The Bridge Beyond the Boundary
This Material Copyright © by Perry John Kilby, 2020
All rights reserved
My name is Annie Katherine. That’s “Annie,” with an “i e.” I am almost twelve. I’m fairly tall and have freckles and red hair. I have braces, which I hate, I wear glasses, which I hate, and I read a lot, which gives me a good vocabulary.
This is my story. I promise to tell the truth. Or pretty close to it. The weirdest part for me was Boyd the whale. Actually, it was all pretty weird.
I’ll start with my family. I have a Mom and a Dad, and a little brother named Davis. We live on the side of a mountain, 25 miles from the nearest town. Our tall house with the south-facing windows is at the end of a long driveway, off a rough gravel road in the bush.
My Mom is kind of floaty. She wears scarves and used to be a dancer, like, about 300 years ago. Dad says it wasn’t quite as long ago as that. Then he laughs. He and Mom stay home, which is where I want to stay, but they make me go to school. Davis has to go too. This seems really, really unfair, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
My Dad works, I think. Some quiet guys in a black SUV came to our house a few years back, after Dad had been away on a long business trip. They helped set up some phones and stuff, which are on the desk in Dad’s study. He’s on the phone a lot. Occasionally, men come to the house at odd hours. I’m a light sleeper, so I notice. Mom and Dad don’t mention the men, or the visits, so it’s something Davis and I don’t talk about.
Mind you, Davis can’t talk. The doctors and the school people all say he’s autistic. I have to look out for him. But he’s not autistic. I looked it up. Autistic kids “need routine. They don’t interact with their environment. They don’t get social signals. They’re unable to deal with conflict.” Blah, blah, blah. These people should come to elementary school. Davis has to deal with conflict every day. Nothing is routine when you are avoiding packs of wild boys. And he gets social signals. He just doesn’t talk. Not yet. He knows what the wild boys are going to do before they do it, though, which is why they rarely catch him. Somehow I can tell when they do catch him, like mind-reading or something, and I go rescue him. That’s why I have scarred knuckles. I kick, too. Dirty fighting. Dad showed me. I had to swear not to tell Mom, though.
Anyway, I think Dad is a spy. It totally makes sense.
And Davis. No one really knows what he is. But I can tell you this. He can talk to animals. And he can make his hands glow in the dark.
I hate school. I’ve wanted to be a drop-out since kindergarten. Dad thought that was a little early, even for me. Part of having to go is for Davis, who is in the Special Class, which he shouldn’t be. I hate how some of the teachers’ voices change when they talk to him. They go all slow, and louder. They don’t think I notice, but I do. So does Davis. We just talk to him normally at home. He understands everything. Plus he can do that other stuff. Mom and Dad don’t know about that, though. It’s our secret.
And I’ll tell you one of my secrets. It’s kind of important.
I can see things. The why of things, where suddenly the meaning of stuff just falls into place. Click. And I get it.
Sometimes I think I hear voices, too. Kind ones, explaining things. The voices scared me a bit when I first heard them. Then I told Mom about it. I wondered if she would think I was crazy, like I was worried I might be. She said I wasn’t crazy at all. I was gifted. It sounded like a bit of a curse to me. That’s because it’s a gift alright, but it means others don’t understand me. This makes me lonely at school.
Finally, I told Dad. He looked at me for a few long moments then gave me a hug—and that was sort of that. My seeing stuff just became part of who I was. Like having red hair.
Another secret is I cry at night. Mom and Dad don’t know about this one, but I’ll tell you because I said I would try to be honest. Mom and Dad think I have a “thick enough skin” to go to school. Like I can grow some skin so thick that school doesn’t hurt, or kids’ meanness doesn’t cut. But I can’t. And it does.
This might be the real start of my story: that I hate school. That I’m lonely and different. That I can fight worse than the boys, because I mean it, and they don’t. That I hurt at night. That I have a little brother, and the teachers need to stop the bullying, but they don’t. That there is a long walk down our road to the school bus stop on the highway. And an even longer bus ride into town.
That other kids sometimes take the seats we usually sit in, right at the front, the ones reserved for the nerds and kindergartens. The weak kids. We don’t mind sitting at the front. It keeps us from the idiots in the back. The har-har big kids. They’re too stupid to be cruel, but they figure it out sometimes.
The real mean one on the bus is Jimmy Swain. He’s in grade five, the same grade as me. He has two mouth-breathing-idiot friends on the bus, and a few more clowns follow him around when we get to school. My parents have been to the school about them. Even phoned their parents. Dad says those apples didn’t fall very far from the tree. I was in a meeting with Mom and Dad and the principal one time. Dad’s knuckles went white on the arms of his chair when the principal told him to ride the bus himself if he thought there was a problem. I’m lucky to have my Dad. Mom, too. The principal has a comb-over. A big one. I learned you can’t trust a man with one of those.
Anyway, one day in late January, it was really cold, and we had walked through the semi-darkness on the lumpy, frozen road—frozen harder than iron—to the little bus stop shelter on the highway. Our big German Shepherd, Shackleton, always comes with us. He pees on a lot of stuff on the way, but he is always watching. He loves us. He would die for us. Simple. It is easy to tell that he would. It’s easy to tell with people, too.
Back to Jimmy.
We got on the bus, said hi to Hank the driver—well, I said hi. Davis just kind of ignored him. Jimmy and the two boneheads were in the seats up front where we usually try to hide out.
So, we moved to the seats directly behind Hank. Looked at the floor. We both use this method to avoid problems. “See?” we’re saying. “We don’t want trouble.”
Laughing, the boneheads jumped across into those seats. I could tell where this was going. Still, I tried. We started to move further down the aisle, and they blocked us.
More laughter. I was getting furnace-hot inside my parka and hood.
“Whatcha gonna do, Fanny? Fat Fanny Annie?” Jimmy asked. “You and freak boy there?”
Davis just smiled at him like he didn’t know what Jimmy had said. He did know, though.
Then I smashed Jimmy full in the face with my Rocketman lunch bucket.
I even switched feet like Dad showed me and got my shoulder into it. (I’m not a nice girl.)
