Authors: Amy Herrick
Feenix merely looked unhappy. “It was you, wasn’t it . . . that night on the . . . hill?”
“So, there we go, Ms. High and Mighty,” Edward said.
“All right, all right,” said Danton. “And if I hadn’t convinced Edward to follow you up to the park that day, none of this would have happened either. I’m to blame, too, but what’s the difference now?” He looked back up at the green man. “Tell us what this thing is and what we have to do?”
“You carry a Time Fetch.”
“Yes, we figured out that much,” Edward said impatiently. He was still holding the stone in his open palm. “But what is it? What’s it doing? How’d it get here? Don’t tell me it’s one of the Old Ones my aunt is always going on about?”
The green man laughed. “Your Aunt Kit would probably call
one of those, but the Time Fetches are not of this world and it would be incorrect to describe them as young or old. The Keeper sends them out so the foragers may gather time.”
A small gust of wind blew past them and made the green man’s patches flutter like leaves. He looked around sharply. Perhaps someone had opened the door at the front of the store.
“But what do you mean?” Feenix demanded. “What’s it doing here?”
The green man shook his head impatiently. “To explain the way one thing works means we must understand the way everything else works. Nothing stands on its own. There is no time now for an explanation.”
Edward made a small choking sound at these words, but the green man ignored him.
“But this I will tell you. The Keeper sends the Fetches and their foragers out to gather time. The law permits a Fetch to stay in a world only long enough to take the bits of time that will not be missed, the seconds and minutes that no one notices—or hardly notices. Have you not felt how some hours go faster than others?” He gazed at them and they nodded uncertainly.
“Yes, well . . . it is said that the Keeper is able to gather time in this way and use it where it is needed, sometimes even to begin new worlds. Naturally, such a treasure is prized from one end of the Great Web to the other. Not least, of course, by the ones whose work it is to undo it.”
At these words, the little wind that had somehow gotten loose in the store went racing impishly around the shelves, knocking jars and cans onto the floor.
“Something, of course, has gone very wrong here . . .”
The green man looked accusingly at the four young people. “Someone moved the Fetch from its hiding place. In the ensuing confusion some of the foragers managed to escape.” Now the man’s gaze came to rest upon Feenix. “You know how this happened, I think.”
“Well, it wasn’t me! It was those criminally insane bag ladies! They were the ones who opened the thing up.”
“But you took it when it was not yours to take, did you not? You brought it to them. Willingly or not, you aligned yourself with their power. Nothing you do is without consequence. In this case, because of your carelessness, the foragers have been able to multiply and feed until our world is nearly gone.”
“But there’s got to be something we can do!” Danton said.
The green man turned his glittering eyes upon him. “Of course there is something you can do. There is always something. But it will require courage and cunning and speed.”
“That’s us!” Danton cried. “We’ll give it our best, won’t we, guys?”
Brigit nodded solemnly.
“A mission,” Feenix agreed.
“Tell us what to do,” said Danton.
“You must prevent the Fetch from falling into the wrong hands and find the doorway where the Keeper waits.”
“And if we can find the doorway, the Keeper will save our world?” Danton asked.
The man shook his head. “It may be, but we cannot presume to know what the Keeper will do. What is for certain is that if an Unraveler wins this prize, it is more than our own world that will suffer. Now waste no more of the time left to us. Make for the Weaver’s Hill.”
The gust of wind should have played itself out by now. Instead it was gathering strength. It ricocheted from shelf to shelf, knocking boxes and cans over.
“Watch out!” Feenix warned. “Remember what happened that day in science class. Dweebo, I think you ought to—” But before she could say what she thought he should do, the wind gave a triumphant shriek and pounced and the stone was knocked from Edward’s grasp. Instead of tumbling to the floor, it went spinning like a top toward the ceiling.
“No! No! No!” the green man cried. “Catch it! Catch it!”
They all watched paralyzed, except for Danton, who gave a little grunt, bent his knees, and took a flying leap. He flew through the air with his arms outstretched as if to intercept a pass. Up he went, up and up, his face clear and calm and concentrated. His huge hand opened and closed and he plucked the stone from the air.
