Authors: Clint Talbert
Tags: #clint talbert, #druids, #ecology, #fiction, #green man, #pollution, #speculative fiction, #YA Fantasy, #YA fiction, #young adult, #Book of Taliesin
“Whoa! Don't shoot!” Simon thrust his hands in the air. It took a moment for the trees to stop spinning, and Simon said again, “Don't shoot!” Then, taking a look at him, he asked, “Jeremy? Are you okay?”
Jeremy dropped the gun, realizing he'd never clicked off the safety. He re-clamped his right hand atop his head. “Hey, Sy.” Jeremy tried to smile. “Yeah, I'll be okay.” The world spun again and he was on his butt in the dirt. How had that happened? Did Sy push him? Simon shouldered his own BB rifle. Jeremy stared at the strap on Simon's Benjamin. He wished that he had a Benjamin with a strap.
Simon put both his hands on Jeremy's left arm. “Get up. Come on. Let's go to your house.”
Jeremy wobbled to his feet, leaning against the younger boy.
“What happened to you?”
“This pineconeâ¦ I think God asked me a question, and when I didn't understand it, He threw this pinecone at me. I was just standing under a tree and when I was thinking about the question, He hit me with a pinecone.” Jeremy laughed, raucous and sudden. Simon jumped. “I guess I didn't answer it right.”
Jeremy leaned into Simon, pushing him to the left of the trail. Simon pushed back, steering him to the right. “What was the question?”
Jeremy stopped. His hand had come off his head again. He put it back on, causing a dull pain to throb down into his neck. “Huh?”
“What was the question?”
“That's the problem. I don't know.”
“Umâ¦ okay. Well, let's keep walking. Come on.”
Jeremy started walking again as Simon prodded his arm. They were almost to the Gateway Tree, to the pavement of the street. “Sy?”
“You don't walk very straight.”
Simon laughed. “Me? You're all over the place!”
As they crossed to his house, Jeremy was vaguely aware of shuffling in the field across the way.
Loren came into view holding a football.
“Can't play right now, Loren. Sorry.” Jeremy muttered, though he hadn't been asked.
“I told you to stay away from my new trail, moron.”
“I wasn't on your trail. God was there, with this pineconeâ¦ ”
Simon spoke up. “Leave him alone. He's hurt pretty bad.”
“I think a pinecone fell out of a tree and hit him. I don't know. Help me, Lor.”
Loren threw the ball to the other players, Jeremy watched the perfect spiral. “You're going to the NFL, Loren. Straight up!” Jeremy pointed to the sky and fell backwards. Loren caught him. Loren and Simon guided him into his house. His mother was in the kitchen.
Quoi sa c'est fou!
Simon was saying something about a pinecone and getting it all wrong.
“It was God,” Jeremy said, swooning toward the kitchen table. “I got the answer wrong. I just wish I remembered the question.”
“Thanks Simon, Loren. I'll get him from here. Jeremy. Jeremy, pay attention. Can you stand?”
“I'm standing now, Mom.”
“Let's get you to the bathroom and clean you up. Come on. Put down that gun. Just put it on the table. Come on now.”
“But my shoes are muddy.”
“Who cares about your shoes? Come on Jeremy! Walk. Now. Douglas!”
His dad jumped up from his recliner where he'd been half napping. “Shit! What happened?”
“I don't know. Get Rosalyn, we may have to go to the hospital. Let me get him cleaned up.”
“I don't want to go to the hospital.” He looked down. “Mom, my shoes are muddy.”
Jeremy walked into the school, head down, wishing no one would look at the stitches. He'd already had to explain them to both Mira and Daniel. He hadn't even made it to his usual spot to sit along the wall before the questions started coming.
“What happened to your head, Jeremy?”
“Did your brains start overflowing?”
A crowd gathered. Jeremy looked across all the faces. “It was a pinecone. I was walking in the woods and a pinecone fell and hit me in the head.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Yes, it hurt.” Jeremy felt eyes on him and found Travis staring at him, a strange expression on his face. Jeremy shied away, finding his spot on the wall as the crowd went back to their conversations, card games, and Garbage Pail Kids.
Mira leaned over her lunch box, talking to Daniel as though Jeremy wasn't there. “I think it was the Old Man that threw the pinecone at Jeremy. You know, my sister and Loren were in the woods a couple of weeks ago and the Old Man chased them for about three milesâ¦” Daniel sat forward in his plastic orange chair, his soggy white bread sandwich drooping forgotten in his hands.