Jimmy screamed and grabbed his face. I was sorry he still had one. Blood gushed from his nose.
“Hey!” yelled one of the boneheads.
But it was a pretty good lunch bucket. Aluminum.
I smashed it into the bonehead’s face, too. He started crying, like a big baby. My fury was just getting onto a good boil. I had Rocketman drawn back ready for bonehead number two, who was already yelling “I give! I give!” when Hank, who hadn’t started the bus, grabbed me. Like it was my fault.
Now, you have to understand something. In the world of adults, there is no justice. Any idiot could see that Jimmy and his goons were at fault, for bullying, for seat-stealing, for terrible name-calling, and for breathing. I was shaking, white with rage, and there was Hank, yelling at me and telling me it was my fault, and he was going to report me. I was lucky, he said, he didn’t put me off the bus right there. Davis was still smiling his vague smile. No justice, I tell you. Ever. When you get old, you don’t see things clear anymore.
I knew Hank couldn’t put me off the bus right there. He’d done it before, in the middle of winter, without notifying my parents, and my Dad had gone to the School District Superintendent over it. He said he swore at the superintendent, using bad words like lawyers, lawsuits, and, lia—lia—something like that. Liability? Like knowing how to lie, I thought at the time, like grownups do.
So, Hank, who had some first aid training, helped stop the bleeding from a couple of faces, and didn’t put us off the bus. Davis and I got to listen to sobbing and snivelling all the way to town. Davis kept smiling. My Rocketman lunch bucket was pretty bashed in, next to junk in fact, but I thought this was a pretty good trade-off.
I was wrong.
Mr. Conway, the principal, Comb-over Man, the one I knew my Dad had nearly punched in his smug face, he went crazy. He said I was incorrigible. I was violent. I was dangerous to other children.
I gritted my teeth.
No, I’m not, I said to myself. Not if they don’t bother me.
I felt like Shack. I really was ready to kill. Like Shack would do if something threatened his kids. Now that’s a good dog.
A better person than this idiot.
I guess my not-sorry opinion must have shown all over my not-sorry face, because soon Mr. Douche Bag—oops, I mean Mr. Conway—soon he had spit coming out of his mouth. I don’t really know what a Douche Bag is, but it sounds bad, and Davis loves the sound of it when I say d-o-o-o-sh quietly behind someone’s back. After Mr. Conway finished yelling at me, I ended up on a chair by the counter in the main office. He couldn’t deal with me, he said. I was going to be expelled. Ex-pelled. As in never coming back. As in permanent home schooling.
As my pulse returned to normal, and I could sort of see straight again without wanting to smash something, this sounded promising. Nobody wanted to hear my side, of course, even if I had been calm enough to tell it, and everyone knew Davis didn’t talk, and Jimmy and the boneheads had lied their chicken, bullying heads off. Liability. Stuff you get with lawyers. The boneheads were treated in the medical room like troops returning from Afghanistan, and I couldn’t even leave the office chair to go pee.
I snuck out at the beginning of recess anyway.
Back on the office chair, I couldn’t wait for my Dad the spy to arrive. The one who showed me how to fight. Actually, it was my floaty Mom I wanted to see more. Not because I wanted to run to my Mommy—I’m not the type—but because she can be scarier than Dad sometimes. Stuff to do with her kids. She tries to hide it with all kinds of adult talk about tolerance and acceptance, but she’s fierce, and I like her for it.
It was near the end of recess that the really bad stuff happened.
An elementary school is a little world of its own. A mean little world a lot of the time. The problem with kids, you see, is not that they’re little, and not too smart. The problem is that they are little, and really smart, and adults just don’t see it. No one is as clever and as sneaky as a kid. Or as mean. That’s why bullying happens. A grown-up looks away, and BAM!
The word about what had happened on the bus was supposed to be confidential, but of course, when it comes to fights, especially ones with blood, the word travels like blood in the water to a bunch of sharks.
The problem with bullies is that they are usually popular, and have lots of friends—friends exactly like them. All the grownup stuff about bullies being losers or having low self-esteem—what rubbish. They’re the biggest heroes in the school. And this morning, a bunch of the other bullies started to realize they couldn’t be rulers of the building and school grounds if three of them could get taken down by an outsider girl like me. So they decided to get Davis, to teach the weaklings and weirdos a lesson.
They trapped him in the back corner of the school fields, behind the adventure playground stuff.
He just stood there, smiling his vague smile while they surrounded him.
That’s when the vision hit me. I was sitting on the office chair and froze with terror, as somehow I was seeing through Davis’s eyes, and seeing him from above as well. The pack of jackals was closing in, and he seemed unable even to run. He just smiled.
I screamed and ran out of the office, down the long hallway to the end of the building. My vision showed the laughing big kids getting the freak, all of them merciless. I slammed open the back door and ran out into the snow. I saw a big kid grab Davis by the face and felt the hand squeezing and smothering, and Davis’s bewilderment and terror, and then—something else.
I was running, running towards them all; hundreds of kids had all turned from going into the school at the warning bell and now moved towards....
There’s a fight!
Then I felt Davis grab the smothering hand and wrist, and everyone on the school grounds heard the screams.
It wasn’t my brother.
It was the kid. Screaming and screaming.
And the kid’s hand fell away, smoking—I could see it as Davis did. Then I slammed into the backs of the kids crowding the scene, kids from ages five to twelve, crowding to see the battle, to see the heroes giving it to a weakling, who deserved it anyway, for being weak. I shouted and pushed, and tried to get through, but the kids closed ranks, to make sure no one came to the rescue—no, that must have been an accident, an accident of them just trying to see the blood.
But it wasn’t blood they were seeing. In seconds, other kids started crying out. I was still seeing it all, through Davis’s eyes, and, somehow, from above.
Davis grabbed the kid’s coat, which smoked and melted, and the kid screamed again when Davis’s hand hit his chest. Then Davis grabbed the kid’s face the way his own had been grabbed. The kid, who seconds before had been king of the school, burned and whimpered and fainted.
Davis just smiled and watched. More kids cried, and scattered, as finally, finally, I pushed through to my brother, and adults arrived on the scene, adding order to this disorder. Or, it turned out, adding disorder to the order and justice Davis had just handed out.
