which part of the form? Alex wondered, flinging his arms up and ducking wildly.

"Alex, trust me." Oz hissed. He didn't seem to feel the need to shout any more, but he made up for it with a relentless volley of punches, most of which landed—just hard enough to smart. Alex started to see red. Oz paused and said: "Trust yourself! Use the form!" Then he kicked Alex lightly in the stomach. "Now!"

That did it. Alex launched into Traverse the Swamp as fast as he could, and suddenly Oz was shifting backward, and Alex was pursuing, his hands still flying, connecting with Oz's limbs with a satisfying series of rhythmic thuds. Through the blur of his forearms, he caught a flash of a wicked grin from the older boy.

The next thing Alex did was not part of the form: he jumped and punched at the same time, and his fist caught Oz in the gut. Oz actually said "Oof!" and then: "Yes!"

Alex staggered backwards, abashed. He started to say, "I'm sorry," but Oz interrupted.

"Wait 'til I tell Daoshi! Oh. Attention!"

Alex stared, thoroughly confused. Oz wasn't acting like Alex had anything to be sorry about. Oz looked the way Alex felt whenever he created something he was proud of in Dad's Shed.

"Alex! Attention!"

Alex came to attention and they bowed.

Oz thumbed toward the door behind him. "You're supposed to meditate in there until the end of class."

Alex felt his eyes go wide. "But—"

"Daoshi's orders." Oz straightened his uniform and sidled past Alex, heading for the studio. "Good job, Mr. Hollow."

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Alex slipped into the Workshop. His heartbeat slowed from a gallop to a canter to a trot as he gazed into the lavender-gray twilight. And then, without warning, tears flooded his eyes and practically squirted down his cheeks—which made him laugh even as the drops kept falling. And since no-one was there to see, he just stood there laughing and crying for a while.

Then he moved to the workbench, got up on the stool and flicked on the table lamp.

The tips of the colored pencils stood out like jewels against the grayness. Alex's eyelids fluttered as he took a ruby-red one. Already he heard the low music that came both from within him and from elsewhere.

 

His Dream Teacher was present in the soft, tree-smelling shadows. He began to color.

As memories moved through his mind, he gathered more pencils and circled both hands all over the paper. He felt Mom touching his face; saw her doubled over in pain; saw her lift the baby and turn away from him. He saw Linden all the way across the classroom. He saw Mr. Fine, too, with his cold, triumphant smile. And Dad whittling in the Shed, falling asleep in his easy chair, frowning at his phone, getting into his car and driving away. He saw blackness blotting out the glittering, enchanted wood; he saw the awful ghost thing drifting through the trees; he saw the Vagabond half-smiling and walking away into the night. He saw Daoshi, kneeling in front of him and saying things that he couldn't understand; he saw Oz's fists coming at him too fast to stop—until Alex punched him in the gut.

There was a hush in the music—not a silence, but a kind of in-drawing of breath. This was the time to lift.

Up came his hands. He felt something like a stream of eyelight that flowed not through or over him, but out of him, and up came the creatures.

They were different this time: more deeply colored, and somehow more substantial. A mother and a green-eyed goblin. A horrible, red-mouthed child-ghost. A blond boy and a Chicowkin. A raggedy Vagabond and a silver monster and a monstrous cat… or anyway miniature approximations of these beings, made of densely layered, many-colored lines. They rose up, walked or flew in circles, seemed to take in each other, the room, Alex, the window, and the forest. They jumped and somersaulted and slipped through the seams to the outdoors, and were gone.

 

All except one.

A lone figure looked up at Alex. There'd been so many Zoombies that this one had been lost in their midst: a small boy with lines radiating from his scribbled body, like jelly-fish tendrils. There was nothing really monstrous about him, and yet, gazing at him, a golden warmth blossomed inside Alex. He felt very sleepy and very happy.

"Are you going to stay?" he asked.

"Stay," said a far-away, papery voice.

Alex felt his eyes and mouth open as wide as they possibly could.

"You're talking! You can talk!"

"Talk!" peeped the Zoombie.

