Prequel: Black Mood by Me. ^.^
[If you haven't noticed, I have been late in putting this chapter out. I'm really struggling with this story, my first lengthy story, as opposed to my normal short stories. Anything in brackets is an abstractx comment by me: something that isn't decided yet. Plus, I gave up the :::: notation. Even *I* couldn't read it! o.o Oh well, back to the "drawing" board.]
Slow. Drift. Lost. Day.
Sliding down a funneled way.
Now we come closer to madness
Sifting through sands of cold sadness
An hourglass of terror and dismay.
Double Bottled Hour Glass,
So narrow only sand may pass.
I am ground down into sand
Finer than that shaped by man.
Rocks to grain, to powder, dust then gas.
I, me. You, you.
Here I cannot say ‘tis true.
Where am I? Where have I been?
Who and how and what’s within?
Where I start and end? I wish I knew.
My cold soul’s dust.
Through the neck now I am thrust.
Free of form, I quicken falling
Ground to me I hearken, calling
“Catch me if you can, but now you must!”
‘Tis landing but I know not where
Or who I am. But then I care
And memory returns to me
Of who I am and what I be.
The sand falls into place and I cohere.
Peter stalked forward, fuming at the underbrush. His leg was still sore from when he’d caught it on a root about 5 minutes back. He pushed aside the dense branches that seemed to reach before him, and caught his finger on a sharp climbing bramble.
“Agghh!” he hissed, sticking his finger in his mouth as the bent branch whipped back towards the head of his friend, Janob.
Janob yelped, ducking just as the bramble snagged itself in his hair. He shook his head vigorously, and the short brown locks worked themselves free of the bramble. He looked sullenly up at Peter.
“This is all your fault.” Peter growled, forging on ahead. Janob struggled up behind him in abject protest.
“My fault? Whose idea wus it ta take the rocket into the Ramble in the first place?”
“Well, you could have told me it was loaded with dynamite. I didn’t expect it to go off the way it did!”
“Tri-nitro glyceride. I keep telling you. That’s not dynamite! With dynamite, ya have to mix it with sand and clay. I mixed it with--“
“Dynamite is dynamite. You could have killed us both! If you weren’t such a pyromaniac--“
“Who’s a pyromaniac? Me?”
“Janob--” Peter sighed concedingly, almost missing another thorn covered branch. “Well, I’ve got to admit, that was one great explosion.”
“Wasn’t it though,” Janob said looking dreamily off in the distance.
Peter snapped his fingers together. “Come off it, Janob. We still have to keep the second stage of the rocket from igniting something. We could get in big trouble if we set this park on fire.”
“Not to mention the park’d burn down.” Janob muttered, falling back in stride.
“Don’t even think I didn’t hear that!”
Peter was a wiry child, grown long and thin yet imbued with a natural grace to his movements that almost matched the resilience of his mind. More willowy than awkward, he had no trouble moving around, beyond his own impatience. His clothes, being second-hand, fit poorly, unable to wrap around his gangly frame. It was almost impossible to find Peter wearing anything but a randomly emblemed T-shirt, a sweater with his bony wrists sticking out the arms, and a pair of socially neutral, tattered jeans. The jeans were always loose around the waist, but barely long enough for his legs.
Janob like most his age, was shorter than Peter. Thick boned, yet athletic, he had a formless figure that refused to thin out despite the many times he was without food. Janob had the socially neutral jeans, like Peter, and everyone else at school, but his pants were slightly tarnished with soot, and burned in a few places. Ah, well. He’d fix that hole in the pocket soon enough. Who knew the vial of sulfuric acid would break like that?
Janob’s shirts were all blue, courtesy of his parents. They knew he hated blue, but they had their minds set on “cooling him down.” It was sea-blue every day, or wear nothing, and Janob chose to keep warm. Ironic, in a way, as he would tell everyone he met. “This sweater is as blue as the ocean, but it keeps me warm like a flame.” Janob had green eyes that sparkled when you looked closely, like someone watching the center of a deep fire.
“I’m telling you, the second stage hasn’t gone off yet!” Janob said out of the blue.
“What about that second explosion? That could have been the second stage.”
“What we saw wasn’t an explosion, I know that much. There was a shock wave that passed over us, shaking the leaves of the trees and upsetting the birds. But there was no boom, no light, and no fire. An explosion should at least have some smoke, especially one with a shock wave like that.”
“So how do you explain it?”
“I--can’t. It was probably some kind of gas line that got punctured. It’ couldn’t be, though, since then there’d be a sound. An underground explosion might not have smoke, but we would have felt it through the ground, not the air. It’s a mystery to me, but I always love learning new things. Whatever it was, I think we’ll find out not much farther ahead.”
Peter muttered under his breath. “You love learning new ways to explode things, you mean.”
The ruddy clearing gleamed in the morning sun. As the two boys entered a long forgotten section of the ramble, their sight was captured by the misty grey gleam of the leaves overhead. They marveled at the windswept leaves, toppled logs, and bushes that crowded around for sunlight. The long grass of the clearing was entirely pushed back in a ring, as though blasted from an explosion. There were no scorch marks on the grass, only concentric circles of flattened blades. Peter spoke, his eyes idly drifting toward the center of the circle.
“Well there’s no rocket here...but hey! Would you look at that.” Peter ran forward, almost not thinking first. He stopped, expertly curbing his curiosity, considering the situation carefully.
There was a limp furry form on the ground. It seemed to be shrouded in a wavering mist. Even as Peter stared, the mist crept away from the creature, rising to a point of light above the creature. Then, from the side of the clearing, a little rabbit hopped up to the creature, nosing gently. Torn between caution and curiosity, Peter crept forward, leading Janob silently.
As Peter came near, the rabbit growled at him. The rabbit growled at him? Then it leapt at him, going for his throat...
...landed on his chest, and clung there looking up at him confusedly. Equally confused, Peter looked down at the bunny clinging to his shirt by its forepaws. Was this bunny attacking him?
He caught it as it released his shirt, hands briefly brushing the downy underbelly before the bunny squirmed away. The rabbit leapt back down to poke at the nondescript pile of fur on the ground. The other animal stirred slowly, shifting to release a tail wedged underneath it. From the telltale striped tail, Peter knew exactly what it was.
The raccoon raised a black furry mask to look at him. Its solemn visage caught his curious gaze. Those glittering eyes could have held sights from another world. So sad, and so intelligent looking. Peter was held in its quizzical stare, which seemed to penetrate through him and beyond.
“Watch out!” it shouted, throwing its paws to protect its face, and rolling away to the left. Peter instinctively leapt to the right, tumbling his arms and legs expertly around to get a better look upwards. A single stray eye twitch was enough to capture his complete surprise. “Wait a minute. ‘Watch out’? Did that raccoon just talk to me?” Then, something really strange happened.