“Guys, I don't think it was the Old Man. Why would he drop a pinecone on me?”
“Cause he's the Old Man and he doesn't like kids. Duh, Jeremy,” said Daniel.
Commotion erupted two tables away.
The screech of the whistle echoed off the walls.
“That's it!” It was Coach Penicillin, pizza sauce smeared down the front of his blue polo shirt. He threw the traffic light to red and hauled Travis up by his arm, dragging him to the front of the cafeteria.
“Coach! But Coach, I didn't do it! I didn't throw anything!”
“Yeah, we'll see about that,” the coach said, trying to hold on to the squirming boy. “Hold still!” From nowhere, the coach produced a long wooden paddle.
“This is what happens to people who throw their food.”
“But Coach, it wasn't me. I swear. I swear! Please.”
“Bend over, Travis.”
The silent cafeteria of gaping mouths and forgotten lunches echoed with the sound of wood thwacking Travis' body. The Coach hit him twice and then dragged Travis to the principal's office. The students packed their lunches back into their plastic boxes decorated with Barbie, He-Man, Smurf, and Transformers, or they arranged the items on their tray. No one ate. The light remained red.
A soft wind rocked Jeremy and Mira's perch, pushing the top of the tree with a gentle, deliberate pressure. Terrified and transfixed by heights, Jeremy sat on one branch, hands clutching a higher branch between them. Mira sat across from him on another branch, her posture perfect, her smile easy. The evergreen needles that surrounded them blocked most of the viewâpatches of gray and brown shingles from the houses would appear when the wind shifted the branches below them. The wind relented, and the green needles covered everything below as the top of the tree shifted back to center.
“That's a little scary,” he said.
“Yeah?” She shrugged. “I kind of like it. My sister climbed up here once and said that she wouldn't ever come down.”
“Really? Which one?”
“Kelly, of course. Natalie's too little. And when my mom asked her how she'd eat, she said that I'd bring her food up!”
“Yeah, as if I'd be climbing up here with a hamburger for her.” Mira rolled her eyes.
“You could throw it up from down below.”
Mira chuckled. “Yeah, that'd work. I can't even throw a ball this high.” She shrugged. “Did you see what happened yesterday? Did Travis throw that pizza at Coach Penicillin?”
Jeremy shook his head. “I dunno. When I heard the whistle, I just thought they were going to make everyone be quiet like they always do. I don't think he'd throw a pizza at Coach P.”
“He was really upset about it. I've never seen Travis act like that when he gets in trouble. I think he was framed.”
“Yeah, don't you watch
? They're always framing somebody for something they didn't do.”
“Like the A-Team.”
“I guess, yeah. Who do you think did it?”
“I don't know. We could ask Travis. Woooah!”
A stronger gust bent the top of the tree hard to his left. He could feel himself sliding toward the trunk, and clutched the branch in front of him.
Mira giggled. “I'm going to tickle you.”
She ran her fingers along the inside of his forearms. “Gootche, gootche, goo.”
Laughing in spite of his fear, he took one hand off the branch and shook his arm behind his back while she tickled the other. “Quit it!” He slapped down his right only to take away the left and shake it out.
She giggled, enjoying the game.
“Okay, okay. So, how can we figure out if the Old Man dropped that pinecone on you?”
“The Old Man?” Jeremy sat back, considering. He looked toward Twin Hills, as though he could see the fabled man if he looked hard enough. Everyone knew he lived out there, somewhere, but only a few people had seen him. “I don't know.” He looked back, finding Mira's deep eyes watching him. Would she think he was crazy if he mentioned hearing God's voice? Suddenly nervous, Jeremy shrugged. “I think it was just a cone from a tree. There wasn't anyone around.”
She squinted, dubious. “I don't know, I think he might be around. Kelly saw him just a month ago when her and Loren were riding bikes.”
“Yeah, you said that yesterday.”
“Did I tell you what he did?”
Jeremy shook his head. “No, that's when the whole pizza thing happened.”
Mira leaned far over the branch. “Well, you see, Loren and her were riding bikes, and the Old Man came up out of nowhere. He was wearing a big black coat, and he opened it,” Mira motioned with her hands, “and he wasn't wearing anything under it.”
“What'd he look like?”
Her brown eyes squinted, she playfully punched his arm. Jeremy reflexively squeezed the branch with his other hand. “He was naked, stupid.”
