I woke to flute music. The soft notes fell over me, light and gentle, like how tears fall, or autumn leaves after a stiff breeze. The stag was gone. The sun was shining. I was covered in brown leaves. I had my jacket on and my hat and my hood up, but something had covered me in the night, made me a den like the animals use to keep warm. I was completely hidden. If someone had passed, they wouldn’t have seen. I laid in my warm cocoon and listened to the flute. I felt like I should have been colder. There was still a little snow in the nooks behind the trees. But the sun was so nice. It was getting higher in the sky these days. The tall trees were reaching for it. It seemed as if I could step up them and walk the earth.
I stood to stretch and that’s when I noticed the buds. They hadn’t been there the night before. Little green sprouts just poking from the tips of the branches. They swayed back and forth in the wind. The limbs of the trees knocked into each other and made a sound like wood blocks to accompany the notes of the flute. Like a symphony. Dad took me to a symphony once and I fell asleep there, too.
I turned toward the music and noticed a ring of mushrooms had sprouted around me in the night. Mushrooms do that. My dogs poop all over the yard and then some days I wake up and look out my window and see the white caps in the grass where they weren’t there before. In school we learned that mushrooms recycle dead stuff and make it like it’s new. Teacher said there’s even some that glow in the dark, but these were just the regular kind like we have in our yard. I stepped outside the ring and followed the sound of the flute.
Mr. A. Tranjay was in a clearing. He was sitting Indian-style on a turquoise blanket. He was just sitting in a wide depression in the hollow. By himself. Playing the flute. I think it was the same one he’d been carving.
When he was done, a breeze blew again and the tree branches knocked into each other more. Almost like applause.
I walked over to him. He didn’t seem surprised to see me.
“Where have you been hiding?”
“Everyone is out looking for you.”
I nodded. I shivered. It seemed much colder then. Away from my den.
“Your father is very worried.” He moved to the side and pulled the blanket from underneath him and handed it to me.
It was warm. I think that’s why he’d been sitting on it. And it smelled like campfire and spices. I wrapped it around myself and sat down next to him.
“But where they are looking, they will not find you.”
I thought that was funny since the hollow wasn’t that big. Not for adults. Although, I didn’t recognize where we were. I thought I knew everywhere in the hollow, but this place was new.
“Are you ready to go back?” he asked.
I thought for a moment. My dad would yell. I shook my head.
Mr. A. Tranjay nodded. He lifted the flute to his lips and started to play again. It was a different song this time. It sounded like tears falling into a gurgling stream. The notes warbled and spun and then stopped. Mr. A. Tranjay started coughing. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth.
“That’s nice,” I said.
“What does it mean?”
He looked at me curiously. “What makes you think it means anything?”
He extended the flute to me. It was covered in intricate carvings. And it was a strange color, like a brownish-white ash. A small gold tassel dangled from the top.
I looked at it.
I took it and raised the end to my lips. “Is it okay?”
“Please.” He motioned to the air with a tattooed palm.
His hands were shaking. More than before. I think there were more symbols missing now. Like they were disappearing from his skin. Or he was sending them away. He was so skinny. Not just his body but his face, too. Like Wilson when I found him. I think he had stopped eating.
I pressed my lips gently to the flute. The wood felt soft. It wasn’t at all like the plastic tubes I had to play in music class. I didn’t have to push to make sounds. All I had to do was breathe and move my fingers up and down the holes. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But it was fun.
I stopped when I heard drops hit the leaves with a pit-pit-patter. I looked up at clouds rolling overhead. Just before it had been sunny.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. A. Tranjay said. “It will pass.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you didn’t finish the song.”
I looked up at the sky, at the island clouds moving by, and then back to the strange chef. “I did that?”
“Why are you sad?”
I was surprised by the question. “I’m not sad.”
“You played a very sad song.”
“So did you.”
The chef made a face like he’d been caught in a lie. “So it would seem.”
“Did someone die? Is that why you came here?”
“You are a very inquisitive boy.” He held out his hand.
I gave the flute back. He pressed it softly to his lips and moved it back and forth a little, like feet settling into a warm bed. Then he finished the song from before. When it was done, he looked at the flute before resting it in his lap.
“I suppose I am sad,” he said. He turned to me. “If I tell you why I am sad, will you tell me why you are sad?”
I looked up and thought. “I can’t,” I said.