The point of light grew blinding, emitting a keening wail as it bulged outward, and *something* started to come through. Screaming and distorted like an inverted bubble, it looked like a horse but its forehead was huge and ballooned outward while its neck spiraled impossibly thin, inward to a single point. Peter gaped at the sight, like a strange 3 dimensional fun-house mirror, as more of the creature came around the twisted spiral. It screamed, and its cries were agony to the soul. Janob fell to the ground, and Peter clutched his ears in vain. The world seemed to bow, to bend aside for the bulk of the creature, grinding painfully as the equine came into being, then crashed to the earth. A shockwave rippled through the air, shaking the leaves of the trees and disturbing the birds.
It breathed. It breathed again, and its ebony hide shuddered with exhaustion. A third breath, and it seemed to reach a rhythm, chest rising slowly up and down again. From the limp unflicking tail, Peter thought at first that it might be a horse. But its body was more like a thick boned deer, or a small antelope. Its hooves were cloven like a goat’s, and atop its shorter than equine muzzle, there was... a golden horn. It gleamed almost metallically, smooth and reflective, spiraled like a nautilus, sharply pointed.
Peter suddenly realized. It had almost landed on him! How close had he come to being crushed? Crushed by a...Unicorn.... If the raccoon hadn’t told... him... to... move.... Too much to handle! Peter just turned, and ran blindly away from the clearing. Right into a tree. *oof...*
There are some things that were never meant to be known. Brian learned some of them this day. As he fell into the gate, he began to see its inner workings. A mastery of crystalline power, the gate was a tunnel that seemed to go off in all directions at once. He couldn’t see, or feel, just think and observe. All things are abstract between worlds. His soul-self watched as the gate focused, funneled down to a single tiny hole. It was a hole piercing a stiff, impenetrable barrier toward which Brian was suddenly hurtling very quickly. He braked but had no footing. He tried to stop but the magic... the magic *had* him, and thrust him towards the impossibly bent space. Out of control! Reality wrapped itself around tighter and tighter until Brian was struggling under a vise of claustrophobic panic and fear. “Mother!” he called out across the psychic winds. He intersected himself--.
(Rac was crying little scare bad where am I no!)
p...Pain!! (Blam) Brian was himself again, and falling this time through real space. His body was wracked with pain, bruised and battered. He felt like he’d been crushed, or wrung. Like the wrack, or the Press or.... Numerous possible medeival torture devices sprung through his head as the soft ground came up to meet him. When he landed, the pain that lanced through his chest knocked him back into dreamy unconsciousness.
Alas, dreamy unconsciousness never lasts long enough. Brian awoke from an uneasy sleep at a blunt nose poking his side.
“Just Dog wanting to play fetch again.” he thought, slipping back into slumber.
The nose came again, bothering a sore spot in his side. Why was his side sore? Brian shifted to swat away the offending nose, when suddenly, pain shot through his nether regions. Yow! He was sitting on his own tail!
A moment of blessed relief when he got the thing out from under him was immediately disturbed by the rest of his body, which seemed to be sore all over. Wait. Someone was there, standing above him. He looked upward, sniffing carefully. It wasn’t Puck, or a fairy. It wasn’t Bob, for sure, or Dog. Bob...oh jeez the gate!
Brian looked past the strange boy above him. Beyond the kid’s head, the gate was opening again. From Earth’s end, the gate looked like a point of light. Was that hole really what he came through? It was so small. No wonder it hurt so much. Dog seemed to escape most injury, but then, he was much lighter than Brian. Probably bigger travelers had more trouble fitting through the gate.
Bob. What about Bob? Oh, no. Could he make it through? Brian didn’t even want to think what would happen if Bob got stuck. The point of light was quivering. It looked like someone was going to come through the gate. Brian hoped fervently that Bob would make it through. He’d probably come out just like Brian did, and fall straight down--. Uh, oh.
The gate was directly above Brian. The kid was still standing over him. If Bob fell on them.... Brian dove out of the way, rolling as carefully as he could. “Watch out!” he shouted to that kid, still standing there. Brian had hoped to stop, but the hillside became steep, and he rolled into a tree stump. His eyes flooded with pain, and everything went black again.
“Head. Hurting.” Peter muttered as he raised the painful extremity off the ground.
“It should. You ran inta’ a tree!” Janob said, eyes sparkling with worry.
“Now why would I go and do something like that?”
“I’m guessin’ you panicked when the unicorn came out of the light.”
“I never panic. I was strategically withdrawing. There is a difference.”
“Are you okay, man?”
“Yes. I’m fine. Just a bruise. Now, what was my name again?”
“Oh, no. You can’t--you forgot--?” Janob stammered.
“Just kidding.” Peter laughed, getting back on his feet. “What happened to the raccoon?”
“When he rolled out of the way, he hit a log. Out cold. I moved him to a more flat spot then.” Janob pointed at the raccoon now curled up in a ball at the base of the hill.
“Weren’t you worried about hurting him?”
“Well, whenever I did anything that hurt him, I could feel it. I don’t think he’s hurt too bad either, or that last fall would have done him in.”
“You felt his pain? What are you, some kind of psychic?”
“No, but I think he is.”
“Come on, I think I saw the rocket over there.”
“We can’t just leave them...”
“We won’t, I promise. It’ll just be a second.”
Headache. Blinding headache. What is this pain that keeps me awake? Why can I not fall forever to the welcome blackness below? The pain is strong, stronger than the desire to die. It cannot be ignored. It must be resolved. The mind will not die without resolution. Awaken!
Brian winced as he opened his eyes. The light was blinding, angry and orange. Every muscle in his body ached, including some muscles he hadn't been aware of until now. Having recently transformed into a raccoon, there was much he still didn't know about himself. “But does self-discovery have to hurt so much?” Brian sighed, trying to lift his head.
As his eyes cleared and sharpened, Brian saw the source of the light. Once his eyes lit upon it, he almost couldn't look away, for fear that it would disappear forever. Brian was looking at a street light. Streetlight. City. Earth. Home!
(Home?) the other voice inside his head said, remembering the hollow log that they would stay in.
(No, Rac. Home. My home. Our home.) Brian comforted the mysterious raccoon in his head, who was a legacy left by Puck and his fairies. Rac just churred confusedly, and looked around for the home log. The pain of moving caused Rac to retreat back to the dark lake. At last Brian said, (No Puck anymore.) and Rac understood.
At last, he was home! He'd made it. The gate had worked! Brian felt like he had been wrung through a spaghetti extruder, but his muzzle quivered in joy. Home. “Puck! What do you have to say now? You can't keep me from my home!” he crowed. Then he saw Bob.
It still sent a shiver up his spine when he looked upon the amazing form of the unicorn. Even prone, Bob was an impressive sight. His short ebony coat handsomely flowed across his tight muscled body. The golden horn that erupted from his head gleamed in the lamplight, almost shining with a light of its own. But Brian was fraught with worry. Bob, the mighty unicorn colt, was crumpled in a twisted heap from where he had fallen from the gate. Brian painfully dragged himself over to Bob, across a spread of dry, crinkly leaves
Upon closer examination, the unicorn was a sorry sight. He had been much more massive than Brian, and had suffered more as a consequence. Brian couldn't see where the bruises were forming, but the angle of the legs, and the tenderness of the flesh told a dark tale about Bob's health. The unicorn was unconscious, breathing slowly and raggedly. He obviously needed expert medical attention.