“Well done!” called the man, although they couldn’t see him anymore. He was surrounded by a whirling and tossing storm of lettuces and radishes and flowers flying through the air. “Hurry! The Keeper draws near!” he cried out. “If there is help to be found, it will be on the Weaver’s Hill. Enter through the Cat Gate. It is the shortest way and there is no time to lose. I will do what I can to hold this one off. Edward, hang a holly bough over the door. Run!”
They all ran to the front and tumbled out the door onto the sidewalk.
“Where’s the holly? Where’s the holly!” Feenix yelled.
“Keep your hat on. It’s right here.” Edward bent over the bucket of branches with their bright red berries. He grabbed a long sturdy one and passed it through the latch of the door.
Brigit nodded at him, smiling.
“Now,” said Danton, “which way do we go? Where’s this Cat Gate and this Weaver’s Hill?”
“He’s got to be talking about the Third Street entrance to the park,” Feenix said. “You know—where those big bronze panthers are.”
“Right!” exclaimed Danton. “Third Street is this way.” He began to move them along. “And what about the Weaver’s Hill? Anybody got any ideas on that one?”
“My aunt’s talked about it,” Edward said. “Slow down a little, will ya? Let’s pace ourselves or we’ll all be wiped out before we get there.”
Danton ignored him. “So where is it?”
“I never paid much attention,”Edward panted. “Supposedly, it’s a big mound of a hill in the Long Meadow. It’s one of her magical hot spots. I think she meets up with her pals there on Midsummer’s Eve.”
“Some Midsummer’s Eve,” Danton said. “Do you know where it is?”
“We’ll find it,” Danton said without stopping.
It was only then that they all noticed that it had begun to snow.
It was a terrible journey. It didn’t take long before Danton realized how lucky they were that Eddie’s aunt had wrapped them up so well. The wind blew from every direction at once and in what seemed only a matter of minutes—though who could really be sure anymore?—the ground was covered and the snow began piling up. The streets were empty of people and many of the old brownstones no longer looked lived in; their front stoops were crumbling, their windows boarded up. The snow came harder and there were few lights burning, but just when they thought complete darkness had taken over, they would spot a lit-up plastic snowman, or a menorah, or a candle burning in a window. Other than these occasional lights, there was an empty end-of-the-world feeling to the windblown streets. Danton tried not to, but he couldn’t help thinking about his little brother and his mom and dad. What if the forager things had found them? What would that mean? Crazy pictures of his brother crowded into his imagination, pictures of a little withered-up old man. He tried to do what he did when he was playing a game, pull in his focus so that all that existed was the world of the game—the ball, the other players, the boundaries of the field—but his heart was full of doubt.
It was Brigit who spotted the next rip in the fabric. She grabbed Danton’s arm and stopped him before he could step into it.
He looked down and saw how the foragers were eating their way through the earth, leaving behind a growing snakelike crevasse. He teetered at its edge and saw how, sickeningly, the whole world seemed to fall away into a bottomless nothing. It appeared that once you fell into this, you would fall forever. If only there were some color in there. Even blackness would have been a relief. But its un-ness was sickening. Brigit’s small mittened hand held onto him tightly and pulled him backward and away from the chasm. Dizzy, he fell on his knees in the snow and, for a long moment, he kneeled there, breathing deeply till the nausea passed.
“C’mon,” he said, standing up. “We’ve got to get past them before they cut us off. Hurry.”
They ran alongside it as fast as they could, but the snow and the wind slowed them down, while the lengthening crack seemed heedless of the weather. “The other way! Go back the other way!” he ordered them.
But this did no good either, for a swarm was now working hungrily away at the other end. It occurred to Danton that the foragers knew exactly what the four of them aimed to do and were trying to head them off. The time rip was always just ahead, devouring the ground into nothingness.
Feenix was the one who stopped first. “We’ll have to jump over it,” she announced. “It’s the only way.”
“You’re right,” agreed Danton, swallowing his fear. He turned to the others. “Don’t look down,” he commanded. “You lose your sense of direction when you stare into it. Look up, or close your eyes if you have to. I’ll go first. Watch me. Get a good running start.” He backed up a little way. “One, two, three!” He ran forward. Just before the edge, he launched himself into the air.