An ambulance was called. The boy was taken to the medical room, and from there he went to the hospital. Davis was manhandled into the office and shoved into a chair, just as our parents arrived. It was bedlam. A student had been badly burned, injured in a playground fight. How? What had happened? The parents of the kids from the bus showed up and started calling everyone names. A couple of the Dads wanted to fight my Dad, or beat me up. Cooler heads were not prevailing.
Dad hustled us out of there. He almost had to carry Mom, who was spitting mad and ready to take on anyone who wanted a piece of her. Or me. Or Davis. Or maybe anybody.
So much for floaty. If it hadn’t been so sort of serious, I’d have really enjoyed that part.
In the end, we were expelled.
The other kids got off scot-free, of course, and we heard later that the burned kid got emergency plastic surgery and skin grafts, and a hero’s welcome when he came back to school and started pushing little kids around again.
The adults got it all wrong. Again. Almost completely backwards. The bad guys got rewarded, the innocents got punished. The bad guys got stuck in the prison of the school, and the innocents got—freedom. That’s how we looked at it.
We got Shack, and the winter, and online schooling, and walks beneath the arching willows heavy with snow behind the beaver dam in back of beyond.
The winter gave us peace, and the tunnel beneath the willows gave us magic.
And then we found the cave beneath the big rock by the lower beaver pond, about a half-mile from the boundary of our property.
Now, our town is in a deep river valley in south-central British Columbia. All around the valley are rolling plateaus and uplands. Our mountain, Greystone Ridge, rises above the general plateau south of town, and is just another, higher rolling plateau. We are on the north side of the mountain, where it begins its final climb to the top. There is rounded, grey, glacially scrubbed bedrock exposed everywhere, even though almost the whole area is thickly treed with pine, spruce and fir.
When you stand with bare feet on the exposed bedrock around our property, or anywhere on our mountain for that matter, you can really feel it. How deep it goes. Like there’s something down there. So deep you can hardly imagine it. That’s what Davis thinks. I can feel it myself, and when we’re on the rock, I can sort of feel his voice, too. When we’re there together, Davis loses his vague smile, and shows me his special one, just for me, and his eyes are bright, and I swear I can hear his voice. I don’t of course. It must be rubbish.
Except it isn’t. Shack hears it, too. And, I swear, other animals. After a time standing on stone, Davis can kneel at the edge of one of the beaver ponds, and hold out his hand, and the beavers will swim up to him and climb out of the water so he can rub their ears. Even when Shack is right there—which is almost all the time—cocking his head as though he is listening to something. Davis moves his lips, and bobs his head up and down, and gestures with his hands. The beavers bob and nod and wiggle, for all the world like they’re actually discussing the water table, or the taste of aspen bark this time of year, or how the kits are doing in dam-building school.
The other animals are almost all the same: deer, moose (except with calves), lots of birds, wolves, coyotes. The wolves and coyotes make Shack really nervous, but somehow we have been welcomed as part of their packs. Lots of hugs and face washing, and even some wrestling and playing with the cubs.
It is the cats, though, which make me nervous. Their minds seem so foreign, so alien, so different than all other creatures, that Davis has a hard time talking with them.
The lynx family living near us will approach, alright. But I can’t help the feeling they are sizing us up as much as anything else. In a not very nice way. Mostly, they just sit back in the trees about 50 feet away, and watch. They have very big eyes and tall sensitive ears. And very big feet. And they just watch.
That time with the cougar was the worst. A person is no match for one of those.
Davis had clapped his hands and laughed, and somehow had brought that big cougar slinking out of the underbrush. Shack bristled and growled, and bared his teeth. Somehow I could tell that the big cat’s mind was just a blank. No thoughts. No reasoning. No communication, not like with the wolves.
A shark of the forest. An appetite. The one killer at the top of the food chain.
It crouched, less than ten feet away. It could take us all in seconds. Shack had already decided that this was going to be his day to die. He moved between us and the cat. Those eyes, blank yellow headlights, focused in on him.
The cougar took a step, nearly flattened on the ground. Then another. Slowly. No sound.
It was coming.
Shack readied his charge. He would buy with his life our chance to run. I had stopped breathing. I know this because when it was over, I remember trying to catch my breath. How hard that was, gasping and fighting for air, when I had done nothing but watch.
But I had watched a miracle.
Davis, beside me, reached ahead with one hand, and took Shack by the collar.
Hold, he seemed to say. Shack looked quickly back at him.
Davis was already raising his other hand, and holding it out to the crouching cat, that blank thing readying for blood, and Davis’s hand saying Stop, then—then—I couldn’t believe it—flashing with light, brilliant, blinding, and--
A deafening explosion like a gunshot, and a blow struck, knocking the cat backwards and sideways, smashing it down and flattening the brush all around us. I staggered, and fell sideways myself, down onto one knee, then stumbled back to my feet, to see the cat scrambling to its feet as well, and fleeing, and--
You know, escape is kind of funny. When you’re really in trouble, and then suddenly you’re not, you just sort of stand there, and feel, well, blank. Nothing. It’s really strange.
Then I gasped for breath, as I realized the danger might be over.
Davis just stood there, looking at his hand, the way a sheriff in a western might look at a new gun with amazement when it has just saved his life by shooting all the bad guys. Then he smiled and nodded. Shack woofed and licked his face. He didn’t even have to jump up.
Davis was only six at the time. I was nine. It was the first time I saw his hands glow. It seemed too odd to share with Mom and Dad. So we made a pact.
And so, two years later, I wasn’t totally surprised that Davis burned the bad kid.
I guess that means I have to confess I’m not really almost twelve. But I am eleven. Just.
The local newspaper said the victim had been attacked with a cigarette lighter, and his ski-jacket had caught on fire. Davis isn’t the victim in this news story. The bad kid is. The newspaper account made a kind of adult sense, though. No one would believe a story of a kid making fire, would they? Adults can’t see clear, what’s right in front of them. They always have to make up ex-pla-NAY-shuns. No magic, no miracles. No nothing. But someone must have got wind of the hand-shaped burns on the bad boy’s face and chest.
