Frankie looked her dog in the eyes, eyes the same deep sienna brown as her own, and said, “Okay Audrey, today we will find complete happiness in the solitude of nature.” She tied back her long sandy blond hair.
Audrey whined and stood up as her harness was fastened under her belly, the tail that curled over her back wagged like mad, wiggling her butt along with it. For a moment she forgot her manners and leapt straight up on legs like springs- like Tigger- until her eyes were level with Frankie’s.
The dog said, ‘oh boy oh boy oh boy.’
“Okay, okay…let’s go.”
Audrey was the size of a golden retriever, but with glossy black fur with white patches on her nose, chest, and all four paws. She had large, pointed ears like a deer, and it seemed she had too many teeth, an upper canine and a lower one never quite fit inside her mouth. She was an odd-looking dog; in the shelter it had been love at first sight.
Frankie’s thighs burned as she followed Audrey up a very steep dirt path. She looked up, breathing heavily, to gauge how much farther it was to the fallen stump at the top.
Audrey bounded back to her, stopping to acknowledge a chittering squirrel six feet over them in a pine tree. As she neared the tree, the squirrel said, ‘be careful, it’s a fast one!’ It scampered higher into the green boughs.
Then a jay screeched to get her attention, it said, ‘over to the left!’
Both dog and woman stepped left into the ferns just in time!
From over the fallen log at the top of the hill, came a kid on a BMX bike. He caught air, his long blond hair flagging wildly behind from under a turned around ball cap, a maniacal grin on his face. He thumped down to the path three feet from Frankie’s feet. He had some sort of GoPro on his head though he wore no helmet.
Frankie said, “Hey! Hey, you nearly hit us!”
The wild boy didn’t stop, he was soon out of sight.
It had been increasingly difficult to find good trails. Closer to the city, there were too many people, many of whom were uptight about off-leash dogs, and most paths were kid and even stroller friendly. Ugh. Some of the most challenging didn’t even allow dogs, but instead catered to the mountain bike crowd.
They’d hiked the day before, through an immense nature reserve with miles of decent trails and challenging climbs, only to come upon a city of homeless people in dirty tents and tarps and mountains of trash. When she came across grungy hypodermic needles and human waste in the center of the path, she’d vowed angrily not to return. The display of selfish entitlement these crazy, drug-addled people displayed depressed her. They had turned something beautiful into a cesspool. She wept all the way home.
A week ago, they’d thought they’d found a secluded forest with grown-over forgotten trails miles into a redwood forest housing the tallest trees they’d ever seen. Then they’d smelled smoke. Frankie had been alarmed at first, fearing the worst, until she came upon a large man, hairy as Sasquatch, with crazy oozing out his pores. He’d been living in a hut made of pallets and branches. He’d come towards her drooling and making strange ‘mmm-ing’ noises until Audrey scared him away.
Whether real or imagined, the smell of his cook-fire smoke brought back flashes of long ago when she’d been just five:
She’d thought she’d been a happy child. She’d loved her parents though she couldn’t recall their faces, and an older brother who she had adored because even though he’d been ten years older, he’d played with her and taken her to the park and on long hikes through the woods by their home.
He said he could talk to the animals and birds, and she had laughed. She had no memories of her parents taking her anywhere fun, she supposed she blocked them out for being too painful. She remembered a church, a big gothic thing, terrifying and NOT fun.
One day, deep in the woods, her and Brian had come across an injured squirrel. She’d watched in fascination as her brother picked it up gently and talked to it soothingly… and listened to it. In her head, she had thought she heard a high-pitched whisper, ‘Bobcat. Family gone…it hurts, please help me.’
After Brian had placed the squirrel in his backpack and told Frankie they had to hurry back now, she’d timidly said, “B-Brian. I heard it too.”
Brian hugged her and said, “The desperate have a louder voice. I knew you’d be able to hear them too…”
“So, you believe me?”
“I’ve been waiting for this. Now please, do not tell anyone. Okay?”
“They will punish you.”