"Sh!" Alex held up an index finger; a cessation of thumping and counting from the dojo told him that class was ending. His heart took up a light, skipping rhythm. "Wait here."

The Zoombie's colorful tendrils swayed as he also extended a finger. "Here."

Alex gave him the thumbs up. "I'll be right back!"

Praying that Kuku hadn't come for him yet, he ran to the dojo to retrieve his backpack. Back in the Workshop, he laid the pack on the workbench and opened the top.

"Want to come with me? In here? You can come out when I get to my room."

The Zoombie gave Alex thumbs up. "With me. Room."

"Okay!" Alex grinned. "Wait. We have to name you. Or. Maybe you want to name yourself."

"Name," said the Zoombie.

Alex looked into the golden, colored pencil eyes and was satisfied that the Zoombie wanted him to choose a name. He searched his mind for good-sounding syllables, for unusual consonants. Q, X, Y, Z…

"Zarazura. Z for short. Do you like that name?"

The Zoombie's mouth spread into a wide smile. "Z!"

Alex wanted to jump with happiness, but he felt that jumping might scare Zarazura away, so he held himself still. "Go on, get in my backpack. You can peek out—just hide from grownups."

"Hide."

"And babies."

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All night long, Zarazura did not stop moving. At least Alex didn't think he did. For a long time he trained his flashlight on the Zoombie, who scurried around the bookshelves, toy shelves, dresser and desk, carrying small items from one place to another and creating little arrangements in corners and nooks.

But after a while Alex's flashlight hand got tired. Not to mention his eyelids.

"Z," he said, "what are you doing?"

"Doing," said Z.

"It looks like you're… decorating." Alex yawned. "Or… making places to… do things…?" He supposed a Zoombie might need places to play, color, take a bath, eat, sleep. Alex rubbed his eyes.

"Do. Decorating."

"You know what?"

"What."

"I think I'm going to fall asleep."

Zarazura straightened up from his current project, arranging squiggled pipe cleaners in the middle of a roll of tape on the craft shelf. His golden eyes blinked at Alex.

"Asleep?"

"Did you make a bed?" Alex asked. His voice was getting very quiet. "You can sleep on mine if you want." He pointed his flashlight at the foot of the bed, where his legs didn’t reach. "You'll be safe there."

Z smiled. "Safe."

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Alex sat in the living earth of the other world, drawing his fingers through the fine, cool soil. He was dreaming; he knew it because of the wordless music that told his hands what to do: they moved until he sensed a finished form beneath them, and then they lifted, and so too a living thing arose just under his palms.

It was the Goblin—or something like her—and she was all wrapped up. A perfect present.

He got up, holding her to his shoulder—his made-up Goblin was lighter and easier to manage than the real one—and started trekking over the tumbled earth, through the glittering trees. He called: "Monster… Monster… I have something for you! Here, Monster!"

Up ahead, in the deep blue-black shadows, there was movement. Alex hurried forward.

But it wasn't the Monster.

It was the ghost-thing. It's empty black eyes found him. Its red mouth opened. It lifted its skinny arms and groped.

Alex strained to turn and run, but his feet would not cooperate. They kept carrying him forward. He tried to scream, but all that came from his mouth was a breathy "No, no, no!"

And he woke up.

He lay there gasping for breath, still seeing the gray, grasping hands and the red mouth. It was a few minutes before he understood that he was safe in his bed. Just as his heartbeat slowed to its normal thump-thump, his stomach leaped.

There had been a noise. Not loud, but eerie: a thin, weak, cry—from the direction of Mom and Dad's room!

A second moan sent him running for his door and down the hall to find their door open. Not bothering to try to be quiet, he ran in—and froze at a faint rustling sound.

His heart pounded as he swept his gaze over the familiar shapes—dresser, rocking chair, boxes in the process of being organized since last year, bookshelves, desk… window.

There was a glimmer there on the window frame, the faintest hint of silver, just for an instant. Then it was gone.

Rustle. Behind him!

He whipped around, saw nothing. Ran to the bed.

"Mom?" his voice sounded both too loud in the midnight darkness and too quiet. Mom was fast asleep. But Drew peered up at him, wide awake. Alex could see tears glimmering on her round face, and her tiny mouth went open and closed, open and closed, though she made only the faintest of sounds.