Brian had tired himself out crawling over to the unicorn, and his vision began to waver. He slumped down again, helplessly as he fell asleep.
When he woke up again, Brian was looking up into a child's eyes. After getting over the shock, Brian noticed that he still couldn't move hardly at all. Had he have been able to, he would have already disappeared into the bushes. “Oh well,” he inwardly sighed. “You've got to trust someone.”
Brian spoke carefully. “ Um, hello. Could you give us some help?”
One of the two boys turned and sprinted wildly into the underbrush. A yell and a muffled thump sounded in the distance. The other boy hurried after, dragging back the unconscious form of his friend. “Don't worry. Peter jus’ ran into a tree.”
“Yeh. He wus a bit freaked by your scene here.”
“He’s not used to talkin’ wildlife y’know.”
“I don't blame him. Why didn't you run away?”
“Well, you see, we lost a rocket somewhere around here and...”
“Unnnh.” Peter commented intelligently.
“Hey look, he's coming to!”
“Let me talk to him.” Brian insisted.
“Hello. Are you okay?” at the noise, Peter opened his eyes, to see the pointy muzzle of that raccoon in front of him.
“I...I’m not sure. I think I’m crazy.”
“Welcome to the club, then.”
“If you’re hallucinating about talking to a raccoon, then I’m hallucinating about being one.”
“Oh, so you’re not usually a raccoon?”
“No kidding! I was transformed a while back, by a k-- a person named Puck.”
“Weird. So I am hallucinating about a raccoon who’s really a person who thinks they’re a person, but is hallucinating that they’ve been changed into a raccoon.”
“Or you could just be talking to a transformed raccoon.”
“That does seem a bit simpler.”
Peter swore, jumping up from his prone position. “Janob, the rocket! Where--?”
“Shoot, Peter. I almost forgot about it. We gotta find it before...”
Brian was confused. “Rocket? What rocket?”
Janob looked jaded. He shuffled his toe. “We uh, wanted to try our new rocket but when we set it off there was this funky earthquake and it fired off into the forest. If that thing goes off, we’ll be in trouble for sure!”
“What, is it illegal? Here? I mean you wouldn’t want to start a forest fire, but...”
“Um...” Peter looked at Brian strangely. Brian wasn’t sure what to make of Peter, or Janob. Two kids appeared in the middle of the Northwest River Park shooting off rockets. Now, they’re worried about getting caught. By who?
“What kind of rockets were you setting off anyway?”
“Okay.” Peter said firmly. “The full story, now. I can’t help you unless I get everything.”
“Well, my name is Brian.”
“That much I got.”
“I was in a canoe, going down the Northwest river--“
“Not a raccoon?”
“Not a raccoon. I was going down the river with my friends when something strange happened.”
“That much is clear.”
As Brian related his story, Peter’s eyes got wider and wider. Janob looked so pale, he might as well have been an albino. Maybe it was the new trick of speaking mind to mind that Brian had learned. Maybe it was the idea of a fantastic story undeniable and unequivocal by the presence of the raccoon sitting in front of them. Maybe Brian was just a good storyteller. However, he had them riveted to his every word by the end. At the conclusion, they blinked a couple times, and even Peter had a hard time finding words to speak. He seemed incredulous when he said,
“So you were out boating when a little kid named Puck and his fairies changed you into a raccoon, and your friend here into a unicorn. Now, you’ve escaped Puck’s weird dimension, and you want to get word home before he finds you again.”
“That about sums it up. But I had just one question.”
“Why are you guys here way out in the wilderness, and how far is the Northwest River from here?”
Peter looked incredulous. “River? Man, you’re turned around half way to Tennessee! You, my friend, are in the middle of New York City. Central Park. Da Ramble.”
New York? That was 500 miles away from Virginia! “No way! The gate was way up in Virginia. It wasn’t anywhere near Central Park.”
Janob spoke thoughtfully. “That gate.... You said it wus a tight fit. Maybe you got squirted out, you know, like a tube of toothpaste. I know when you really squirt that stuff, it goes all over the place and--.”
“Janob,” Peter exclaimed exasperatedly. “He’s tired enough as it is. He doesn’t need gross abstract metaphors to make things worse.”
Brian thought for a moment. “No. Janob might have something there. We have no idea of the forces involved with the gate. If Bob and I had come out from the same spot we went in, Puck would have found us already. Being as he hasn’t found us, I can think of only one explanation. We were thrown off far away from the original location of the gate, and Puck has no idea where we ‘squirted’ off to.”
The bright morning sunlight gleamed on their raggedly breathing companion. His flanks heaved ponderously as he struggled for breath. His coat was ragged with slowly seeping blood. His leg was still bent the wrong way. He had not once stirred, or even woken up. The Unicorn was a terrible sight, deeply in pain. The three looked nervously at one another, until one spoke the words they all knew were true.
“He doesn’t look any better.” Peter said solemnly.
“We hafta get him to a doctor.” Janob agreed, shaking his head.
Brian wasn’t sure what to say. “Do you know any really trustworthy vets?” he finally ventured.
Peter spoke up in a forced cheerfulness. “I know a kid named Andrew. His dad works at the Veterinary shelter. He’ll be able to help.”
“Oh, is his father a doctor?”
“No he’s a... janitor. But someone there will be able to help. They just have to!”
“Bob might be the last Unicorn left in the world.”
“I know. We can’t let him die.”
“We shouldn’t be talkin’ about dying.”
“No, we shouldn’t.”
The moments passed in silence. Finally, Peter said “Well, I’d better get going, before it gets any later.”
Brian got off his haunches, but swayed uneasily. Peter caught him as he fell...
Peter almost instinctively moved to catch the raccoon. For a moment, he froze at the white-hot sensation of pain that Brian pushed into his mind. Brian growled and hissed loudly. Worried that he was going to get bitten, Peter put Brian down, moving away as the raccoon rubbed at its chest.
“(It's okay Rac. Calm down...) Try again. Watch my ribs, I think one might be broken.”
Peter gently lifted the light burden. While not heavy, Brian did spread out all over the place. Peter had to use both hands to support the raccoon.
“Brian.” He said as calmly as he could. “I don’t think you can make it to the Veterinary Center on your own, but I don’t think I can carry you all the way either. We’ve got to make some kind of stretcher.
Janob slapped his hand on the knapsack behind him. “I know! We could use my backpack.”
“Janob, your backpack is full.”
“Well, then. That’s easy to fix. Here we go!”
Janob upturned the backpack, and a wild assortment of chemicals, explosives and strange powders in glass vials poured forth. A rubber ball bounced out, making a squeaking sound, then a few pens, a pencil, a ruler, and a couple of sheets of crumpled, madly scribbled paper.
