Authors: Daniel H. Wilson
Daniel H. Wilson
1. Mek Mound
2. The Odd Woods
6. Grassy Glade
[Once Upon a Time â¦]
â¦ there was a boy named Code Lightfall who was very, very shy.
No matter what the situation, Code found that the safest course of action was usually to take no action at all. Instead, he preferred to simply imagine all of the possible outcomesâright up until one of them happened.
It didn't help that his name was, well, weird. When Code asked his parents where it came from, they would only say that it was special. Code's name had been passed down through the Lightfall family for generations, but it sure hadn't made it any easier to make friends. The problem was that the name Code rhymed with too many regrettable words, such as toad, load, and Ã la mode. Since Code was skinny and bashful and had a funny name, he had learned that it was better to stay away from other kids, especially the bigger ones. Over the years, he had become an expert at keeping his head down and his mouth shut.
On this particular day, Code was sitting alone in his typical spot in the front row of the school bus. He pushed his unruly black hair away from his eyes and stared out the open window. The air outside was muggy and heavy. Heat lightning flickered silently inside bruised clouds, but no rain fell. All around him, the other kids were talking and joking and jumping around in the seats. With every deep rumble of thunder, they squealed and laughed. But Code was quiet, as usual.
This was the last field trip on the last day of sixth grade.
A minute later, the bus skidded to a stop in a dusty parking lot. The instant the bus door wheezed open, Code ducked down the steps and out.
There weren't many places to go on field trips where Code was from, and he had been to this one many timesâMek Mound. Code was standing at the foot of a hilly pyramid that rose majestically from the Great Plains of eastern Oklahoma. Code had read that the mounds were built thousands of years before the Egyptian pyramids and had once been covered with temples and fortresses. But those were all gone. Now Code saw only centuries-old oak trees and waving grass. Mek Mound looked like an emerald green mountain plopped down in the flat middle of nowhere.
Up until last summer, the mounds had been Code's favorite place in the world because he used to visit them with his grandfather. John Lightfall was a quiet Cherokee man who often had a sly smile on his faceâas if he knew the punch line to the world's greatest joke. The two of them would walk the mound together, not talking much, just exploring. The place didn't attract many visitors, but Code always felt as if he were being watched. His grandfather used to say that Code was feeling the spirits of their ancestors, lingering on in this ancient place.
And then one day last year, John Lightfall visited Mek Mound alone and never came back. The police looked into his disappearance, but they never discovered a thing. John Lightfall was here and then he was just gone.
Now far-off thunder grumbled and a warm breeze pushed Code's hair into his eyes.
A colorful confusion of students piled out of the bus behind him, carrying backpacks and lunch boxes.
“A big pile of dirt. How
,” said Tyler, narrowing his catlike eyes as he shoved Code out of the way.
From the corner of his eye, Code saw Hazel emerge from the bus. She was lanky and had chewed fingernails and the sun always seemed to be in her hair. Once during recess he had watched her catch a bee in her hands and then let it go. He remembered being impressed that she wasn't even a little bit afraid of getting stung. Even though they'd been in school together since kindergarten, the two had never been able to look at each other; their eyes always seemed to slide away like butter on a hot pan. Today was no different.
Finally, the teacher, Mr. Mefford, hopped out of the bus. He looked warily at the billowing clouds, then addressed the class.
“Mound builders,” said Mr. Mefford, “are the ancestors of modern-day Native Americans. There are thousands of these mounds spread all over North America, from New York to Oklahoma. Nobody knows exactly what their purpose was, but Mek Mound is one of the biggest. Now, I want everyone to visit each part of the mound, read the plaques, and fill out your worksheets. We'll meet back here for lunch, and afterward there
be a quiz.”
The students groaned.
Code glanced down at his worksheet. He had already doodled on it. Most of the page was taken up by a drawing of a hulking robot with long, cranelike arms, cannons for fingers, and a big smile on its face. Underneath he had written, “Atomic Slaughterbot.”