“I promised I wouldn’t say.”
He nodded and slipped the flute into a carved leather slip-pouch. “You know, if you don’t tell me where it’s hiding, I can’t help you.”
I looked down. I knew he meant my secret.
“But then,” he added. “I’m not sure I could be much help anymore.”
I wanted to pretend like I didn’t know what he was talking about, like adults do. Everybody knows they’re lying, but they do it just good enough. I thought maybe I should practice.
“What do you mean?”
“What were you feeding it? Your nightmares?”
I didn’t know what to say. I think we were quiet for a long time. “I dunno.”
“It is very dangerous.” He looked at me.
I pushed the leaves on the ground with my shoe.
“But then I think you know that.”
“Come. Your father is worried.” He stood very slowly. His legs wobbled once. I had to help him.
“Are you sick?”
I held on to his hand while we walked. I don’t know if that was because he wanted to or I wanted to. Maybe we both did.
He said he wasn’t sick.
“Then how come you’re not getting better?”
He was silent for a few steps. The leaves crunched softly under our feet. I saw fireflies. They popped in and out and seemed to be following us.
Mr. A. Tranjay asked me if I had ever lost a balloon, and I said yes, I had. Last year my mom had taken me to the big fair they have in the fall and I had a balloon that looked like a poodle and I had lost it. I didn’t tell him the real reason. I had given my balloon to a girl who wanted it very bad. But she didn’t say. I could just tell. And it didn’t look like her parents had enough money to get her one. I think they were from a different country. So I gave her mine while my mom was getting us funnel cakes. Mom wasn’t very happy with me. She said it was irresponsible to lose it and I was old enough to know better and I had to eat my funnel cake and then we would go. I miss my mom.
Mr. A. Tranjay said a soul was like a balloon. Most of the time—which was all of the time for people like me—it was a bad idea to cut it open. But, he said, there were some people who had special knowledge, and they knew it wasn’t the cutting so much as the when and the where. That’s what he said. The when and the where. I liked that.
Then he asked me what would happen if you cut a balloon before it was full.
I said when the man at the carnival had made a mistake with one of the balloons and it had made an awful noise and flapped around and fell to the ground flat. I thought it was a waste. It had been very pretty, like a big, colorful flower.
He said yes, it would be a terrible waste. Then he asked what would happen if you cut a balloon while it was full. I said it would pop and kicked a rock on the path. I don’t remember there being a path in the hollow. We had been walking for a while. Longer than we should have if we were just going across. It seemed like maybe we had been somewhere else. Maybe the stag had taken me somewhere. To be safe. Maybe that was why no one found me. Except Mr. A. Tranjay.
Then he asked what would happen if, instead of cutting the balloon, you just cut the string.
I said I’d be sad because the balloon would fly away.
“But you weren’t sad before you had the balloon. So the happiness or sadness is not in the balloon, is it?”
“I guess not,” I said.
We passed a cluster of fireflies, which seemed like they stopped at the border of two big old trees. I didn’t remember there being trees that big in the hollow. We walked between them and left the fireflies behind.
Mr. A. Tranjay said we’re all like the flat balloons at the carnival: bright and colorful but empty until someone fills them up and ties them with a string. He said that we spend our lives tying more and more things onto the end so that eventually the balloon is so heavy it can’t get off the ground, and some pop. He said he’d been very busy lately cutting all his strings, although some had been cut for him, and he wasn’t very pleased about that. But he said he’d done such a good job that there was only one left—that very first string—and when that was cut, he would float off into the air, only I don’t think he meant actual air. I think he meant something else.
That’s when I heard my dad.
He came running around the fence that ran along the hollow near Newcombe Street. He was in his long, dark coat, like what he wore to Grandpa’s funeral, and a red scarf. He had a cup of coffee in his hand and he threw it down to hug me.
I smiled. It was a good hug.
“Here he is,” Mr. A. Tranjay said. “None the worse for wear.”
“Thank God. Are you okay? Where have you been? We were so worried.”
There were some other people around. Adults mostly. I recognized a couple of them. I think they were our neighbors. One of them was Trevor’s dad. They were out looking for me. They smiled and shook my dad’s hand as we walked home. It seemed like maybe it was a big deal. My dad held on to me the whole way. It was a strong grip. I could tell he was mad. He was happy I was back, but he was mad, too.