Peter watched in amusement. “Janob, you need to clean out your backpack more often.”
“But it’s all important stuff in there!”
“Whatever. Now, let’s see if we can set Brian up here.”
Home. Home at last. After so long fearing that he would never see it again, Brian was home. He could hear children laughing in the distance, a good hearty laugh that promised great fun, perhaps a little trouble. His vision blurred as he looked farther away, but it held no comparison to before when he was crippled by glasses. The fur rubbing against the backpack cradling him was an interesting sensation, but not beyond imagination. The painful twinging of his ribs was very, very familiar. Of all the human senses he'd never forgotten during his long imprisonment by Puck, smells alone were unfamiliar.
As he rode with the child known as Peter, his nose seemed to dance of its own will, seeking out the lingering trails of smell. A man passed here earlier, accompanied by a younger smell, his child probably. A lady paused by a bench to apply perfume, not more than half and hour ago. Then, there was a dark smell of fear and running, and anger, which crossed the trail he walked on, probably some crook still green to the fine art of mugging. There was much he could smell that he never would have known before. Of all his senses, though, Brian was most disturbed about his new sense of smell. Everywhere he went, he could smell death.
The smell of death is unforgettable. Even Man's poor, pitiful olfactory senses can detect this evil odor. Dry, dark, and lonesome, it hides just beneath perception. Cigarette smoke, cancer, and garbage all share the smell in common. It is an unavoidable scent that most everyone has known before. Brian hadn't spent time at his grandmother's side while her life drained away before his eyes without learning of the smell of death. Not even the antiseptic hospitals can fully disguise that feared odor. Brian had learned of the smell as a man, and now as a raccoon, he could smell it, barely perceptible, in every breath of air he took in.
“You're just not used to this new nose.” Brian assured himself. “You are spoiled from the sweet air that's back where Puck lives.” Despite this assurance however, he could not shake the feeling that death was somewhere in this place. This place that was his home.
“We're almost there!” Peter shouted back. “Mr. Raccoon, you've never seen downtown until you've seen it from this hill. Just up ahead, follow me!”
The lights met Brian's eyes with painful suddenness, the splendor and glamor of the city almost blinding. The distant sounds of rushing cars reached his sensitive ears clearly. Rushing... rushing... turning the ground into streamers of light, and the air into a torrent of excitement. People walked the streets going about their day to day lives, striving, creating, hoping, and succeeding. Here and there, the unnoticed poor huddled near blazing trash cans. The city was truly overwhelming to look at.
So this is New York," Brian whispered. Before him was a glistening lake lit up by the reflections of millions of lights from thousands of office buildings, millions of shining squares bringing clarity to the night. He gazed across the land to the buildings that had been raised by the hands of man, glad in his heart that he was finally home. Puck had no domain here, this was the world of man.
There was something sad about the lights, but then there is always something sad about change. Stability. As long as the lights shine, we'll never know what it's like without them. The important thing was that there were real cars blasting down along the roads and grinding through the gridlock of the city. There were real people in those cars, real people in the office windows, and no faeries. Good old New York. Brian had never been to it before but... good ol' New York.
Still, he couldn't get over the fact that something seemed wrong. Brian could still smell death in the air. It seemed less potent as the car exhaust and the hazy factory gasses took precedence. Eventually it was so faint to be almost unnoticable, then gone altogether. Brian puzzled over the strange smell, worrying despite his relief, while...
Bob slept. He couldn't find the weeping. Running on all four legs toward the pitiful sound. Tears splashing on stone, unbearable to his sensitive ears. He ran and ran, but the further he got the more distant the sound seemed to fall. He followed the glistening trail of tears left behind, even as it curved in a great circle that never intersected, slowly spiraling to its center. At last, the source of the tears came into sight before him. It turned to look at him just as he turned back at a noise behind him. He looked back and saw himself running, fast approaching, then turning to look away. Turning to look at an infinite reflection of himself, black equines stretching for miles, all weeping even as the baby tears fell down his own muzzle, all peering over their shoulders while his own neck craned around. “Can horses cry?” he thought torn between confusion and sorrow. Then he saw the golden horn atop his head in the mirror, and all seemed to be answered. What was behind an infinite mirror, though? Could it be turned aside? He bent his horn to the edge of the mirror even as his double and a thousand doubles brought their noses down on a distant corner. “If an infinite amount of unicorns disturb an infinite mirror, will it shatter?” And it shattered, and his mind was plunged into blackness once again.
“That rocket is set to go off in less than 5 minutes. Janob, have you completely cased this area?”
“I dunno where that rocket has got off to. It could be anywhere around here.”
“How are we going to find it?”
The voice behind him was definitely coming from the raccoon in the backpack.
“I can smell smoke over there.”
“Over where?” Peter asked, beside himself. How far was this delusion going to go?
The raccoon pointed. “Over there. To your left.”
“Great.” Peter said, looking at the outstretched paw. “Now I can’t dismiss you as a voice in my head anymore.”
“Never mind. Can your nose lead us to the rocket?”
“There’s only one trail of smoke. Unless someone came by here with a 3 foot cigar, I doubt it could be anything else.”
Janob was already running off ahead. Peter took the trail more carefully for the injured animal in his pack. What would he do with a hurt raccoon? Jeez, what would he do with a hurt unicorn? The whole thing was impossible to think about logically, so Peter tried not to think about it.
“But how can I get help?” he thought, cursing his stubborn one-track mind. “It’s far too risky for me to tell the Veterinary/Cosmetic FC’s. They always mess things up, when they aren’t destroying it. Is there anyone else that takes care of animals anymore...?...! Andrew. Of course! He knows about that shelter they’ve still got up and running downtown.”
Janob’s whoop of victory brought Peter back to the ground. It wasn’t much of a whoop, more like *whipp!* Or maybe it started with more of a ‘y’ sound.... Regardless, the sound was definitely, uniquely Janob. Peter stepped over a log to find Janob bent over a half smashed contraption, a long tube driven into the ground, and hissing. The rocket!
Janob smiled, looking up at Peter. “This is so cool. We might be able to completely salvage the fuel. All I have to do is...” Janob reached down, grasping a valve on the back of the rocket. With a firm pull, the back of the rocket exploded.
Peter dove out of the way, scratching his face on another bramble, landing hard in the bushes, on his belly. “Janob!” he shouted.
Whirrr-ping. Yes. That is a sound. Thoughts are a joyous in place and we come around then!
Janob looked at the sailing Peter, and chuckled inwardly. Peter was always quick to react. Don’t worry, Peter. It’s just the air compression device. A bit of compressed air would send the volatile fuel into the ignition. Of course letting the air out the back, there was going to be a little pop, well a bang, okay maybe a boom. Janob had told Peter about that... hadn’t he?
“Don’t worry, Peter! It’s just the air compression device.”