Rustle. Under the bed! Alex would have jumped out of his skin if he could have.

"Mom!" He climbed onto the bed and shook her. She murmured but her eyes stayed closed. "There's something under your bed!"

She did not stir.

Rustle. Something skittered across the floor, toward the window. Alex seized Mom's extra blankets, pulled them around himself and huddled next to her. From there he strained to see if anything was at the window.

There was nothing... but there, by the door... was that a hint of something scribbly? 

Alex blinked hard.

That was not Zarazura. That was just my eyes playing tricks.

Drew let out a pathetically soft wail.

Mom groaned and twisted around.

"Alex?" Her eyes shone out at him, very sleepy. There was the line between her eyebrows. "What's wrong?"

"I heard a noise," he said, while the Goblin whimpered.

"Oh. Just a minute." Mom sat up, lifted the baby, leaned back against the headboard and closed her eyes. Drew kept on crying in short, plaintive bursts, but Mom sat very still.

"I heard a noise from in here."

Mom didn't say anything. What if she fell asleep again? Would she drop Drew? What if Alex had to pick her up and then she did the spit up again?

"Mom, please wake up and don't drop the baby."

Her eyes blinked open. She touched his face. "Don't worry." Clumsily she arose and shuffled to the rocking chair. "Go back to your own room so you can sleep, please," she said, starting to rock. Drew's cries quieted at once. Mom closed her eyes again, and began to hum. Her voice was croaky, but Alex recognized the song she always used to sing at bedtime, before he told her that he didn't need lullabies any more.

"But… " he said.

 

He wanted to sleep in her bed. Except if he did that, then Zarazura—whom Alex was sure was not here causing mischief but was back in his bedroom decorating—would be all alone.

 

"Intent!" Alex whispered.

 

Back in his room, he sighed with relief when he saw the Zoombie standing on his pillow, arms akimbo and filaments fluttering.

"Thank goodness!" he said.

After all, he had to keep his Zoombie safe.

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The day that Winter Break began, the Goblin decided to whimper and whine all morning and all through lunch. Mom made cookies anyway, frowning the whole time. Alex and Kuku took refuge in the atrium, where they made ornaments out of walnuts, pinecones, and corks.

 

At first Zarazura, under strict orders to stay hidden, dutifully stowed away under Alex's shirt. But by the time Alex and Kuku had made ten ornaments, the Zoombie had slipped free and started rustling around decorating. He probably thought he was in Zoombie heaven. Alex wasn't sure if Kuku noticed or not; her eyes seemed sometimes to light on the little creature and crinkle, but she made no remark. Moreover, she wasn't wearing her glasses.  The three of them had a fine time.

When darkness fell they took a break to build a fire in the fireplace and make grilled cheese sandwiches and orange glazed carrots.

In order to avoid going to bed for as long as possible, Alex volunteered to help with the dishes and clean up from the crafts and the baking. He wanted neither bad dreams nor eerie noises in the night. Then when there was no more tidying to be done, he asked for an extra bed-time story, and then another.

 

At last Kuku, having already fallen asleep in the family room rocker, took herself to bed, and Mom insisted that Alex do the same. He asked for the old lullaby. Mom sang it very sleepily, never knowing that Zarazura was listening with rapt attention from his perch in the bookshelf.

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In his dream, Alex pursued the Monster through the enchanted forest, which was as deeply dark and as sparkly with magical lights as it had been when first he'd glimpsed it. Other creatures moved alongside him as he ran. He even caught sight of a red-mouthed ghost, but this time he didn't care. What was a measly little ghost compared to the silver Monster who kept bounding ahead of him and then waiting, peering pack at him with blazing eyes? This time, Alex was sure, the Monster would lead him to its lair, and his gift would be good enough, and the Monster would let him in, and they would play together.

His gift was Zarazura.

Alex chased the Monster to the entrance of a cave, where it stopped and turned around, framed by multicolored light from within.

 

Alex said to his Zoombie: "You'll like this Monster. He is the most fabulous monster I have ever known." And he held Zarazura out for the Monster. But the Monster turned and bounded into its lair. Alex followed.