“Ooh, robots!” Tyler laughed, trying to snatch the drawing.
Code stuffed it into his pocket, then turned and walked away toward the mound.
“That's what I thought,” said Tyler. “Code the toad. Always hopping away. Here, let me help.”
Code felt a push from behind and fell to his knees in the dirt.
Code looked up to see Hazel watching. She had been talking to a friend and now stood looking at him, a little frown on her face. Not knowing what else to do, Code got to his feet and hurried up the steep face of the mound. He kept his eyes on the ground and didn't look back.
Why bother fighting? It was easier to do nothing. If he could blend in and disappear maybe the bullies would forget he even existed.
But these worries evaporated as Code began to explore the mound. Under the churning, greenish sky, the colors seemed more vivid and Mek Mound felt alive. Code knew that somewhere deep inside, entwined with gnarled roots, were the bones of nameless kings from ages pastâthe once powerful rulers of a civilization that had disappeared. And when the prehistoric builders who created Mek Mound had gone, this sacred place had waited, weathering thousands of years of neglect and emptiness as nature tried to reclaim it.
But nature had failed.
Mek Mound was still here after all this time.
My ancestors built these mounds
, thought Code.
Code's grandfather had tried his hardest to find out. John Lightfall had been an anthropologist and spent his entire life studying the mounds. The spry old man had a special knack for spotting hidden possibilities. He used to sit and muse out loud, starting every sentence with the words “What if?” Code smiled, remembering how his grandfather's wise face would wrinkle up in deep thought as he turned an old arrowhead over and over in his rough hands.
After his grandfather's disappearance, Code had tried to stay hopeful. Investigators found his grandfather's car parked at the mound and his satchel near an old oak tree. But as the days and weeks passed and the investigators found no new clues, Code began to lose hope. He chose to stay in his room, reading. His father would shake his head and say, “Get your nose out of that book.” His mother would put her hands on her hips and ask, “Why don't you go out and try to make some friends?” Only one person had ever seemed to understand Code, and
had gone missing while exploring this place.
Grandpa knew this mound as well as he knew my face
, thought Code as he looked around at the waving grass. He couldn't have gotten lost. Code's grandfather had often said that the mound-builder civilization was more advanced than modern people thought.
What if my grandpa wasn't kidnapped, or had an accident, or something so
What if his disappearance has to do with the mounds?
Code began to feverishly speculate.
Could the mounds be linked together? What if my grandpa stood here and was teleported to another mound on the other side of the world? Or what if it's space travel? This could be some kind of launchpad.
Code watched the heavens, imagining a spacecraft levitating there.
Or maybe this mound
just a big pile of dirt
, thought Code.
After a few seconds, fat raindrops began to fall from the sky. A gentle whoosh of warm wind swept over the mound as the clouds finally released their pent-up cargo. Code heard the other kids whooping and laughing in the sudden downpour. But Code stood still. Something was wrong. He inhaled the smell of wet pavement and grass and kept watching the sky. Strangely, the drops of rain around him seemed to be rising
instead of falling down. Code held out his palm. It remained dry.
This can't be happening
, thought Code.
Then, as quickly as it had started, the rain shower stopped. Code looked in wonder at the dry grass. Above, the seething clouds flickered with lightning: red, yellow, green, and blue. Distantly, he could hear Mr. Mefford calling everyone back to the bus. Then a sudden deafening crack of thunder tore across the mound. Code flinched and covered his ears, and did a double take as something caught his eye.
A dark speck. It zoomed across the sky, made a wide, wobbly loop, then swooped down toward the mound. It sped closer and closer, then blew past Code's face, inches away. Code blinkedâand it was gone.
This is crazy
, thought Code.
Am I dreaming?
Just then, Code heard a soft sound:
Something had landed on a nearby tree limb. It looked like a hummingbird and seemed to be cleaning itself. But it wasn't a bird â¦ It was smaller and metal. And it was
. Code looked around for somebody else, anybody, so he could point it out. Some of his classmates were trudging down the hill toward the bus, through the trees. But before he could call out, the speck zipped off once again.