Brian had been blamed for the fire. Who else could it have been? He’d been fifteen, and you know how disobedient and conniving teenagers are. Probably been smoking cigarettes out his window, flicking the embers into the dry grass. Both her parents had perished, and it was assumed Brian was dead too, though his body was never recovered. Half the house had slid into the river when the retaining wall gave way, his bedroom had been in the basement, his body most likely swept away by the eddying waters. Frankie had nightmares to this day, of leaping from the attic window, smoke billowing hot against her back, into the net of the firefighters.
Frankie and Audrey stood at the top of the hill and admired the green panoramic scene. The sky above was still overcast, just the way she liked it. It was four o’clock. She was disturbed by BMX Kid. His behavior was unnervingly reckless, but even more so, she was again dismayed to have discovered yet another awesome hiking path only to find inconsiderate humans used it too. She sighed unhappily.
‘I know. But I still like this one. Maybe he’ll be the only one today.’
She rubbed Audrey’s silky soft head. “Oh Audrey, ever the optimist.”
‘There’s a fox down there.’
Frankie looked down as a leafy branch quivered over a patch of orange fur.
They made their way down the hill, the fox peeked it’s pretty, pointy-nosed face out from the dense shrub and said, ‘Beware, another one comes this way. Eek!’ It slunk out of sight like molten lava.
“What? What other one?”
Audrey said, ‘Always so cryptic, them foxes, just like catssss.’ She looked as if she’d bitten into a lemon.
Frankie laughed. Then heard a branch snap…close behind them. Audrey’s fur was tufted along her hackles, her ears pointed forward, and a low growl purred from her throat like a Harley’s motor idling.
The shrubs along the left of the path, twenty feet ahead, shivered. A tubby little creature popped out, rolled to a stop, and sprung to its feet. At first, Frankie thought it was a tubby racoon, grey furred and barrel-shaped. Then she thought it was a small fat child wrapped in a fur coat.
‘What is it?’
The thing had the face of a child, with a mop of shoulder length hair the same shade as its coat. Its ears were pink like its face, but longer, elfin-like. From the bottom of its tubby body were two skinny legs with five-toed black feet. It carried a spear, its wickedly pointy head glinted silver, reflecting the overcast sky. It also wore the same sort of GoPro BMX Kid had been wearing. It was a curved silver rectangle on a pole that appeared to be embedded in the thing’s head; it rotated slowly left to right, left to right. Frankie thought of the satellite dish her neighbors had had on their roof, she had been jealous that they had television.
The thing thumped the dirt with the butt of its spear and shrieked like a banshee. “SCREEEE!” Every hair on Frankie’s body stood up, much like Audrey’s.
“Hey now, Cutie, we’ll just be going…C’mon Aud, let’s go back.”
Audrey placed herself in front of Frankie, growl still idling. Frankie started backing away.
“SCRRREEEEEEEEE!” ‘Thud!’ It jumped high into the air! It landed behind Frankie and smiled, revealing a too-wide mouth full of pointy little teeth.
Frankie ran. “Come on!”
Audrey held her ground a few seconds longer, giving Frankie time to get away, then she ran too. Raccoon Boy did not follow.
The rutted path they followed narrowed, Frankie stumbled twice, Audrey stopped every fifty feet or so to look behind them. She said, ‘keep going. I’m right behind you.’
As a gloomy twilight approached, they stopped in a small clearing and looked behind them. A branch snapped in the growing gloom in the woods, shadows melded together.
As they watched, a tall, thin, dark figure emerged from between two trees. It had four long thin legs, each ending in a point like a spider’s delicate foot, and a humanoid body, stretched. Its head was triangular, with large round eyes, it looked like a praying mantis but had two thin long arms ending in human hands. The satellite thingy on its head glinted in the ink-blue atmosphere, as it rotated left to right.
They leapt through a dense hedge of hemlock and came upon a cabin in a clearing hidden there. It looked deserted. “Audrey?”
‘Raccoon Boy’s scent lingers here.’
“This can’t possibly be its home.”
Audrey tried the door. Unlocked. They dove inside, saw that there were three locks and a thick metal bar that fit into brackets across it. They looked out the window by the door.