The lair was a cavern as big as the inside of a church, lit all kinds of colors by the many treasures that lined the walls. The Monster paced out figure eights at the far end, keeping its eyes on Alex and his gift.

But Alex found himself drawn suddenly to the treasures instead of the Monster. They were so many, so different from each other, and so very strange: multicolored shapes of all sizes, all in constant motion. Each one seemed familiar as he trained his eyes on it—until he moved closer to see what it was. The closer he got to any one of the treasures the harder it was to make out its shape.

Alex shuddered awake as a mournful cry rippled through the night.

He sat straight up, his heart pounding, staring into the darkness.

"Z?" he whispered. He listened hard. There were no rustling noises.

"Zarazura?"

A second cry catapulted him out of bed. He crept into the hallway. But as he passed the nursery, the door opened, and Kuku's wrinkled face peeked out.

"Baby X! What are you doing up?"

"I heard a—"

"Come, come." She had him round the shoulders and was steering him back to his room. "Don't wake your mother."

Without knowing just how Kuku had overpowered him, Alex found himself back in bed with Heavy in his arms and his covers pulled up to his chin.

"But," he said. Then he waited for her to interrupt, which she didn't do. "I heard a noise."

"That's alright," she whispered. Her eyes glittered in the dimness. "The night is full of noises. What else?"

Before he knew it, Alex was asking a question he didn't know he had.

"What's wrong the Goblin?"

Kuku frowned. "Goblin?"

"I mean the baby."

Kuku tilted her head, chuckled. "Goblin! You're something else, Baby X." She stopped laughing. "Well. Little Drew has started waking up all night long. That will make anyone sick. So. You'd better close your eyes."

"I don't want to."

"Hmmm," said Kuku. Then she climbed right over him and sat cross-legged with her back against the wall. "I will stay with you," she said. "Just keep looking at me. Only good dreams get through me."

It was one of the stranger things he'd heard Kuku say, and Dad always said she was known for saying strange things. But it worked. He kept his eyes on her shadowed, craggy face, and was soon lost in slumber.

The next day, everything changed.

Alex had a fine morning with Mom and Kuku. And the Goblin was okay too, at first. She rode around in her sash while Mom made hot cocoa and Kuku made banana whipped cream waffle sandwiches. But just as Mom took her first bite, the Goblin spat up and began to whimper. The whimper swelled to a wail, and thereafter the Goblin could not be appeased. Mom put on a very worried face and took her upstairs. Alex and Kuku tackled the kitchen.

It was in the midst of this chore that Alex heard the familiar crackle of gravel in the driveway. He exchanged with Kuku a wide-eyed look of joy, set down his stack of plates, and ran to the front door, smiling the whole time. Dad's warm autumn eye-light was already washing over him. Alex threw open the door and jumped up and down on the porch as his father came striding towards him, his arms wide. Alex leapt into Dad's bear-hug.

"You're home! You're home!"

They leaned back to look at each other. Dad's jaw was speckly with whiskers and his hair was coming out of its braid. He looked tired. But his smile was huge.

"Good to see you, X," he said. He looped a finger through the cord of Alex's treasure necklace. "This is new. Very interesting." Then he looked over his shoulder.

There was a boy with a backpack and a suitcase on the walkway.

"Reese, this is my son Alex. He's almost six years old."

Reese was not quite as big as Oz. He had hair the color of coffee and light blue eyes. He did not smile.

"Alex, this is your uncle Reese. My half-brother."

Alex thought for a moment. "Reese is Mrs. Rykie's son?"

"That's right," said Dad.

Reese said nothing, but moved past them to the door and squeezed by Kuku to go inside.

"He's had a rough time," Dad told Alex.

"Did Grandfather Rykie die?"

"No!" Dad passed a hand over his eyes. "He's getting treatment in the hospital. We think he's going to get better. Lydia—Mrs. Rykie—is there with him. But hospitals are not very much fun for twelve-year-olds. So Reese is going to spend a few days with us."