And that’s why the strangers showed up at our place in another black SUV.
Two of them talked to Mom and Dad, for a while in the living room, and then for a long time in Dad’s study. One of the men was short and bald, with thick, black-framed glasses. The other was big and beefy, as were the two keeping an eye on Davis and me as we tried to do our homework at the kitchen table. Our two didn’t do anything. Just watched. There seemed a blankness there, too. Kind of like that big cat, two years before. I admit I was scared. What if they made Davis do—do—well, you know. There’d be no hiding that.
Then what? These big guys would take him away? Like some kind of freak? A dangerous freak? He was just a kid, an eight year-old kid. I was pretty tough, but against those guys?
The voices in the study got louder. Our two big guys talked quietly into their wrists. Must have had some radios there. If it hadn’t been so scary, it might have been cool.
“Excuse me,” I said, as a plan formed, “my brother has to go to the bathroom. He’s autistic. Know what that is?”
“No way,” said Beef No. 1.
“Okay,” I shrugged, “suit yourselves. But he’s gonna do it big. He usually goes in the corner over there, right where you’re standing when he doesn’t get to the bathroom. It’ll really stink, and get on your shoes.”
Davis helped by letting go a really big, silent, smelly fart. It was a real eye burner.
“I’m just telling you,” I said, turning back to my map colouring.
There was another really stinky fart. It was me, but I didn’t let on.
“He has to go,” I said again to Beef No. 1. “It’s even worse if he goes in his pants.” Davis gave a big, happy smile. See? He knows what’s going on. Of course, he hasn’t gone in his pants since he was two, but the Beefs didn’t know that.
Beef No. 1 looked at Beef No. 2.
“Okay,” said Beef No. 1. “But he goes with him.” He nodded toward Beef No. 2, who looked scared. Not so tough now, huh, big guy?
“No way,” I said. “He’s autistic. He freaks out. Screaming and biting.” I leaned towards the Beefs, and whispered dramatically past my cupped hand,
“He throws pooh....”
Davis actually laughed. Then he drooled a little. And farted again. Then breathed out happily. Ahhhhh.
Take it easy, Dude, I thought. Don’t overdo it.
This really scared the Beefs. I guess they didn’t have kids. They could face blades and bullets, but not pooh-throwing?
“I’ll take him,” I said. “He’s used to me. You’ll have to wait outside the door though. It’s the only way.”
“Check it out,” said Beef No. 1. Beef No. 2 looked angry as he went with us to the bathroom and checked it out.
No guns in there, or stockpiles of poop, or other weapons of mass destruction.
Beef No. 2 came out of the bathroom and nodded for us to go in.
“I’ll be right outside,” he said.
I’m counting on that, I thought.
When we closed the door, I whispered,
“We’re going out the window. That guy only checked it for adult size. Another bonehead. Just like those idiots on the bus.”
Davis liked this.
“Now, grunt a bit,” I whispered. “Like you’re in pain.”
I made a big farting noise with my mouth. I practise so I’m pretty good at it.
“This is a bad one,” I shouted out to Beef No. 2 outside the door, which I had quietly locked. “It’s kind of hurting him—” Davis gave a dramatic moan here. It was a good performance—“so it could take a while....”
Davis grunted and moaned some more.
Beef No. 2 grunted too. Affirmative. Guess he didn’t know what to say to pooping kids.
Quietly, I opened the window, and boosted Davis out. He flopped down onto the snow, head first. I could hear him giggle. Almost immediately, Shack was there, too. I stood on the toilet and went up and sideways out the window. As I flopped into the snow, I had to stop Shack from face-washing me. I boosted Davis up to close the window.
“To the Batcave, quick,” I said.
This just meant the big basement mud-room closet where a lot of our winter stuff was stored. The basement door was always left unlocked during the day in case we had to come in for anything, so within two minutes, we were dressed and sneaking off with Shack into the bush.
Soon, the house was no longer visible. We kept going, heading southeast to the boundary fence at the end of our property, and on into the wide beaver meadow. We tried to follow the old tracks the beavers had made in the snow so our boot marks wouldn’t show.
Davis stopped at the beaver dam and scrambled out to the middle of it.
He made some funny noises, and wiggled his hands a little. They might have been glowing. It was hard to tell in the daylight when he was wearing his mittens. I’m almost as bad as Mom. I make him wear about 47 layers whenever he goes out. It’s good he kind of tolerates us.
In moments, a dark brown beaver head was poking out from the only piece of open water, right at the spillway over the dam. Davis made some hand signs, and some noises as well. The beaver ducked under the water and Davis worked his way back towards me along the dam. The tangled sticks and snow made the footing treacherous.
Soon, the beaver was back, with five others, climbing out onto the dam, and padding towards us. We went further downstream, towards the next big beaver pond. As we passed beneath the arching willow trees on the creek banks, I turned to see the beavers waddling away from us.
“They’re covering our tracks,” I breathed. “Wow.”
Davis nodded enthusiastically. I got the idea they would go back to the boundary fence.
It was like we had disappeared.
I had a flash thought about Beef No. 1 and No. 2. They were going to look pretty stupid, being outsmarted by a couple of farting kids.
We thought we’d hang out for a while, down by the second pond, and maybe hide in the cave under the big rock.
Now that was a weird thing, that cave. We found it a couple of days after we’d been expelled. We knew this ground like the backs of our hands and the cave had not been there before.
The big problem now was those visitors back at our house. I had hidden behind the freestanding chimney and overheard the conversation between the bald man and my parents when they were in the living room. My Dad seemed to know this guy, but my Mom didn’t. Somehow the bald guy knew what happened with Davis at school. He wanted permission to take Davis away to a hospital back east to do some testing, like there was something wrong.
Mom got pretty mad, so they moved into the study, and left the Beefs to watch over us kids. After overhearing them talk, I thought the Beefs really were there to make sure the bald man got what he wanted. Which was to take Davis away, one way or another.