Mantis Man sat across the clearing with both sets of legs crossed. Its enormous dark eyes blinked at them.
Frankie said, “Look. It’s BMX Kid.” He was sitting to the left, across the clearing, his bike on its side next to him.
Audrey said, ‘Racoon Boy.’ The thing’s coat gleamed silver in the black night, it was a three-foot pom- pom with a head.
Frankie tried the light switches by the door. Amazingly, they worked. Though the inside lighting was soft as candlelight, she switched it off. She left the porchlight on, to light up the clearing. Mantis Man turned out to be green. They sat by the window all night.
As she stared, she tried to communicate with the creatures. She didn’t understand why Mantis and Raccoon did not answer her enquiries. All of nature’s fabulous minds were eager to communicate with her. She even tried BMX Kid though she was loathe to do so, human minds often left her sickened, she’d turned off that ability in herself long ago, like flicking a toggle switch- off. But even from him, nothing. Just a deadness, cold as outer space.
At last, dawn came with the flourish she loved. It meant hike time, nature time. Peace and quiet and communion with the forest dwellers.
This morning, however, only brought more terror. The three were out there, watching. Raccoon Boy grinned his toothy grin. BMX Kid gave her the Hawaiian ‘hang loose’ hand sign.
A squirrel hopped onto the flowerbox on the windowsill, between the bright red geraniums blooming there, inches from Frankie’s face on the inside. Frankie screamed.
‘Just a squirrel.’
The squirrel tapped on the window and pointed at the inside latch.
‘It wants you to open the---’
“Window, got it.” She hesitated.
‘It’s just a squirrel. No evil bones in their bodies…’
“Oh, fuck it.” She unlatched the window lock and lifted the pane four inches. The wee squirrel ducked inside. Frankie slammed the window down, wincing. The three sentinels sat placidly watching.
She said, “What’s going on? You know this place?”
The squirrel said, ‘You’re safe here.’
Dog and woman sighed with relief. Like all woodland creatures, squirrels never lied. (Though Raccoons tended to exaggerate, and foxes tended to be sneaky.)
The squirrel said, ‘Come.’ She raced across the cabin to the kitchen nook. Frankie had little time to look around, but what she saw she liked. The cabin was clean and furnished with hand-crafted rustic furniture. A small tv sat on a low bookshelf filled with old classics.
They followed the squirrel.
The kitchen was an immaculate 1950’s reproduction in red and white, with modern amenities fitting in. The squirrel led them through a pantry door, they followed. At the far end, was a solid wooden wall. At the bottom was a small strip of wood that stuck out a half an inch. The squirrel pointed to it, excitedly hopping up and down. ‘There there!’
Frankie bent and pushed against it.
The floor of the pantry started sinking.
Frankie was about to panic but saw the squirrel was smiling and clapping her hands with joy.
As the pantry went down half a story, the squirrel climbed swiftly out the opening and said, ‘See-ya later!’
Frankie realized with amusement that faint music was being piped in through invisible speakers. It was her favorite band, one her brother used to listen to: Pink Floyd, the song was Shine on You Crazy Diamond. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland.”
Audrey said, ‘I wonder where the Mad Hatter is?’
“Ha ha.” She jumped as the elevator stopped.
The wall slid open. They stepped into a hallway lined with caramel-colored tiles softly lit by brass wall sconces. The wall at the other end slid open as she approached it.
Frankie gaped in wonder, jaw hanging open like a funhouse clown's, as she took in the immense space. It was the most beautiful library ever. Three of the twenty-foot walls were lined with shelves of books, a wheeled ladder reached the top. There was a propane fireplace with fake logs, a vast mahogany coffee table with carved cat’s feet legs, a settee, and three deep armchairs upholstered in deep-jewel-colored hues. Six end tables shaped like bears held tiffany lamps. The rugs were thick red wool.
As she walked past the bookshelves, she noticed that all the countless figurines on the shelves and tables were robots or monsters of some kind. Some she recognized from tv shows and movies…Godzilla, R2-D2, Wolverine, the Iron Giant, the Alien…Mantis Man- the sentinel outside.