Peter was fumid. “If. You. Ever. Scare. Me. Like. That. Again...” He rose slowly, fists clenched.
“Again? Peter, you should know me, man. I’ve never made a fatal mistake, an' I won't as long as I live.”
“Which won’t be much longer, if you don’t--.”
Another severely jounced voice cut in. “H-hello? D-do you r-realize that I’m s-still on your back? (barely avoided pain) Thanks for being my pillow when you landed, though.”
“Oh Jeez, I don’t belive it. I totally forgot. Brian, are you okay?”
“I’m as fine as I can be.”
While Peter made frantic amends, Janob removed a tiny gel-like packet from the rocket: the fuel. Just one more thing he needed to do. Add a dampener to calm this explosive down. Nice trick, that dampener. It used a silicon-petrol system to suspend explosive particles safely, without danger. Adding a bit of that Howitzer compound nullified the dampening effect, and out precipitated the explosive again for future use. What fun!
Peter saw Janob throw the slimy chemical into the bag. “What are you doing? Mixing stuff with that explosive, you’ll probably blow us all up!”
“I won’t blow anything up. Don’t worry.”
“I’m worried,” Peter countered. Janob just smiled.
“Does he know what he’s doing?” Brian asked cautiously.
“Depends if he’s in the mood or not.” Peter whispered back. His mind pounced on the next thing to do. He spoke commandingly to Janob. “We have to get help for Brian and the Unicorn. What is the name of that little miracle, anyway?”
“His name’s Bob.”
“Bob? No way." Peter stared in shock. "A unicorn named Bob?”
“Well it’s true,” Brian said, somehow managing to look abashed.
“Anyway, I know a friend, his name is Andrew. His father works at an old animal shelter sponsored by General Processes. I’ll ask Andrew, and he’ll help. We have got a good chance to get in trouble over this, Janob. Are you game?”
“Game as game can be.” said Janob in a strange high squeaky voice. “You’ll never catch--“
“Janob, please.” Peter stopped him curtly. “Enough with the obscure jokes. I think Andrew is working at the supermarket today. I'll go, while it’s still early. You,” he pointed to Janob pointedly, "Need to stay and watch the unicorn." He shook his head at Janob's protest. "No way. He could die if we just leave him here. You gotta stay and take care of him. Can you do that?"
"Yes..." Janob said plaintively.
"I'll be back with help. Just hold tight and make sure he keeps breathing!"
Peter walked with a cool innocent look in his eyes, like it was a normal thing to carry a raccoon in a backpack into a grocery store. Most of the checkers stared, though some just sighed and put their head in their hands. Those who knew Peter also knew his reputation. Some of the old timers could remember, long ago, when Peter walked in with the same look in his eyes, and a fishbowl stuck on his head. More recently, there was the request for 3 pounds of shopping bags, the questions about a sandwich board sign sale, and now a raccoon in his backpack. Before anyone could do anything foolish, like going to get the manager, Peter found his way to Andrew.
Andrew was a quiet voiced, skinny child, with not more than a slip of brown hair gracing the top of his head. His clothes were baggy, always failing to fit his slight frame. When he walked, he seemed to float, almost dancing over the ground, just a whisper away from being taken by the wind. Just under 100 pounds, Andrew was not much of an imposing figure, but he knew how to run, when violence got thick. He also had a talent for avoiding argument. In his experience with Andrew, Peter had watched Andrew dance around his tightfisted opposition with words, and good intentions, always staying one step ahead of his last.
Peter admired Andrew for that, his sense of purpose, and his constant activity. When not attending school, Andrew worked in the supermarket, as well as helping his father out in the animal shelter. Between the both of them, they usually managed to make financial ends meet. Usually.
With depression on his mind, Peter spoke as cheerfully as he could. “Hey, Andrew. Can we talk outside?”
“Is that a raccoon in your...?”
“Yeah, and he’s hurt. I really need to ask a favor of you.”
Andrew sighed. “Let’s talk outside then”
. . .
The wind scored breezily through the walkway while Peter and Andrew mingled with the bodies moving to and fro, sidling off to the side. "Peter," he whispered seriously. "You really want to take him where my dad works?"
"What? 'course I do! He's got to get his ribs fixed. They're broken or something."
"They'll fix his ribs. They have to. But there has to be someplace else..."
"What? You mean like the VetCorp? Not a chance. They wouldn't help him!"
"Yes, they only deal with registered pets," Andrew agreed, looking down with his hands in his pockets.
"Please, Andrew. We can't just leave him. He can barely move as he is!"
Andrew nodded. "'prolly get an infection or starve without a grownup's help. It's just that you might not get the best welcome. Uh... I mean it'd be better if I went and introduced you."
"Well no problem there," Peter laughed.
Andrew just sighed and put his hands in his side pockets, looking forward, head bobbing in a slow rhythm.
The boys continued to walk, one skinny, tall one speaking energetically to the thin wisp of a boy by his side. A raccoon was safe in the tall one's backpack, and watching the flow of pedestrians around him. Almost without pause, the thin one led the tall one sure right along the black pitch streets, through the milling bodies across a traffic crosswalk, and down along the strip of an old, cracked sidewalk.
A shortcut through an empty lot, once a factory of some type, landed them in a rather quiet part of town. Peter found himself glancing around nervously. Andrew seemed ready to bolt at an instant, but his fluttering activity led them boldly onward until the business section began again, and an old stucco building rose menacingly before them.
Brian stirred for a moment. The boys continued to walk, one skinny tall one speaking energetically to the thin wisp of a boy by his side.
"Who's...?" Brian sent to Peter.
"Ssh. His name's Andrew. He's gonna help us."
"Grreat..." Brian said closing his eyes again. He really didn't feel like moving much, maybe even a little flushed. "I'm gon' take a nap now..."
Brian didn't sleep right away, but stared dimly out of the folds of the backpack. Almost without pause, Andrew, the thin one lead the other two right along the black pitch streets, through the milling bodies across a traffic crosswalk, and down along a strip of old, cracked sidewalk. A shortcut through an empty lot, once a factory of some type, put them in a rather quiet part of town.
Peter kept his eyes forward in a cool, steady stare, glancing around every now and then, checking the sides. Andrew seemed ready to bolt at an instant, but his fluttering activity led them boldly onward until the business section began again, and the Veterinary office was at hand.
The raccoon stirred for a moment. He felt fear as the Big One was too close in front of him. But then the raccoon remembered Brother, who called the Big One a brother, and settled down without much agitation. Sometimes brothers have to sleep together for warmth. The raccoon scratched at a growing irritation in his chest, stopping when it became painful. This was a rest hurt, not a scratch hurt. Rac hoped that he could rest with the strange human brother carrying him. He also hoped he would be able to escape and find some food. Rac liked beetles. He didn't like those salmon so much, but they were very fattening so he probably should find them to store up winter fat. But what was that his brother said, about no more easy fishing? Rac sighed. They would have to find a new fish water together. The raccoon was getting sleepy again, and since the day was still high he snuggled down as dark as possible in the walking den with which the Big One carried him. Brother called it... a back pack. Back was the back. Pack was what Rac is. He snuggled down in the back pack and slept fitfully. He had to prepare for the night he and brother had been chasing, the night that never came back in the forest with the salmon.