So here we were. Standing in the cold and quiet at the edge of the second beaver pond. We ice-skated here quite a bit. Played for the Stanley Cup, with me providing the play-by-play, and Davis other sound effects that didn’t involve actual words. I was Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser—yes, both of them—and Davis was the new sensations, Elias Petterson and Quinn Hughes. Playing for the Canucks and the Stanley Cup right here. Like it could happen—but ponds have a way of producing all kinds of magic.
As we were about to find out.
We made our way across the deep swampy grass and snow at the top end of the pond and soon approached the giant boulder rising above its far edge. We spent a lot of time on top of this rock during the summer. Just sitting. It was a place of power. With Greystone Ridge rising into the trees behind the rock—it was special. An outpost of the immense. Immense means stuff so big you can’t really describe it. I get weird thoughts about that kind of thing sometimes.
And now there was an opening, low and dark, with a jutting brow of rock overhead.
Today, we approached it and slowed, without saying anything, just agreeing silently. It almost seemed like there was a wind against us, coming from the cave mouth.
Rubbish. There wasn’t.
Shack growled low in his chest. His hackles came up. This wasn’t good.
Maybe the Beefs wouldn’t be so bad.
But that bald guy, and thoughts of cold hospital instruments, those were scary. The terrible cold of knives, cutting into an innocent little boy.
You’re not ever going to do that, I said to myself.
I turned to Davis and found he was looking at me and nodding. Like he could read my mind.
That was when a low grinding sound came from the entrance to the cave, and the ground, so frozen under our feet, started to shake. We lost our balance and stumbled, and Shack made to run away. When we didn’t follow, he came back to stand with us.
There was another louder grinding sound, followed by something like a burp. Then a kind of barfing noise, just like a person might make, only deeper and not a person, and then a gush of dirt and mud gagged out of the cave mouth.
We jumped back a few steps as the mud gushed towards us. We both saw what came with it and cried out with surprise.
Riding on top of the pile of muddy dirt, sitting on his bum, was a tiny bald man, with an enormous grey beard which he was trying to keep out of the mud. He was making a jibberish noise, which sounded like he might be making swears, just not in English.
“Mogglety boggity, boggity, blurg!”
Suddenly, the jibberish changed, or I heard it better.... I looked at Davis. He was smiling with delight, as though he had done something truly spectacular—which maybe he had.
“Dimmit, dammit, dang an’ blast!” shouted the little man. The mud stopped moving, and he slid to a halt near the end of the mess, about ten feet from where we stood. He was still holding his beard free of the gunk he was sitting in.
That’s when he stood. He was stark naked.
“You’re naked!” I blurted, before I could even think.
“O’ course I’m naked!” he snapped, in a surprisingly deep voice. “I lives in a hole! With dirt, an’ grubs! You think I’m goin’ to wear clothes in there?” He jerked his thumb back towards the cave.
“Ewwww,” I couldn’t help saying. Davis clapped. Good thing the little man’s, er, parts were kind of covered by a thick layer of dirt and twigs.
He turned again and fixed me with a scowl. He had big hands, big feet, big elbows and knees, and a big head. Everything was big, except his short arms and legs.
“What do y’mean, ‘ewwww,’?” he said, and put his hands on his hips. He was maybe three feet tall, or just over. “Nothin’ ewww-ey about it.”
He looked at Davis.
“Greetin’s, Sire,” he said, bowing. “I been prayin’ I’d meet ye here.”
I fell over.
I looked at Davis, who was just standing there, smiling his vague smile. The one he had for everything.
“What?” I shouted again. It’s kind of hard to sound stern and grown-up when you’ve just fallen on your butt in surprise.
The short little man still had his hands on his hips. His beard covered everything. Thank goodness.
“You know,” he said. “Sire. Lord. Like that.”
“You know him?” I was still shouting, “You know Davis?”
“That what ye’re calling him now?” asked the little man. “Davis?”
He rubbed his chin. Then his backside.
I scrambled to my feet. This wasn’t happening.
Then it hit me.
Square in the face.
That’s what a grown-up would say. This isn’t happening. It’s impossible.
That’s because grown-ups can’t see clear.
Then it hit me more.
That’s where the magic goes.
I could see the little man.
Bet a grown-up just couldn’t, because grown-ups don’t want to. They don’t believe.
The magic doesn’t go away. Kids can see it, because we don’t know how things are supposed to be. When you don’t know how Life is supposed to be, then Life can be anything.
And we could see the little man. And the cave.
The little man rubbed his hands together, and held one out.
“Name’s Murdo,” he said.
Davis laughed outright, and stepped up to grab Murdo’s outstretched hand. He even pulled his mitten off first.
I stepped back.
There was no telling where that hand had been. In fact I had just seen it.
But I gave my head a shake. I was starting to get some stuff.
Kids eat dirt. They do it all the time. It’s not dirty.
It’s healthy. Kids change into adults when they watch all those happy Mom’s on TV, dancing around and spraying germ-killer all over their houses so their kids don’t die. Where’s the fun in that?
It was a Rocketman moment. As in the lunch bucket. Go for it, kiddo.
So, I pulled off my glove, and stuck out my hand, too.
But I wasn’t the only one having a Rocketman moment.
Holding Davis’s hand, Murdo slowly knelt in the snow, and his face took on a look of pure joy. Tears ran down his cheeks. I had never seen anything like this. Ever. A face that happy. Well, except for Davis himself, who seemed that joyful almost all the time. Is that what autism is? If Davis really is autistic? Just too much joy?
Murdo was crying.
It was okay crying, though. Not like Jimmy and the bonehead on the bus, snivelling just because they got smashed in the face for doing something they shouldn’t.
I decided to be a kid. This was all real—Murdo, all of it, and it was okay. Believing is seeing.
I stepped up beside the little man kneeling in the snow and holding my brother’s hand like it was a precious thing.
“Ye’ve come back,” Murdo was saying softly. I even stopped noticing he was naked. He was just a little man from a cave.
“Ye’ve come back over the Bridge.”
“The Bridge?” I asked. I looked back towards the trees and home.
“There’s no Bridge around here.”
Murdo looked at me with shining eyes.
“The willows,” he said. “’Tis hidden in the willows. Must be. Beneath them arches. It follows that little creek.