Pringles was waiting at home. She had come back before me. And after I said hi to her and Wilson and Betsy and Speedy, Dad and I sat at the kitchen table and he made soup and told me there was a bad man on the loose, and that everyone thought he had taken me. My dad looked really tired. He looked like he’d run all the way to our old house and back. He said that just down the street someone had attacked a little girl, and that a few days before I went missing, some kids a couple streets over said something was chasing them.
“Was it like a bunch of spiders all together in a big bunch?”
My dad looked at me funny. Then he told me I couldn’t go into the hollow by myself for a while. Or anywhere. Even the library. Until they caught the bad man. He asked me if I understood, and I said yes. Then he said he was going to start locking the doors with a key.
“But how will I let Wilson and Pringles out to pee?”
“That will be my job. You just feed them in the evenings, and I’ll do the rest.”
I didn’t think that was fair. They were my pets. Dad was just doing it because he was worried. But he was worried about the wrong thing. Then he said something funny.
“You don’t have to go to school tomorrow.”
But it was the weekend. Tomorrow was supposed to be Sunday, but Dad said tomorrow was Tuesday and I could stay home for as long as I wanted and play video games. I didn’t think that was right. That it went from Saturday right to Tuesday.
When it was bedtime, Sudoku came and laid on my covers. She was an old dog and mostly slept downstairs. But I had been missing so she came to check on me. I petted her. She’s brown and white. I was in my red Phillies pajamas.
“Yes?” He stopped in the doorway on his way downstairs. He told me I had to leave it open now. All the time. He hugged me a lot.
“If I tell you something, will you promise not to be mad?”
I waited for a moment. Once I told him, there would be no going back.
“There was something in the garage. Before. I don’t know what it is, but it was hurting Emerald. I had it there and it got out. I’ve been looking for it. It came here, and I chased it into the hollow. Then I got scared and fell asleep.” I didn’t want to mention the stag again.
I saw my dad’s face. He looked so hurt. And disappointed. And angry. Like he was trying to keep from yelling at me. But mostly he looked hurt and sad, like he didn’t know what else to do. With me. Like maybe I wasn’t a good boy anymore. Maybe I was a bad kid.
Maybe I wasn’t a very good son.
“I know you said I couldn’t bring any more strays home, and that Betsy and Ribbon and Pringles and Wilson and Sudoku were enough, but this wasn’t a stray. It’s something else. I didn’t want it to hurt any—”
His voice. I could tell. I could hear it. The way he said my name. I felt tears. He was so disappointed in me. My dad. He was so hurt and disappointed. Because of me. Because of everything I’d done. I was bad. My eyes got blurry.
“Let’s just talk in the morning, son. Okay?”
My lip was shaking. I swallowed. I nodded. My dad was so disappointed with me. “I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“It’s okay, son. Let’s just talk in the morning. Get some sleep.”
I nodded. He didn’t wait for me to lay down and pull the covers over me like he usually did. He just walked away. He turned the hall light off and closed his bedroom door. He never did that. Not since I started having the nightmares.
I got up and tiptoed down the hall. I leaned close to the door. I thought maybe he was crying. I’d heard him once, after he found out about Mom. He cried a long time. I did, too.
But he wasn’t crying. He was talking on the phone. He was talking to a doctor. I could tell. Because of the words he was using. Big words. He was talking about taking me somewhere. To a hospital, maybe. He said the nightmares had stopped suddenly, but now I was seeing things and drawing horrible pictures of giant insects devouring children. And I had run away for two days and told him I was chasing ghosts. He said it seemed like my condition was getting worse, and he didn’t know what else to do. He was starting to feel like he couldn’t keep me safe and that was a terrible feeling and he just wanted some help.
“For how long?” he asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, maybe that would be best.”
I didn’t want to go away from my dad. I didn’t want to be in a strange hospital with people I didn’t know. I didn’t want to get taken away again. I wanted to find my secret and stop it before it hurt anyone else. I wanted my mom to come back and for everything to be like it was. Before “the incident.”
My dad said goodbye to whoever was on the phone and I crept back to my room.
I couldn’t go to a hospital. I had seen what my secret did to Emerald. And the girl in the pink dress. It came back to the house because it was hungry. But it couldn’t get in. It couldn’t get to me. Something had stopped it. So it would find another kid. Maybe soon. Then it would find another. And another.
I had to stop it.
But I didn’t know how.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: What’s the trick?