For the first few moments he flew into the cold sting of snow and wind. Then just as he reached the top of what should have been his arc, Danton felt a slight jolt. He had stopped moving. What was going on? He risked a brief look down and saw that he was suspended in the air. There was a weird tingling in his toes, as if thousands of bubbles were bursting open inside of them. He struggled desperately to get himself loose, but he was caught. The foragers were surging up through his feet and ankles, past his knees. What were they doing to him? They were feeding on him. He could feel his heart rate accelerating madly.
Then something exploded up against him from behind. Something like a voice that wasn’t a voice firmly ordered him to MOVE. Then there was a slight tearing sensation, as if he were being pushed through a barrier no thicker than a skin of milk on a cup of boiled cocoa.
He fell in a heap onto a snowbank, and someone fell on top of him.
When he opened his eyes he found that he was lying on his back, staring into the face of a familiar-looking young woman. Who was she? This was embarrassing, not just because she was lying on top of him, but also because he knew he ought to know her name, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember it.
She rolled off of him and stood up awkwardly, brushing at her coat. She was slender and graceful like a little tree. He lay there for a moment watching her, trying to figure out what had just happened. Behind him, he heard Feenix say, “Dweebo? Is that you?”
The voice that answered her was deep and sleepy. “No, it’s Santa Claus, who do think—” The voice stopped, surprised by itself.
Danton rose slowly. He had a second’s trouble catching his balance. His feet seemed very far away. A light fell from overhead, a single street lamp still burning. Snowflakes tumbled and danced out of the darkness into its illumination. “Jeez, Danton! Weren’t you tall enough already?”
He turned to look at Feenix, but it was not Feenix. Her voice was the same, but her face was different. What was it? Her jaw was stronger, her cheekbones wider. And that weird thing with her eyes wasn’t gone, but you didn’t notice it in the same way.
“We’re older,” Danton said to them all and shook his head, trying to clear it.
Feenix was holding out her arms and legs, trying to see what had happened. “How much? How many years do you think?” she asked excitedly. Nobody answered. She looked around at the other three. She reached up and grabbed Danton’s jaw, turning his face from side to side. “Around three or four, I think. You don’t look bad at all. How do I look?”
“What does it matter how you look?” Danton cried. “We’re in big trouble here! Everybody get up. C’mon, Eddie. We’ve got to get moving.” But Eddie was still sitting in the snow, testing his arms and then his legs, each one separately, like he wasn’t sure where the old Eddie ended and the new one began.
“Let’s go,” said Feenix and she offered him her hand.
He looked at it suspiciously, but didn’t take it. He hauled himself awkwardly to his feet.
Feenix fell quiet, staring at him.
Eddie was now much taller than Feenix was. A few days’ growth of dark beard shadowed his jaw. “Huh,” he said in a wondering voice, staring down at his distant feet.
The snow was hissing and blowing around them. Danton understood who the other young woman was—the one who had pushed him through to other side. What he wanted to do more than anything else was to turn and take a look at her. But he didn’t have the nerve. Besides, there wasn’t time for everybody to stand around and stare at each other.
“Heads up!” he yelled.
The wall of foragers had lifted itself into the air and was forming into a massive angry-sounding cloud. Although each one moved more swiftly than the eye could see, as a swarm they were clumsy and slow. Nevertheless, Danton knew there was no time to waste. “They’re coming toward us. We’ve got to move.”
He pushed and bullied them along. The storm was now so wild, the landscape around them was nearly unrecognizable. But here and there Danton would catch sight of a familiar landmark. At Third Street, he turned them up the hill toward Seventh Avenue. In places they passed great humped drifts of snow under which lay abandoned cars. In other places were huge gaps where buildings had crumbled and fallen into ruins. Streetlamps would appear suddenly out of the blowing storm, dark now and rusting away. But as they neared Seventh Avenue, a small circle of light appeared, floating low in the sky.
“Careful!” Feenix called out. “There’s something up ahead!”
“Keep going forward!” Danton shouted. “If it’s another swarm, it’s pretty small. We can duck under it.” He took a breath and plunged forward, resisting the urge to look behind him, wanting to appear more confident than he felt.
The circle in the air grew steadily brighter. When they had nearly reached it, Feenix called out, “It’s not the bee thingies! It’s only one of those big electric snowflakes!”
With a rush of relief, they all saw she was right. It hung overhead from a lamppost. All of the restaurants and stores were dark and empty, buildings crumbling into ruins. But this one snowflake continued shining into the darkness.