“When ye has need of it, there it is, like. Beyond. Just beyond the Boundary of your world.”
“You mean the fence? Around our property? Dad and Grandpa put that fence up when we were little kids.”
“Aye,” said Murdo.
He stood up.
“Welcome home, Sire,” he said.
“Wait,” I said, still having moments where some kind of grownup thing about common sense was trying to blast me clear out of the realms of childhood. I shook my head.
“That fence. It’s some kind of boundary?”
Murdo still held Davis’s hand. Davis was looking positively angelic. Well, I never....
“Aye. A Boundary,” said Murdo. “When ye needs it, ye can cross.
“An’ the Bridge.
“It’s been waitin’ for ye.”
“Wait a second. For…for me. For me? And for Davis?”
“Oh, aye. Sire. Davis?”
Davis nodded happily. If I looked carefully, I could sort of see light around his hand, and Murdo’s.
“You called him Sire. Is that like, you know, King?”
“It’s Prince. Prince. We bin—bin—in need.” His grip on Davis’s hand tightened. He looked back at me.
“We knows about you, too.
“We knows who ye are.”
Or should I say, rubbish? Who could tell? I was sure if they knew who I was, it was more than I knew myself.
“I—I—I guess I don’t need to understand,” I said finally. I let out a deep breath. Davis laughed and turned and gave me a hug around the waist.
A huge weight seemed to lift off my chest.
And I fell back into the arms of childhood.
Murdo was just some guy we met, who fell out of a cave. Like any other day.
Cool. We were on the run from the Beefs, and the bald man, and the burned kid, and school, and had just come over the Bridge beyond the Boundary.
Then two things happened.
A helicopter blasted by right overhead. Treetop level.
It scared the hell out of us.
“What were that thing?” squeaked a crouching Murdo.
“It’s a machine that flies!” I shouted. “There are bad men in there looking for Davis! They want to hurt him!”
And then there was the scream.
A shrieking, coughing, thirsty thing.
“What was that?” I managed.
“Somethin’ from our world,” said Murdo. “This little valley here is where they meets in the mist. Yer world an’ mine. That thing be a Cat. A killer. It can move around the Bridge, but it can’t cross. It’s lookin’ fer somethin’. It’s bin cursed, an’ won’ never stop ’til it finds what it’s been sent fer.”
He looked at Davis with dread.
“You,” he said.
The scream came again. And then the cat came out of the trees. It was like that cougar. Slinking. Mindless. With big yellow eyes.
But it wasn’t like that cougar at all.
It was inky black, shiny black. Huge, at least twice the size.
And it was coming. Slouching low, head moving back and forth.
Davis had let me go. Shack was crouching beside us. We were all frozen with terror. There was no protection from that thing.
“Sire, Prince, come with me!” urged Murdo, who seemed to have come to his senses.
“We has to go back through the cave! Quick! It’s the last step back! We ain’t safe here, half-way between!”
This hit me.
“Let’s go!” I said. “Shack, come! Murdo, help!”
“Follow me!” he said.
He scrambled back up the mud flow from the cave. He had to crouch and bend over as he went.
It’s not his butt, I told myself, a stupid elementary school girl thought. I pushed Davis ahead of me, and the cat screamed again and charged.
Shack turned and ran back towards the cat, barking furiously. I could see that flashing black death, moving like lightning—I screamed as the cat simply vaulted over Shack—and Davis turned, smiling, and his fist punched towards the cat even as it leaped onto us—and
The cat crashed into an invisible wall, some kind of force, and was smashed down to the ground in mid leap, howling in pain.
Davis, looking fierce for the first time I had ever seen, turned and climbed into the cave, with me pushing him from behind. The cat was up again with a shriek, charging up the muddy scree, and was on us in the entrance to the cave and--
Smashed us aside, and was past, and gone, down the long, low tunnel into the dark.
We were left silent and gasping, there in the entrance to the cave.
I looked back. It seemed as though a fog, a shimmering barrier, had fallen. The helicopter came back and whup-whupped overhead, but that world was fading, had already faded, or had never been.
I didn’t know which.
I could just make out Shack as he ran back and forth wildly near the bottom of the pile of mud and dirt, but it was clear he could no longer see or smell us. We were being drawn, pulled into—into what? We had crossed the Bridge beyond the Boundary, and now were--
“Where does this take us?” I managed to gasp to the little naked man who had come out of a cave, and to the little Prince, who maybe used to be my brother.
“Where are we going?”
Murdo stood up painfully. He pointed down the low tunnel, which really was full of dirt, and rocks, and roots, and grubs.
“Eldan,” he said.
Well, that didn’t sound so bad. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to go have a look. Our old world was still there, sort of. A new one, this Eldan, might be alright....
A nice little town, a tiny village, maybe. Picket fences. Window boxes. Little naked people. Not too bad at all.
First, the tunnel.
We could tell we were passing from one kind of world to another. We could feel it in our skin, a prickling and humming, and soon our whole bodies vibrated. It was like we were pushing through a layer of buzz. Energy, or something. I could feel Davis’s enthusiasm, and my own curiosity had taken over, in spite of the cat—or maybe because of it. Murdo didn’t have to duck much, but I cracked my head painfully a few times. So did Davis. Good thing we had the hoods of our parkas up. They saved us from the worst of it.
Finally, Davis did something with his hands, and produced a faint glow, and it helped us to stumble our way forward. Away from the Beefs. And the bald guy who wanted to experiment on Davis.
Away from Mom and Dad, too. And our warm house with the tall windows that let the sunlight in, the only home I had ever known. We’ll go back in a couple of hours, I told myself. I’ll look after you, Davis. He turned to me then and smiled as he trudged in front of me. Murdo led the way.
If Davis was worried, he didn’t let on, but I started casting glances back over my shoulder. Doubt was setting in. My mind going back and forth. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. That cat.... We knew it had been injured and had fled off down the tunnel ahead of us. I tried not to think of it waiting for us, crouching in the dark.
After a forever of stumbling and bumping into each other even in the dim light from Davis, I noticed a faint light ahead of us. Murdo slowed down.