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Reese didn't want to watch a movie with Alex. He didn't want to go for a hike. He didn't want to make ornaments in the atrium with Alex and Kuku—which was fine with Alex, as Zarazura scurried from shadow to shadow with jaw-dropping boldness. Plus, judging by the extra papery sounds along with glimpses of something that looked like a colorful dust mote, Z seemed to have recruited at least one friend.

Reese had about ten books in his backpack, and a smartphone. He sat on the couch with them.

At lunchtime, Reese ate two of Kuku's pimento cheese sandwiches and one honey and butter.

Then, Dad was up from his nap, and invited Reese to check out the power tools in the Shed. "You come too, Alex," he said. "How long has it been since we made things in there?"

Alex took a moment to privately instruct Zarazura to stay hidden in the house; the Shed probably wasn't safe for someone made out of colored pencil. Then he ran to join Dad and Reese, his spirits high.

Just the odors of sawdust, wood glue and paint made Alex smile as he climbed onto the stool at the workbench in front of the crooked window. Slivers of pale orange light from the December sun lit the dust he was stirring up. Under the pegboard and the window, twenty or thirty motley characters stood in a long row, some carved and painted by Dad, some glued together (and whittled and painted) by Alex.

"What are we going to make today, Dad?" said Alex happily.

"Your choice!" Dad was adjusting a pair of goggles for Reese, who was looking at his smart phone. "Just put on your ear protection. I'm going to show Reese some of my tools. You'll want to put that away, Reese."

Reese stowed his phone in his back pocket and accepted the goggles and a pair of headphones.

"Go on, put them on. No one here cares how you look," said Dad.

Alex donned his own headphones. For a few minutes he watched Reese and Dad at the jigsaw. It felt like watching a movie. Finally he turned his attention to the scrap bins, fishing out his favorite kinds of materials: nails, washers and grommets, a couple of fancy drawer-pulls, curiously shaped wood fragments, pieces of moss. As he dumped them onto the workbench his eyes fell on the figure Dad had been carving the day Alex first saw into the other world.

With the wings that arched above its head, it was probably ten inches tall: an angel or fairy of some kind. Only Dad had painted her all different colors—not pastel angel colors but the same deep, bright jewel colors that he'd used for the bridge sentinels. Even her eyes were made of many lines of color radiating out from black pupils. And her mouth was open.

Alex didn't remember seeing Dad finish the figure.

He looked out the clouded window. The painted bridge stood out from the yellow-gray grass, the leafless bushes and the dark green pine trees.

He decided what he wanted to make: the silver monster. And maybe a ghost.

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Kuku walked around with Drew while Mom cooked a fancy salmon and rice dinner, which Reese poked at in silence, throwing dark looks at the noisy Goblin. He did accept two more of Kuku's sandwiches.

By the time the table was clear, it was almost bedtime, but Dad announced that Alex was allowed to stay up late because of their guest.

"I want to go to bed," said Alex, thinking of Linden. Even with the Whisper Stones getting more and more cracked, Alex just had to tell Linden about Zarazura.

"Stay up a little while, X." Dad crouched in front of the game cabinet, rummaging. "Get to know your uncle." He set a stack of board and card games on the kitchen table. "Come tell Grandma goodbye."

Alex and Kuku hugged in the foyer. "You watch out for your baby sister, Baby X," she whispered into his ear. Then she leaned away from him, crinkled her sparkly eyes, and let Dad whisk her away.

Mom had made hot chocolate and was now in the rocking chair with the Goblin, who squeaked and squirmed pathetically. Mom wore a determined smile, and yet still somehow looked as though she might cry.

 

Alex slid into his chair across from Reese, who had a big book open in front of him.

 

"What do you want to play?" asked Alex, and sipped his chocolate. The velvety taste made up for having to stay up with Reese. "I like Sliders. And Authors."

Reese's eyes flicked up and then down. He said: "Those are boring."

"Oh." Alex drank more hot chocolate. "What do you like?"

Reese shrugged. "Video games, mostly."

"Oh." Alex sipped again. "Do you want to try any of these?"

"I'd rather read."

It must be a very interesting book. Alex got to his knees to try to peek across the table at it. Reese frowned and pulled it toward himself.