(The Animal Control Center)
The animal shelter was old, its pastel whites dimmed to dingy grays. Peter scarcely noticed the creaking of the rusted hinges as Andrew pushed the metal door open, and disappeared into the fluorescent, flickering light. Instead, he looked around nervously.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Peter said, stopping carefully.
“Haven’t you been here before? Oh, sorry. It’s much nicer inside, I promise.”
Peter hesitantly stepped into the well lit office. He followed Andrew past the receptionist down a long hallway.
“I don’t know who can help you,” Andrew said, “but I can point you to someone who does. She’s the Head of Staff Affairs. Her name is Mrs. Curmon--.”
“Oh no. Not the Mrs. Curmon?” Andrew nodded in response to Peter’s statement. Peter felt his sense of confidence evaporating like water on hot concrete. “She hates me. Ever since that fiasco at the homeless shelter.... I didn’t know she worked at the animal hospital! How am I supposed to get her to help?”
“That's why I hoped there would be somewhere else! But... she’s really nice if you let her be. I’ll just talk to her. If it’s as important as you say it is, then she will help. She’s not a bad person. Wait here.”
Andrew knocked on the door to the office, while Peter found a chair to sit in.
“Ms. Curmon, could I--“
“Andrew, Andrew. What is it now? Did you find another sick bird? You know we can’t keep taking those things in. Nature must run its course.”
“No, Ms. Curmon. I wanted to ask you a favor.”
“A favor? Well, for a thoughtful young man like you, I’d be happy to help if I can.”
“Well it’s not for me this time...it’s for Peter Cullin--.”
Her face clouded over. “And conversely, for a thoughtless young rascal like him, I don’t think--“
“Please, Ms. Curmon. He was awfully upset. I’ve never seen him so worked up before! He said that if he could just talk to you...”
“And I’m supposed to just forget about his little prank with the ‘cherry’ tapioca at the homeless shelter?”
“That wasn’t his fault! He ate it too, remember? Please--he might not be the best boy on the street, but he’s my friend. I can’t explain it.... I promise I’ll never ask for anything again!”
“Andrew, you say that almost daily. Very well, if it’s important to you, I’ll talk to him. It better be good though. And you owe me one.”
*sigh* “I know. I’ll help with the Scrap Squad.”
Ms. Curmon chuckled darkly. “Clean up half chewed leftovers? No, you’re not going to get off that easy. I’ll reserve the favor for a future date. Consider yourself warned.”
“Oh, thank you Ms. Curmon. I’ll be ready to help, you bet! Just ask. I don’t know what Peter was worrying about. He had a raccoon in his backpack. He wouldn’t tell me, but he was as shaken as a willow. He said it was mighty secret. Something about a horse.”
“Stolen, to be sure," Ms. Curmon decided, but then got a puzzled look on her face. "How did that boy get ahold of a stolen horse in the Big Apple?”
“Well I don’t know if it was stolen...”
“You can send him in now.”
“How did you know he was here?”
“If you look at the security cameras over there, you’ll see he’s listening at the door.”
Peter jumped about a mile, then sat down at the cushion, looking down at his hands guiltily. How had he forgotten about that camera? Now, the grandest of embarrassment, he was himself fooled. Peter hadn’t heard much of anything either. Those doors were practically soundproof. Peter looked up, wiping the disgust off of his face as Ms. Curmon opened the door. The two opponents sized each other up for a moment. Then, Ms. Curmon beckoned him into her office. Grateful not to have to make the first move, Peter entered quickly.
“So Peter, I hear you have a problem with a horse.” her voice trailed off as she noticed Peter shift the weight on his back. “Peter... when Andrew said you had a raccoon in your backpack, please tell me he was being symbolic.”
“Uh, literal, I’m afraid. I have a raccoon in my backpack. He’s sleeping right now, and awfully hurt. I thought if I brought him here, you might be able to help.”
Peter tried not to wince as she exploded at him. “You’re carrying an injured raccoon? You idiot. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that wild animals are dangerous? Your foolishness probably cost him his life. Hurry up, then, get him out of there! Sleeping. I wouldn’t bet he’s not sleeping dead, you awful boy!”
She shucked the sack off of Peter’s back even as he opened his mouth to protest. But he closed it again, keeping his wilted silence. Her disappointed sorrow shone at him, and all he could see was murder in her eyes. She took a thick glove off her desk, moving with an unusual care. Peering into the knapsack, she found Brian. He was snoring lightly.
Almost at a loss for words--almost--she continued to question Peter.
“How did you keep him from tearing your face off when you found him? Was he unconscious the whole time? Peter, you may have made a grave mistake if you were handling a sick raccoon. Did he bite you?”
“No, he didn’t. He’s not sick, just injured. He’s really sensitive around the waist, and I think he might have a broken rib. He took an awful fall.”
“I assume you were there to see it.”
“Well, no. He to--. I--.” Peter looked frantic, then his mood turned downcast. “Yes I was. I was skipping stones out in Central Park when Janob and I saw him. We took a few shots--I hadn’t really expected to hit him--and he fell a good 20 feet out of the tree. Knocked out cold.” In the most miserable tone of voice, he pleaded, “I’m sorry, I just had to bring him here. It was my fault.”
“You malevolent child. How could you, of all the cruel and awful things to do? Do you think it’s fun hurting helpless animals? Do you think it’s a game? For your sake, I hope he survives. You’re lucky you had the sense to bring him here or I’d be calling the VetCorp right now.”
“VetCorp? But I--.”
“True, Peter. Cruelty to animals isn’t much of a crime with them. Horse theft, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother matter.”
“Oh. That.” Peter said, his sorrow evaporating. “Let me explain.”
“Okay here goes. Do you have a horse doctor you can trust?”
Peter carefully and calmly explained the whole story from his perspective, waving and gesticulating madly. Thankfully, Ms. Curmon was thoughtful enough to put Brian down first because in her surprise she surely would have dropped him. Brian was sore enough from getting bumped around in the backpack by that Peter fellow’s overactive activity. Peter had wrapped him up rather well, and Brian didn’t feel any worse since his last ordeal with the gate. But it was jarring sometimes.
Unfortuately, he didn’t feel any better either. Brian still couldn’t move without incredible effort, and he could almost hear his insides grinding painfully. He’d fallen asleep, and that had done him some good, but Brian was not of the best opinion to his current state.
Thankfully, some nice people in white coats came to take him away.
As the white-coated technicians wheeled away a cage containing the injured raccoon, Ms. Curmon litened to Peter's explanation. He... no it couldn't be. Could it? At last, could it be? Wait--.
"I don't think so."
"Look, I know it sounds crazy--" Peter pleaded.