“This be the most dangerousest part,” he whispered to us. “They catches us if they finds the entrance to a tunnel. They just waits there. They has nets sometimes....” I could feel him shuddering.
“Nets?” I whispered back. “Who has nets?”
“The—the—the Knights,” said Murdo. “Sire, put out your light! Someone will see!”
Davis giggled. This was a pretty good game.
I put my arm around him from behind.
“Shhh,” I said. “You have to be quiet, and can you let your light go? That will be better.”
He nodded, and the glow faded, and his light disappeared. How—?
He was changing; I could tell. He had more control over the light just from walking through Murdo’s tunnel.
Slowly, we crept towards the opening at the end of the cave. As we got closer, I could tell it was daylight outside, but the entrance was screened with bushes. I thought our cave must be nearly invisible from the outside.
“Look,” said Murdo very quietly. We crept right to the barrier of shrubby branches and he showed us where some of them were broken, and pointing outward. There was a single track as big as a dinner plate in the soft dirt at our feet.
Murdo put his finger to his lips. Davis smiled but he didn’t make any noise. Then Murdo showed us some red stuff on a couple of the broken branches.
It had to be the cat. It was wounded from Davis’s blast.
“It be out there somewhere, waitin’,” Murdo shivered. “They never stops, them cats. Ever.”
He looked at us.
“The Masters, the dark wizards, makes ’em,” he said. “Them cats ain’t natural. They’s bred. Intentional, like. Big, filled with hate. They ain’t got no hair. Just black hide. All skin an’ bone. Maybe they don’t hunt or eat no more after they’s sent out. Nobody knows.
“The Masters tells ’em to kill lords an’ nobles. It ain’t worth it wastin’ one o’ them cats on poor folks. That’s what I thinks, anyways.” He wiped his nose on his dirty arm and squatted down.
“It be about mid-morning, I reckon,” he said. “If that cat’s out there an’ hurt bad, it’ll stiffen up if we waits. Might give us a better chance. We has to go out in daylight, though. After dark, cats is worse. Now, we has to look out fer Knights, damn ’em.”
“Knights is supposed to help people, protect ’em. Maybe some is alright. But mostly, we needs protectin’ from them.”
“The Knights are bad?” I asked.
“Ain’t no one to stop ’em. Long ago, they used to be good. Now, they just takes what they wants.”
Murdo spat again.
“So they sings an’ dances, an’ harps an’ strums ’bout how noble they all is, an’ brave fer ridin’ down a few peasants every day. An’ little people, like me.
“We’s slaves. All us little people. I’m a runaway. Why I lives in a hole.
“But I showed ’em. I tunnelled through, dint I? I dreamed ’bout it, afore I run off. ’Bout the Bridge. An’ the Boundary.”
“You came to get us? Me and Davis?”
“The King be dead. We all knows it. He used to govern the whole earth, like. Made things grow, an’ people behave. Only the King can keep order. Or the Queen. But she’s gone. Asleep, some say, under a mountain. I think she be dead, too. Or close enough it don’ matter.
“So in their place we has the Masters, dark wizards, controllin’ everythin’, then the Lords an’ their hounds, the Knights, takin’ everythin’ they want.”
He looked through the bushes at the cave mouth, far away into a distance only he could see.
“But now we got a Prince. The Heir, come to save us.”
“Davis? But how?”
“Don’t know, exactly. I listened to all them stories, an’ then I started havin’ dreams, an’ followed me nose. An’ here we be.”
I thought there must be more to it than that. And I was scared, too. But Knights?
This I had to see. Shiny armour and all that. Maybe we could just sneak outside for a bit. But this Eldan sounded frightening, too. Masters, Lords and slaves. Marauding Knights. Terrifying beasts, made to hunt and kill whoever the Masters wanted.
So, I wanted to go outside but was afraid to. Is that what drew bad kids? To trouble, I mean? The ones who wanted to find danger? Trouble always seemed to find me. Maybe I was bad, too. Needing that feeling only trouble can bring.
So, we waited. Waited for me to find trouble.
After what seemed a long time, Murdo finally said,
“Well, if that cat’s outside waitin’, he’ll be pretty stove up by now.” He looked at me. “It’s somethin’ hunters counts on,” he said. “If an animal’s cornered, wounded, an’ dangerous, jus’ wait him out. He’ll stiffen up too much to fight, or maybe jus’ die.”
I filed this information.
“Mind you,” Murdo added, “I never been a hunter. Jus’ bait.”
He bent over and pushed slowly and quietly through the bushes at the side of the cave near the floor, and soon disappeared from sight.
It’s not his butt, I told myself.
I don’t know what I expected when we followed him through the bushes at the cave mouth.
Something like home, maybe. A forest. Or maybe a burned out, spooky place. Smoking and haunted. Like in a movie. Or maybe a pretty village, like in pictures of the Middle Ages in our Grade 5 Socials book.
Not this. I hadn’t expected this.
It was beautiful.
It was summer.
And here we were in parkas and snow boots. Kind of like in spring in town back home. We had snow into nearly May at our house, and went to town on the bus still in parkas when town kids were in shirt sleeves. We had snow boots. They had sneakers. I had a couple of fights about that, too.
It was the colour. Like home, but not. Here, you could see everything glow. The leaves around us, fine and almost transparent. The tree trunks. The grass sprouting in the dirt at our feet. The dirt itself.
It was alive, and I knew what we were seeing was the life glowing in everything around us. I had to catch my breath.
We were on a little shelf high on a steep hillside, with brush and clumps of trees below us. There was bare rock overhead, casting our little hideout in shadow. The valley below stretched into the hazy distance to our left and right. We could see fields, and the occasional group of small huts. They might have been thatched. It was hard to tell from this distance. We could see tiny roadways—tracks, really—and a meandering stream down the valley centre.
Everything shimmered, everything looked far too bright, and clear, and the sky—it was like our sky, deep and forever, but a faint purple, not blue. I was still holding my breath.
I knew this place.
Something about it. Beautiful. Beautiful and dangerous. But still, we were here, on the high hill on the edge of the valley, at the mouth of Murdo’s cave, and the hill and the air, and the trees and fields and sky, all of it ached with summer, as my heart ached with the sight of it.