Alex slumped. His hot cocoa was more than half gone.

"Alex," Mom murmured from her rocking chair, "why don't you finish your hot chocolate and we can all go to bed." She got up wearily.

"Well, okay," said Alex. He drained his mug in a few gulps.

Reese had no wish to sleep in five-year-old Alex's bed-room, so Mom had put a pillow and a stack of blankets on the couch for him.

"Say goodnight to your cousin."

"Uncle," said Reese.

Alex said: "Goodnight, Uncle," and skipped to the stairs. With every step toward his bedroom, the Whisper Stone and Zarazura, he felt lighter.

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Although Zarazura's artful stuff-arrangements cluttered every corner and cranny, the creature himself was not to be found. Alex opened his window and called softly. Something shimmered in the Escape Tree—there he was! All his filaments waved happily; he was ready for adventure.

"Well…" said Alex, "I guess Zoombies don't have bedtimes. Just stay safe."

"Safe." Alex could barely hear Zarazura's papery voice. They gave each other thumbs up, and the Zoombie began skipping away, branch to branch.

"And come back soon!" Alex whisper-called.

"Back soon!" Zarazura replied, and vanished among the shadows.

When Alex blinked into Linden's room, Linden was asleep on his top bunk. Alex drifted up there and whispered into his ear: "Linden, Linden!"

Linden popped upright with a shout. Alex hushed him.

"Emergency?" said Linden, looking worried.

Alex shifted guiltily. "I just really need to tell you something." And he launched into the story of the new Zoombie who followed directions. Linden approved of the Zoombie's name. The arrival of Reese was a footnote, which Linden interrupted.

"Maybe somehow Zara—Zarazura could help us get into the parallel world!"

"Yeah—" Alex said.

Linden interrupted. "My mom keeps saying no to sleepovers. But I've been figuring out Dad's EGV. It stands for Electro—"

"Linden!" Alex didn't like to interrupt, but they were running out of time. "I have to tell you one more thing. There's something in my house. It wakes up the Goblin, you know my sister, in the middle of the night. Then it hides. I think it's making her sick."

Linden sat up straighter. "Well, we have to find out what it is!"

"Yeah!"

"And stop it!"

"Yeah!"

"We need a plan!"

"Can you come to my house?"

"I don't know," said Linden. "Oh!" He smacked his mattress and his eyes got wide with excitement. "Guess what else my dad made?"

But at that moment Linden and his bedroom vanished.

Back in his body in his own bed, Alex shined his flashlight on his Whisper Stone. It was crazed with spider-thin cracks.

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Perhaps it was the fact that last night's dream had not been so bad, coupled with the lingering memory of falling asleep with Kuku sitting next to him, keeping watch. Maybe it was just that he'd missed so much sleep lately. For whatever reason, Alex fell deeply asleep only moments after he turned off the flashlight and laid down his head.

From a dream about wandering through the rows of treasures in the monster's lair, Alex was once again awakened by a sickly cry. With chills galloping up and down his spine, he jumped out of bed, ran to the nursery, and stood in the doorway.

The nightlight showed the futon Kuku had slept on, its covers neatly folded with the pillow on top. Of course Kuku was not there. Suddenly Alex found it hard to breath. As he stood frozen, gasping and gulping, another wail reached his ears.

Whatever it was that had been going into Mom and Dad's room and making Drew sick was there right now.

Before he knew what he was doing, he'd run down the hallway to his parents' room, burst through the door, and stood there peering into the dimness.

No-one stirred. Mom was fast asleep as before, and so was Dad. As before, the Goblin was not. Her bright little eyes glimmered out of the shadows.

Alex tiptoed forward, scanning the night-shadowed room.

There! On the floor next to the bassinet! A softly glowing, multi-colored scribble.

Alex's breath caught in his throat.

"Zarazura…" Alex heard his own whisper.

The little Zoombie grinned as though he'd won a prize, stuck out his thumb, and dashed to the door.

Mom breathed softly; Dad snored.

Alex turned around, looked at the Goblin. The Goblin looked back. Alex walked over to the bassinet. "Go back to sleep," he whispered. "Okay?" The baby blinked. She was not a very obedient baby.