“Yeah, I know, but did he have white hair? Black hair? How old was he?”
“White hair, I'm sure. Why does it matter? He's old. He's the Old Man. And then he chased them. They had to ride their bikes all the way back and now Kelly doesn't want to go back in Twin Hills at all.”
“Yeah. I wonder where he lives out there. Maybe you were too close to his house and that's why he threw the pinecone at you!”
“I don't know.”
“Do you think we could find him? His house?” She cocked her head again, eyes sparkling, ready to swoop down and snatch the idea.
“I don't know. Do you think we could?”
“Yeah. There have to be clues. If we just find the clues then we'll find his house. Come on!”
Mira swung from branch to branch, half falling, half climbing down the tree in graceful gymnastic arcs. Jeremy followed, careful to keep his hands and feet on three different branches, moving one limb at a time, working his way down.
“Come on, slow-poke!”
He dropped to the ground a minute after her. She stared at him, arms crossed. “Come on.”
Her mom's voice stopped them in mid-stride. “Mira, it's time for dinner, you need to come inside.”
“But, Mom, we were going to Twin Hills.”
“You don't need to go to Twin Hills. What were you doing? Climbing that tree again? I swear! Come wash your hands. It's time to eat. Goodnight, Jeremy. Tell your mom I said hi.”
Mira stared at Jeremy for a full second, then sighed, bowed her head so that her brown locks obscured her face, and shuffled her feet inside. Jeremy stood in her yard several more minutes, trying to decide whether or not to head into the woods. Twilight had already descended. The shadows beneath the trees of Helter Skelter would be moving at this hour. A chill dusted his flesh. Jeremy walked inside, telling himself that he was hungry, and hoping it was dinnertime at his house too.
Thunder shook Jeremy's windowpane. Jeremy and Daniel stared out at the relentless, wind-driven rain that pelted the glass.
“Wow, I hope your mom can take me home,” Daniel said.
Jeremy nodded, then went back to reviewing the encyclopedia that lay before him on the floor. They were surrounded in a sea of opened
. Daniel had a leather journal where he kept the notes as they researched the Stones of Karnak.
“Yeah, or you could spend the night.”
“But it's a school night.”
“Yeah, that's true.” Jeremy stood. “You wanted Egypt, right?” Jeremy left and returned with the “E” encyclopedia. Daniel flipped through pictures of crumbling pyramids in the desert. Jeremy said, “So, we know one Stone is in the bay. What was its name?”
Daniel consulted the paper. “Tamilik.”
“Right, and the other was stolen from Jankmar's lighthouse. So there are ten more we have to find.”
“Let's say that one was taken up to the far north and given to a Dragon Lord by an Edenkiri adept.”
“Okay. And one is still down in Des'an'dar, where Rathian, the fallen adept, tracked it when he disappeared from all other tales, shortly after the Battle of the Wastelands.”
“Okay.” Daniel scribbled down details. “And in the Battle of the Wastelands, let's say that one Stone was destroyed. That's what created the Wastelands. The other one can still be out there somewhere.”
“Good idea. What would Des'an'dar look like?” Jeremy opened the “M” volume and looked at pictures of mines, trying to think about what the underground city would look like. Moria came to mind, but Moria was not in the encyclopedia. “What if the underground city is dark and empty, and only inhabited by goblins now? There are no Edenkiri left.”
“What happened to Rathian, then? And the demons he led?”
“I dunno, they probably died down there.”
“Okay.” Daniel thumbed through “G,” looking at pictures of the ruined Acropolis. “I think one Stone should be forever in the Shadow World, lost there.”
“Cool. How many does that make?”
“One, twoâ¦ fourâ¦ six, seven. That's seven.”
“How many does Kronshar have?”
“I don't know.” Daniel counted on his fingers “The one from the lighthouseâ¦ the one fromâ¦” Daniel's face scrunched up as he reviewed the list again.
“We could just say he has three.”
“Why would we say that?”
“Well, he's been looking for them longer than we have. And we can say he has two others so we don't have to figure those out. But let's put one Stone in the foundation of Zegbranev Palace in Tillianfeld where we used to live.”
“That would explain the magic of that place, and why it has the school of the adepts.” Daniel grinned, marking it down.
“We can send the Midnight Wizard after that one.”
“We should go get the one in Des'an'dar.” Daniel stared at the ceiling for a moment. “I think it would look like that place in
Raiders of the Lost Ark