Code caught sight of it farther down the hill, hovering in front of Hazel. She was reading a plaque and didn't seem to notice it at all, not even when it shot a quick burst of green light at her face.
It was definitely
a bird. Birds weren't made of metal and they didn't shoot beams of light. This thing was unlike any creature Code had ever seen or read about.
And it didn't stop with Hazel; it flitted from student to student, shooting flashes at everyone.
, it said.
The flash didn't seem to do anything, and just like Hazel, none of the other kids noticed it.
And now the speck was coming toward him. Realizing that he was going to be next, Code held his backpack in front of his face.
And â¦ nothing.
Code lowered the backpack, just enough to take one small peek.
The light hit Code directly between the eyes and he quickly slapped a hand to his forehead. But the beam didn't hurt. In fact, it kind of tickled. The speck peeped again and accelerated in a wavering, chaotic route until it settled directly onto Code's arm. Its nubby feet felt cool, and they dimpled his skinâthe small creature was heavier than it looked.
It peeped twice, flexed its wings, then rose to hover directly in front of Code's face.
Cross-eyed and trying to focus, Code inspected the intricate little device: it
metallic, with a set of blurred wings and tiny, swiveling camera eyes. It glowed a curious green. When Code reached for it, the tiny creature easily dodged away.
It was like some kind of mechanical bumblebee.
Every time Code blinked, he had to search for the speck again. But then something else began to happen. Code's vision slid out of focus and everything became muddled. He shut his eyes for a second, hoping to regroup. Instead, he saw cascading waves of purple and red on the backs of his eyelids. The muggy air, the fluttering noises of grasshoppers, and the far-off sound of Mr. Mefford's deep voice calling to the kids began to lull him. His head seemed heavy. He felt as though he were falling into the purple and red colors as they mixed and unmixed.
“What's happening?!” whispered Code, forcing his eyes open.
The bee-thing was still hovering in front of him. It buzzed around his head once, flashed red, and gave his earlobe a sharp yank.
“Hey!” yelped Code, rubbing his ear.
The bee chirped and flew over the hill. Still feeling dazed, Code followed it, keeping his eyes locked on the buzzing creature so that it wouldn't disappear. It traveled up the overgrown mound, and Code caught up just in time to see the green light dart into a dark hollow in the base of a great oak tree.
Code froze. The hair on the back of his neck was standing on end. This was the exact spot where investigators had found his grandfather's satchel.
Code slung his backpack onto the ground, dropped to all fours, and carefully poked his head inside the tree hollow.
Darkness. Code inhaled the cool, damp air. There was a faint roar of wind in the distance, as if he were inside a seashell. As his eyes adjusted, Code was surprised to see that the narrow gouge in the tree opened up into a larger space. Somehow, the empty space inside the tree seemed larger than the tree itself.
Just then, the dark tree hollow began to pulse with a greenish glow. The bee had settled onto the far side of the trunk and it gave a sharp chirp that echoed dully in the cramped space.
Code hesitated, a little afraid. Focusing on the spot of light, he crawled inside. He pulled his knees to his chest and leaned back against the wall. Outside, the rain fell in fat drops that made the grass twitch.
“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked the tiny creature.
The spot of light hopped off the wall and landed on Code's folded arms, casting a warm radiance on his face. He smiled at the strange little creature and shook his head, perplexed. In response, the bee made a singsong peeping noise and flashed blue. It seemed to Code like a melancholy color. Code cocked his head, trying to understand.
“Is something wrong?” asked Code.
Suddenly, the ground beneath him collapsed. For an instant, Code saw the gray crescent of light leading outside, and then everything was swallowed by wet dirt, snaking roots, and disintegrating leaves. He scrambled to grab something to stop his slide, but it was no use. Code tumbled head over heels in a flurry of slimy leaves and broken bark. He could only squeeze his eyes shut and hope for the best as dirt filled his ears, nose, and mouth.