No longer afraid, but feeling as though his heart weighed a hundred pounds, Alex went back to his bed.

Something had to be done about Zarazura.

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"Zarazura!" To Alex's ears, his own whisper-yell somehow sounded just like Mom's stop now and listen voice. And the Zoombie, caught in Alex's flashlight beam scaling a large stack of books in the corner, halted.

"You have to stop waking up the baby."

"Baby." The Zoombie stuck out a thumb, then climbed to the top book, upon which he'd made a table out of an overturned plastic cup and a paper plate.

"It's against the rules to wake her up."

"Wake." Zarazura threw a careless smile at him, and deposited three acorn hats onto the table.

Alex wasn't sure he was getting through to the little guy. He folded his arms and frowned.

"Zarazura Hollow, you listen to me! You are making her sick!"

Z stopped moving, and looked avidly up at Alex. "Sick." The papery voice had never sounded so serious.

"You are not to go into Mom and Dad's room and wake the baby up any more. Do you understand?"

Z gave the thumbs up. "Wake!" he exclaimed, and bounced down the other side of the book mountain.

"Wait!" said Alex, as Z scampered to the window.

Z was not waiting. With a skip, hop, hop, skip, hop he was in one of his favorite spots: the windowsill.

"Don't wake!" Alex commanded.

The Zoombie gave him a very peculiar kind of grin, and then slipped through the seam.

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Alex tried to feel happy as Zarazura climbed into his backpack for the ride to Blackmask. The Goblin was going to get well and stop crying all the time, and Alex would still see his Zoombie almost every day.

Telling Daoshi that he had art supplies in his backpack that he wanted to unload, Alex took it into the Workshop. Z popped his head out of the top, and his golden eyes widened.

"You remember, don't you?" said Alex. "It's nice here. You'll like it."

The Zoombie's eyes narrowed ever so slightly.

"I'll see you after class," Alex said quickly. "Remember: hide from grown-ups. Bye!"

Alex kept his attention strictly on following instructions and drilling hard for the entire hour and fifteen minutes, and was extremely relieved when Daoshi sent him to the Workshop to meditate.

Zarazura had been busy. Anything light enough to be carried around by a boy made of scribbles had been made part of some arrangement. Alex hoped the evidence of Z's redecorating activities would escape Daoshi's notice; the light in here was always soft and dim. Anyway he had work to do. He settled himself in front of paper and pencils, and started coloring. He heard Z's subtle rustling noises but did not turn to look. He touched his treasure-necklace, which he had come to regard as a good-luck charm, and closed his eyes.

He recollected the moment he'd first seen Zarazura looking up at him, and his hands began to move.

When the moment came to lift, three new creatures twined up off of the paper like smoke: another colored-pencil version of Linden, a silver monster, and yet one more green-eyed goblin. This one was definitely too cute, but there was nothing Alex could do about that now. He felt very tired, just as he had after making Zarazura—who now perched on the edge of a shelf near Alex's head, his colored pencil face full of anticipation. The little beings had seen the woods and were on the point of fleeing.

"Stop—stay!" said Alex.

"Stay!" said Z, spider-crawling down the shelves.

All three heads swiveled toward Zarazura, who now stood facing them on the workbench, his filaments waving happily.

"Okay," said Alex. "Okay. Stay here. You can live here."

"Here," said the cute goblin.

"Live," said the monster.

"Just hide from grown-ups," said Alex.

"And babies," said Z.

"And, you can go into the woods if you want. Just come back here to live. Okay?"

The Linden Zoombie gave him a thumbs up. Alex returned it.

"And there is no bedtime."

The goblin grinned from ear to ear and shouted: "No! Bedtime!" which made Alex giggle. He clapped his hand over his mouth.

The commotion of the end of class vibrated through the wall; Alex was out of time. Now came the hard part: ditching Zarazura.

The fact that his Zoombie friend was now approaching the monster with wide eyes made it a little easier.

"Um..." said Alex. He listened to his own heart pound three times. Then he said: "I'll be back."

And he left.

Dad was waiting for him with Reese.