“Look, that’s where the fish store must have been!” Danton yelled. “Two more blocks and we’ll hit the Third Street entrance to the park!” This time he turned to the others to make sure they were with him and he found himself almost face-to-face with Brigit. She looked right back at him. Beneath the faint light falling down upon them, he could see how she had changed. Her freckles were nearly gone, her mouth wider, a little catlike. Her green eyes were still shy, but met his gaze without flinching. She smiled at him. It was her, but not exactly her. He experienced an unfamiliar sensation, like he’d spilled a cup of hot soup on his chest. The sensation spread upward against the force of gravity. It traveled into his neck and then into his face.
He turned away from her quickly. “C’mon, everybody!” he called. “Let’s pick it up. Just two more blocks and we’re there! We need to get some space between us and that thing back there.”
They all doubled their pace, although Eddie, as usual, tagged along at the rear.
When they were halfway to the next corner, Danton paused and took a deep breath. He turned to check for the foragers. There was no sign of them or their great wave of nothingness. It probably didn’t mean much, since the snowstorm made it impossible to see beyond a half a block or so, but he felt a rush of hope. Maybe they’d be able to outrun the ravenous swarm. “Let’s go, people! We’re nearly there. Hurry up, Eddie, move your sorry behind!”
Danton plunged ahead.
The wind picked up again. It came from all directions at once, and in the howling and the whiteness, it was difficult to tell how long it took to get to the corner. Danton, of course, was the first to arrive. He stopped and waited for the others to catch up. Whether the foragers were far behind or close on their tails, it was impossible to tell, but in only one more block they would reach the park. Brigit stepped up beside him, her nearly grown face unnerving him again with its pale, watchful beauty. Feenix came next, her coat and the ends of her wild mane of hair blowing wildly.
“Do you smell that?” Feenix exclaimed. “Am I crazy? I think I smell coffee and doughnuts!”
Now Eddie came panting up to join them. “Pinch me, please!” he yelled. “Do you see that, or am I dreaming?”
The others looked where Eddie pointed. There, on the opposite corner, was a warmly lit plate glass window. Danton wondered how he hadn’t noticed it in the first place.
“It’s a café!” Eddie said. “And it looks open. C’mon!” He plunged into the drifted snow of the empty street without looking behind him.
Danton hesitated. “Let’s stay together, but be careful,” he said to the two girls. They followed Eddie.
“This is so weird. I don’t ever remember seeing this place before, do you?” Eddie asked as they came up behind him.
“It wasn’t here last week. I’m sure of it,” Danton said. The smell of freshly baked doughnuts nearly brought tears to his eyes.
“Something’s not right about this,” Feenix said.
Through the glowing window they saw a couple of comfy looking armchairs in the rear, and several tables arranged around the room, each one with its own shaded lamp and a small copper vase holding two or three red poppies. The frame around the outside of the window caught Danton’s eye. It had been decorated with what looked like a crazy mosaic of different colored tiles, although he had the feeling there was some sort of pattern. He leaned closer and realized they weren’t tiles but candies—butterscotches, Life Savers, and squares of chocolate. He reached out to touch one.
“Don’t!”said Feenix sharply.
Danton drew his hand back quickly.
“Hey, look, there’s someone inside,” said Eddie.
Danton saw that he was right. The café wasn’t empty after all. A man with a dark ponytail was standing behind the counter watching them all with a smile. He beckoned to them.
“Let’s go in,” begged Eddie. “Just for a few minutes. We can warm up. We can get some hot chocolate. Look, the bee things are nowhere in sight. We probably lost them.”
They all looked behind themselves down the street and it was true. The snow was falling more lightly. The wind had dropped, too.
Danton hesitated. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps it would help give his troops a little boost. He took a step toward the café and was startled by a yank on his arm.
He looked around to see Feenix staring angrily into his eyes. “No! We can’t. How can you even think of stopping to eat when there’s not a moment to waste? Tell them, Brigit! Tell them!”
Danton looked at Brigit. She nodded.
Danton shook himself. What
he been thinking? Of course. It was nuts to think about stopping now. “Right,” he said. “We’ve got to keep moving. Just one more block up this way and we should hit the entrance. The cat pillars ought to be right there, if they’re still standing.”