"Look, you. I'm not stupid, and this isn't a game. You take your stupid jokes, pranks, gags, and sadistic jokes right out this door and be glad I don't report this to your parents."
Ms. Curmon waited, watching Peter's reaction. Nothing happened. Hmm.
"This isn't a joke, Ms. Curmon," he said again. "All you have to do is come an' look..."
"A real unicorn you say?"
"As real as I am," Peter said evasively.
This could be it. This could be what she had been waiting for. Or it could be a prank. Best to keep cool... "For no reason other than my own morbid curiosity, I'd like to see what ridiculous scheme you've cooked up. I need the walk anyway. You know exactly where it is?"
"Yes, right next to the rocke-- in the Ramble."
"Let's go then."
The lab gurney shuddered and rocked on its loose third wheel. Balanced on the gurney was a makeshift cage, mostly old wire mesh and sideboard reinforcing. Within it a small raccoon on a blanket peered at his surroundings. Atop the blanket, Brian tried to keep his purchase while looking around nervously at the scene passing by him. There were rows and rows of grey doors lit overhead by dim green fluorescent lights which flickered pitifully in the almost-dark hallway. They passed over him one by one, each light tracing an illuminated stripe across the lab gurney as the technician rumbled it across the tiled linoleum floor. Brian could smell a multitude of animal scents, though he had no way of knowing what they meant. There--that one was like Dog, so it must be a rabbit. But what did the rest of them mean? Brian made a point to familiarize himself with the new smells, but first he had a broken rib to contend with.
Brian knew a broken rib about as much as he’d seen in movies. Sure he knew the treatment, the diagnosis. Any student in the medical profession learned about all the bones, and where they could break in general anatomy. But to actually experience it, out of a textbook, out of a lab. Heck, it was in his own body, regardless of how it had been transformed. Having one's chest crushed was one of those things Brian never wanted to experience.
Worst of all, it hurt! Heroes in movies with broken ribs get taped around the waist and stride off without a twinge, guns wailing. The actual experience was apparantly not as rewarding. Brian was afraid to move for fear of piercing something, and he wondered how the bone was ever going to grow back in right. Were they going to have to set it? Of course.... Brian cursed silently, trying not to anticipate the pain.
He could smell a general sense of pain and suffering in the scents around him, though the scent of anger and animosity was comparably absent. "I hope that means they care for their animals well here." Brian thought to himself. "Otherwise, I’m in big trouble."
The rickety lab gurney took him to a small room, with cracked walls and a tiny window. He looked nervously at the fur scattered on the floor. A thin man walked in, worrying at his latex gloves. He looked skittishly at Brian, and muttered to himself. “Don’t worry yourself. He can’t hurt you. Poor lil' guy. Oh jeez, why does this have to be the first?” His hands were shaking a bit as he loosened the latch on the handle of a cabinet above Brian.
Now Brian was not the most trusting of fellows, but he definitely knew how to behave himself. Rac didn’t trust the guy, but then again, Rac didn’t know what a veterinary office was. There was no reason to be nervous. “Just like a checkup, right? There’s nothing to be nervous about. Okay, maybe he’s going to touch you. But that’s just something you will have to put up with.”
Rac would have nothing to do with it. The little guy was getting scared. Brian whispered to him, even as a hidden growl started coming from Rac/his mouth. (Calm down. It's okay. We will be fine. I'm scared too, but we can't do this. We're not) (Animal!) Rac shouted. (No, no!) Brian pleaded, growling harder. (You are being bad, kit! Let mother clean your ears. The man is going to clean us, make us better. He's like mother.)
(Mother was human.) Rac said sullenly. Brian didn't exactly know how to respond. Then he had an idea. (The man there is human too. They help each other. Raccoons help each other. You, kit-brother, can't clean your ears. Chest is hurt! Let the nice man help us.) (Okay...) said Rac, fading back down. Brian stopped growling, looking up at the thin man. The man was trembling, afraid to make a move towards him. Only after a large amount of coaxing, and cooing, "(How humiliating)," Brian got the man comfortable enough to do the job.
“What are they doing, hiring newbies like that anyway? It doesn’t look like he even knows how to operate the animal scale. The poor guy probably only handled pets before. Cats and dogs. Heck, for all I know they got him off the streets yesterday.” Brian wanted to play the dumb raccoon, but he found himself almost walking the man through The Steps. He leaned against the scale until the man finally caught on that he’d forgotten to weigh Brian. He played with the wires of the MRIbox until the man noticed it was loose. The man looked at him sideways when he opened his mouth for the tongue depressor and downright stared when Brian handed him the stethoscope he’d dropped.
The man finally shook his head bemusedly. “Tame little feller, aren’t you,” he said somewhat shakily, closing up the cabinet. “Well, I’m sure the doc’ll fix you right up with bandages and stuff.” He turned for the door, speaking to himself again. “Wait till the doctor gets a load of this one. I didn’t even have to hold him.”
Brian watched him go silently. Brian hadn’t spoken once except to Peter and Janob. Why was that? Brian thought about it for a moment. He was scared stiff that Puck would come back to him, but he was also scared of his reception home. He had to tell someone, but Brian hated to think how they might parade him around like a freak, showing him off as the world’s only talking raccoon. The nightmare of being a celebrity never ends until the public tires of you. Then, Brian could only anticipate imprisonment, scientific testing, and worse. There is no one out there to look for protection anymore, so for now he concluded that it was probably best to not speak to anyone. Talking to Peter and Janob might have been a mistake, but then again they saw Bob, and they had shown themselves not to betray him.
“But, Brian.” he thought inwardly. “Where are you going to hide, if not in the public eye? If Puck comes for you now, there will only be the word of two young boys that you ever existed. You have to tell people about this, somehow. It’s just wrong to keep such an important secret from everybody. It makes Puck too powerful.
“How to do it, though? If only I could tell people about what I know with anonymity. There has got to be a way to warn people of Puck, figure out how he does his magic. Imagine the lives that could be saved. Imagine the lives that are instead ruined by their own ignorance. I don’t know. I don’t know. Puck shouldn’t be able to do what he does to people, and leave the rest of us defenseless and in the dark. I’ve got to tell everyone, but I can lose it all if people won’t listen.”
A voice came from the hallway as another man, the doctor, opened the door speaking as he walked in. “Mr. Joney? Are you still in here? I thought that you had finished with the pre-lim-in....” His voice trailed off as he realized Brian was the only one in the room. He took one long look at Brian, then turned his head to the ceiling.
“Cursed heating ducts. They carry voices all around this building. It gets so you never know who’s where.”
Brian almost wilted with relief. He hadn’t realized he had started speaking aloud!
“Now, let’s see if we can help our little friend here. Get him all fixed up.”