As Alex stowed his water bottle and put on his jacket, Reese looked around at the other students.

"So," he said, "which one is Zarazura?"

Alex almost jumped out of his skin. He looked wildly from Reese to Dad, who looked mildly surprised.

"Um—there's no one named Zarazura." Alex forced a laugh. "What a weird name. Who would ever name anyone that?"

"Oh." Reese shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. "I just thought I heard you say something about someone named Zarazura one time."

"Uh-uh." Alex shook his head firmly. "No, you did not."

"Alex has quite an imagination, Reese." Dad gave Alex a pat on the back and steered him toward the door. Reese followed. As quickly as he could, Alex peeked over his shoulder. He was sure that Reese was wearing a satisfied smile.

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Long after bedtime that night, long after an all-too brief visit with Linden in which he barely had time to explain what he'd done, Alex sat on his bed and gazed around at his night-shadowed room. Every surface, every corner, every gap between books, toys and boxes, held little signs of Z.

What was the Zoombie doing now? Was he happy with his new friends? Alex realized he hadn't even named them. Would Zarazura name them? Had they stayed in the Workshop? What would Daoshi find when he went in there? Or had they gone to the woods? Was Z even now trying to make the long trek to Alex's house on his tiny colored pencil legs? Was he sad? Was he afraid? What if he got lost?

For the first time in a long while, Alex got up onto his desk, opened the window, and climbed onto the eave and down the Tree.

The sky was deeply black and brilliantly starry. The River and the bridge both glimmered; the space between the carved sentinels beckoned. Alex tore his gaze away.

If Zarazura was trying to make his way home, he'd be coming along the River from the north. Alex started across the winter-hardened turf of his back yard—but stopped in the middle. A chill raced up his spine.

From somewhere behind him, he sensed a tendril of cold eye-light. He touched his necklace and slowly turned his head.

At the northwest corner of the house something translucent wavered in the air: a child-sized phantom—all silvery except its middle, which swirled with color. Its hollow eyes were trained upward… another creature hovered halfway up the house… and a third was at Mom and Dad's bedroom window, this one void of color. Just as Alex spied it, it passed through the glass.

The truth poured over him like ice water.

It was not Zarazura who was making the baby sick.

Alex raced back to his tree, up, through the window and his room, and down the hall. At his parents' bedroom he paused just long enough to quiet his ragged breathing, and, very carefully, eased open the door.

Dad and Mom lay as always in their crescent shapes under their blanket, their dark hair intermingled on the blue-gray pillows. But next to the basinet stood the ghostly being.

It curved over.

Alex saw the black hole eyes and the round, red mouth.

His scream got caught somewhere between his chest and his throat—just like in a dream, and as in a dream too his arms and legs were frozen in place. He could not even breathe as the creature lowered its head into the basinet.

Drew did not make any noise at all. It was the ghost-thing that moaned as a stream of color, like multi-colored ribbons of mist, flowed upwards into its translucent form. When it straightened up, its middle was full of a swirling mass of color and light.

Alex managed one hoarse word: "Stop!" And he finally staggered forward.

The creature quivered and raced to the window like smoke in a fierce wind, and passed through the glass before Alex was halfway across the room. At the window, he looked down and saw the three filmy beings floating through the grass and across the River, not even bothering with the bridge and its magical portal.

Shaking all over, he ran to the bed.

"Mom?" His own voice sounded as weak and pathetic as Drew's cries ever had. "Dad?" He tried shaking them; they did not so much as open their eyes or even roll over, but only mumbled and moaned and stayed fast asleep.

Alex crept to the Goblin's side.

Her black eyelashes lay lightly on her cheeks. Her mouth was slightly open. Under the mussed baby blanket, her chest rose and fell very gently.

Alex put his hand next to her cheek and felt the heat emanating from her. He slowed his breathing. He climbed under the covers next to Mom and lay there wide-eyed, looking at the window, counting seconds, asking himself what the ghost-things could possibly be and what they had done to Baby Drew.

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End of Chapter Eight

Coming July 3, 2022:

Chapter Nine

The Dreamstealers

© 2022 by Katherine Hahn