I had to brush tears from my eyes. I looked at Davis, and there was his special smile, the one he had only for me, and it was for me, but I knew it was for this Eldan, too. I breathed deeply. I couldn’t get enough of this new, and yet familiar, air.
“Oh, aye,” said Murdo softly. “ ’Tis like that. ’Tis why I come fer ye.”
He opened his arms, and did a turn, and I laughed to see him wearing a short, plaid kilt, a tartan of greens, colours taken from the land around us. I hadn’t noticed him putting it on.
“Don’t wear it in the hole,” he said.
I threw back the hood to my parka, then unzipped it to let it fall behind me. Davis did the same. We were both still overdressed with the extra sweaters I had grabbed from the Batcave back home. We opened those as well. There was nothing we could do about our heavy pants, or our snowboots. Oh, well. Canadian kids. What could I say? Children of Winter. And now what? Children of Eldan?
Here we were in a new world. And it was summer.
The trees and brush smelled of it, like pine and balsam at home after a heat wave. Even the shallow soil where we stood smelled of life and growth.
Then we looked down the slope to a little clearing in front of us and saw the cat. Black, huge, and snarling. Only thirty feet away.
It started up the slope after us, mouth open—then it staggered, its back legs gave out, and it toppled over onto its side, front paws stretched out towards us, claws dug into the earth like daggers. A small cloud of dust rose around it.
It lay there, panting.
Davis darted down the slope towards it.
“Sire!” hissed Murdo. “No!”
He stood rooted in his spot, hands twisted in his beard. This was bad.
I ran down after my brother, not knowing what I was going to do. That cat was still alive, wounded, and there was Davis standing between its front paws, and those terrible claws. What could those curved weapons do to a little boy—I reached him and tried to pull him back.
“Davis!” I whispered hoarsely. “Get away!”
But the cat did nothing. Davis knelt in front of the cat’s open, panting mouth. I seemed powerless to pull him away. What was going on here? Davis could have crawled right into that mouth. The cat’s tongue lolled. It seemed as big as my arm. The teeth were easily as long as my hand.
Its face was burned all along one side. There was almost no hide remaining on its left shoulder, the side of its neck, and part way down the left side of its body. The left front leg was twisted and broken.
Davis reached out and grabbed one of the long upper fangs. Just at the end. He tugged and shook it gently. The cat’s gasping pants worsened. It was clear it was in agony.
Tough, I thought. Tough garbanzos.
Serves you right.
Yet my heart, so tugged by the beauty of the land around me, somehow couldn’t keep its anger hot. This creature, if Murdo was right, had had a curse laid on it, whatever that meant, so that it had to kill. It maybe couldn’t eat, or drink, or sleep, or stop for rest—it was driven to be what it was. Made to be what it was.
“Don’t hurt it,” I said. “We have to go. It’s dying. You finished it at the other end of the cave.”
Davis shook his head. He was still holding that enormous fang. He placed his other hand on the cat’s burned and broken foreleg. He began humming. Not a tune or anything. Just a little noise. The cat’s panting slowed. Was there a faint glow coming from Davis’s hands? Kind of like a circuit or something? A glow running into the creature’s mouth and then coming down its leg? It was hard to tell. But something was going on. Davis was doing a something.
I gasped, kneeling there beside him in the dry earth. Grass was growing between the cat’s paws. Right there. And then around us.
And the burns. Something was growing over them. My hand went to my mouth. There was skin growing. Cat hide. It was growing back over the burns. Davis was conducting a healing. Of the thing which had been bound to kill him.
I grabbed him.
“Are you crazy?” I hissed in his ear.
He turned an angelic face towards me. He nodded.
“You are crazy! It’s going to come after us again! Murdo says so! Right?”
Murdo was standing beside us now, his hands still wringing his beard.
“Aye,” he said nervously. “The curse can’t never be broke. Never. ’Tis terrible magic. Come away, Sire. Ye’re saving yer enemy, ye are, an’ someone is bound to find us!” He looked around and overhead.
“There be Knights, everywhere. Lookin’ fer runaways! Come quick! Run!”
But it was no good. Davis remained, the cat’s breathing eased, and the healing continued. We must have been crouching for a long time, although it didn’t really seem like it. Maybe time was different here, along with the living earth, the grass sprouting all around us, and the healing glow around a mighty carnivore that was going to rip us to bits as soon as it was able to stand.
Finally, Davis’s hands just floated free. It was over. The cat lay still, flopped there on its side, its mouth open wide, and tongue still hanging in the dirt. That beast was huge. The head alone was almost two feet wide. A monster. And it was starving. Sinew, muscle, and bone, all easily visible. What could do that to an animal like this? What must these terrible Masters be like? And there were Nobles, who had slaves, and owned everything. Like Murdo, who lived naked in a cave rather than face his enslavement. Who dug through a mountain, or through a world, to find help. And there were Knights. Playground bullies left to grow up, who had weapons and power, so nothing could stand in their way. So they, too, like the cats, would never, ever stop.
I looked nervously back up the slope to the place where the cave was hidden. It wasn’t too late to go back. I’d had my look at this new world. I didn’t think I wanted to see Knights any more. I knew the type.
Then the cat snorted, and sneezed, and a big bunch of snot came out. It reeled upright, and pushed itself into a sitting position. We all jumped back, except Davis. Even sitting, the cat towered over him. Davis stood up, still between the cat’s paws, his head below the cat’s chin. The cat just looked at him. It struggled to get its back legs working, and finally stood on all fours. It staggered away from us, and stopped. It looked at us with glaring yellow eyes, and its claws sank into the earth and withdrew, back and forth, then it stepped into the trees away from the little clearing where it had fallen.
It stopped there, nearly invisible in the shadows. It hissed at us, then fell silent, watching.
We went back up to the shelf in front of the cave, picked up our parkas, and tied them by the sleeves around our waists. No point in leaving them behind. It was winter on the other side anyway.
We both gave a gasp of dismay when we pushed back through the bushes hiding the tunnel, and found solid rock.
The tunnel, the way home, was gone.