The third wall where the fireplace sat, also housed a door. It opened and a man in a white lab coat walked in. He was tall, with a high forehead, his long, tied-back hair the same dirty blond as hers though his was greying at the temples. He had leather gloves on his long-fingered hands. He removed his reading glasses and blinked at her with eyes the same dark shade as hers, then he smiled and said, “Franchetta, hello, and welcome.”
She backed away, her mouth snapped shut like a trap.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m Brian. Your Brian.”
Frankie’s veins filled with ice-water, her legs turned to oatmeal, she caught the edge of the coffee table before she hit the ground and plopped onto a cushy ottoman. “No. Dead. The fire.” Audrey hopped up next to her.
Brian went to a bar tucked in the corner opposite the fireplace and poured them each four fingers of an amber elixir. He came towards her, and she shied away, eyes round as ping pong balls.
He halted a second, then sat opposite her, pushing the crystal glass on a coaster towards her. “Remy Martin.” He sipped his and put it down.
“You killed them. An accident, but…” Her hands shook in her lap.
“It was not I…uh…do you still go by Frankie?”
Audrey said, ‘He’s the Mad Hatter!’
Brian laughed then said to the dog, “More like Mad Scientist.”
Frankie said, “It really is you.” She swallowed half the cognac.
“You don’t remember our parents at all do you?”
“I was happy…?”
“No. Neither of us was happy. Mother found out about us. You kept your promise, but Father caught you talking to that deer that used to come around.”
“Yes. Mother blamed our Father, said his seed was cursed, that we were Satan’s spawn…”
“That awful black church…”
“She dragged us there. That dark priest was as insane as she was. He told her the only way to save our souls was with fire.”
“I tried to save you.” He removed his gloves, his hands were made of metal. “I saw you jump. When the house collapsed, I was thrown into the river, unconscious. I woke entangled in a fall of branches, a beaver’s dam, far from home. The beaver showed me where humans lived, and I was taken in at a hospital. Then sent to a specialist in prosthetics. It was there I studied with a wonderfully brilliant doctor, a scientist. You would have loved him, he taught me much and helped build this place…” He pulled out a smart phone and tapped it a few seconds.
“Ha! Not quite…” The elevator door opened, and the three sentinels came in. Audrey yipped.
As one, they raised a hand and waved ‘hello.’
Mantis Man said, “Gru-gruuuu wimi-si…aaaahhh.”
Brian said, “He says he’s sorry he scared you…and welcome. I’m working on fixing his voice, his name’s Maury by the way…”
“These creatures, the sentinels…you made them. That’s why I couldn’t talk with them, they aren’t alive.”
Raccoon Boy said, “SCRA! Ganorf!”
Brian said, “Spooky! Be real.” To his sister he said, “he’s in denial. I’m fixing his voice as well.”
Audrey said, ‘It was Sameel, the crow. That found us. Sameel was the spy.’
Brian said, “smart pup…yes, Sameel found you for me and grew increasingly concerned for Frankie. So, I built the cabin for you…and my sister.”
Audrey said to Frankie, ‘Can we stay? Please oh please?’ The goofy dog leapt up and down, tail and butt wagging…
Frankie went to her brother and hugged him. “Thank you. You’ve saved my life.”
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MC- Yes, this is what I love to read. I'm a super fan of Koontz, King, Crouch, McGammon...all my stories are fantasy, horror...some sci-fi...I'm working on graphic novels. I just love a new challenge as far as new perspectives- I think you'll love the dragon one! I believe a story needs to capture you from the first 5 pages. I follow the basic rule: protagonist has an issue and/or problem, story has exciting twist and/or climax, and then how it ends...mua ha ha ha! My sister who is very smart and a decent writer, told me a couple years ago...
I will have to read some of your other works to see if this is the type of writing you do. There is fantasy and adventure here. Makes for a good story when told right. Tough to manage the internal thoughts at the same time as dialogue, but then you have other voices. Tough job. Thanks.