The man who was not Mr. Joney was certainly more competent. He held Brian in a restrictive manner that made Brian relax. Then he poked and prodded here and there, stopping whenever Brian gave a yelp of pain. He muttered something and wheeled the caged cart out of the room. Brian was x-rayed, then wrapped in a bandage around his waist. The strip of cloth was a bit tighty, but it cut the pain immensely, giving Brian some freedom of movement again. Brian found that he was getting sleepy again, and lay down on the fuzzy blanket in the gleaming cage trying to make himself comfortable.
Peter waited in the waiting room (go figure...) while Ms. Curmon went into her back office for a moment. A few minutes later, she strode quickly out from the door leading to her office, and the inner hospital. She nodded to her left as the security guard looked her way. "I have something to attend to across town. Hold the fort while I'm gone, right Joe?"
"Okay Ms. Curmon," the guard said in a practical tone of voice. "Should we expect you to return today?"
"Yes, this should only take a few hours."
She beckoned to Peter who stood up on the couch. "Come, we can catch the bus if we hurry."
The bus let off at a streetlight, with stacks of buildings on one side of the road and stands of trees, bushes on the other. Peter tried to ignore Ms. Curmon's attitude. She was so domineering, it was almost painful. And she never respected him! It wasn't like he'd done anything... much to earn her wrath. But he could almost feel a black cloud of enmity between him and Ms. Curmon, diluted only by Andrew who insisted on sitting in between them.
He was glad to get off the bus, meeting a rush of air that blew dust at him when he stepped off the last stair. Peter blinked, let his eyes clear. As he got his bearings, Andrew and Ms. Curmon stepped off the bus behind him. There was the volunteer landscaping project. That older kid David was still standing there, wiping the sweat off his forehead as he worked alongside the people he led to preserve the beauty of the park. To the left was the circle of park benches freqented by people and birds that fed them. This time it was an old man shelling out peanuts to some ground squirrels.
"Over there's the place," he pointed, between the old man and the working party. "There's a trail, kind of. After a while, you have to get bearings from the buildings off toward the horizon, but that's not too hard." He looked up at Ms. Curmon expectantly.
She sighed. "I guess you'll have to lead me there. If this is a scam, I'll have you..."
"I know, lady. There's no hoax," said Peter, irritated.
Peter went ahead. Ms. Curmon fumed for a while at being called 'lady' then allowed Andrew's eager tugging to lead her along into the brush.
Peter stalked forward, fuming at the underbrush. His leg was still sore from when he’d caught it on a root about 5 minutes back. He pushed aside the dense branches that seemed to reach before him, and caught his finger on a sharp climbing bramble.
“Agghh!” he hissed, sticking his finger in his mouth as the bent branch whipped back to swing in empty space.
"Are you okay?" Andrew asked, worriedly.
"I'm fine," Peter said. He thought to himself briefly, trying to remember how the bushes went. "I think... over there!" He ran off with Andrew close behind. A bit further back, Ms. Curmon shouted, "Peter! Slow down or I'll have to put you on a leash. Are we any closer or are you completely lost?!"
"It's just ahead, right over this log. The trail opens out a bit."
Peter looked into the distant brush. Janob had to be just right there. Or maybe he was a little further. He wondered briefly about Brian, back at the hospital. "I wonder what they'll do for him."
"Who?" Andrew asked.
"Alright," Ms. Curmon said. "Who is this Brian? Are there any more you haven't told me about?"
"Uh..." Peter said, stepping under another thorn covered branch. "No that's just what we were calling the raccoon we brought in."
"Peter, it might not be a good idea to get attached to that raccoon. They don't make legal pets here." Ms. Curmon said, hesitating a bit.
"I know," Peter said. "But he can take care of himself after you make him all better, right?"
Ms. Curmon sighed patronizingly. "Yes that's right Peter. After we make him all better..." She trailed off, frowning, then snapped her finger sharply, "Have you any idea where you're going?"
"Yeah it's just... somewhere around here. Aha!" Peter ran to the sock he'd tied up in a tree. "Left here. Then a bit further. Then you can really feast your eyes." After following his own directions, he vaulted a log, coming halfway into the clearing where Brian and Bob had first landed. Peter stopped dead, complete horror swallowing his gut as it fell through his shoes.
The clearing was empty.
Empty?! There was no unicorn, no weird rabbits, no extradimensional gate, no Janob. It had to be the same clearing! Peter looked down, saw the trampled grass, the impressions of things that lay there before. He looked back at the distant sock. This was the exact clearing, no mistaking it. And there was no way Janob could have left, much less moved that injured unicorn.
Andrew butted up behind him as he stumbled forward, looking around confusedly. Ms. Curmon watched with growing rage as Peter scrambled around, looking frantically for some sign.
"What...? Where?! I don't get it. Janob... Janob! Oh my god, this is so wrong. Where the heck are you Janob?!"
He got to the edge of the clearing, where the bushes had been knocked away. Deep gouges in the earth led in a paired trail through the torn underbrush. Janob was no where to be found.
"Peter!" she shouted at last. "You can stop playing a game now. I can't believe you went through all this trouble for a hoax!"
"B-but Ms. Curmon. Janob's gone. Something must have happened--"
"Yeah, gone as in 'At home laughing at Ms. Curmon' gone. You really have some nerve, you know that?"
"I don't know..."
"Listen, you little shyster. You have officially ruined my day. I am going to go back to my office, and I am going to reccommend to your parents a healthy asylum for you. You have got to learn to stop messing with good hard working people. You make me sick, you know that?"
"I don't know anything..."
"Aaggh," she growled, turning to stomp up over the log and back down the trail. "Ms. Curmon, wait!" Peter shouted, taking a step and then another frustrated step. But she wouldn't wait. Peter wanted to go after her, but he couldn't leave this scene. Janob was in trouble! And Bob was in trouble! And...
Peter was in some serious trouble.
A thump and a rumble led him awake. "What the... oh we're moving."
Brian stretched under his bandage, rolling over then starting awake again as the cart rumbled with motion. A nondescript man in a grey uniform was pushing his cart along.
"Well, looks like my hospital stay is gone and done. I guess my injuries weren't so bad after all."
He looked left and saw the door that lead to the reception area where Peter and Janob waited. The cart turned to the right. He saw the way out receding through the bars in his cage.
"Something wrong," Rac told him as the cart rolled further down the hall. The little raccoon whimpered wondering why they were going the wrong way.
"Tell me about it," Brian answered nervously. "Why are we going away? I thought I was out of here."
He pondered for a moment. "It must be an x-ray or something. They need to take me to another room to get pictures of my ribs." But the room with the X-ray radiation sign passed by as the way out fell further away.
"We should be going to the waiting room," Brian thought. Angrily he called out to the man pushing the cart. "Hey you punk! Turn this thing around! You hear me?"
Brian didn't start to panic until he got a good look at the blank despair in the man's eyes. The stare of an executionor...
End Chapter 2
[Okay, believe it or not this really is where I stopped. We're both dying to know what happens next. Hopefully enough for me to write chapter 3. TF's galore coming soon! ^.^
Copyright 2000, Starling. Please do not reprint without permission.
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