"Did you notice anything . . . I don't know, odd, when you were in there?"
Sarbacker lifted his chin slightly, brow furrowed with confusion. "Odd as in how?"
"Did you smell anything?"
The detective blinked. Thomas widened his eyes, dropped his head, urging the man to answer.
"Flowers, I suppose," Sarbacker said. "The usual hospital smells."
"Think about it," Thomas prodded.
For a moment, the man actually closed his eyes. He opened his mouth, breathed in slowly. When his eyes opened, he looked at Thomas strangely.
"I did smell something else," Sarbacker recalled. "I guess I passed it off as your wife's perfume or shampoo or something."
"She's my ex-wife, and she hasn't showered since yesterday morning," Thomas said quickly. "What did you smell."
With the tiniest of shrugs, Sarbacker said, "Oranges."
"Oranges," Thomas agreed. "It comes and goes, but the smell is coming from Nathan, almost as if he's breathing it out. I thought maybe it was some chemical reaction from the poison or . . . but you're saying he wasn't poisoned."
"Not that the doctors can tell."
"Oranges," Thomas said again, and steepled his fingers beneath his chin.
"Where's the smell coming from, then?" the detective asked.
Thomas didn't have an answer.
* * * * *
He heard beeping. Beep, beep, beep, beep. Not like the Road Runner, but steady along, like a robot. Beeping faster and faster. Beating faster and faster. Beating.
He was crying. He could taste the salt of his tears.
Nathan's heart hammered in his chest. He could barely breathe because he was crying so hard. He knew that if he didn't stop he would throw up, but it didn't matter.
"He's . . . he's ours fair and square!" Cragskull snarled.
But he and Longtooth didn't come anywhere near Nathan, not an inch closer. There was a long moment when nobody said anything, when even the Orange Pealers had stopped wailing, even the wind had died. Glittering orange starlight shone down on the path. The smell of fire — of the Land of Bells and Whistles burning to cinders not far off — drifted through the air.
The Peanut Butter General stood at the top of the rise, swathed in bees. He took one step forward. The Orange Pealers scrabbled several feet down the hill toward where Nathan lay in the dirt.
"Bob?" Cragskull whispered anxiously, green fire spurting from above his left eye, where his skull was cleaved in two. It happened when he was angry or afraid.
Next to the fire-headed troll, Bob Longtooth took a brave step forward and raised his chin defiantly, glaring at the Peanut Butter General.
Nathan Randall threw up in the dirt and the smell made him cry even harder as he scrambled aside, trying to keep the puke off his clothes. He had to pee again, and bit his lip as he tried to hold it. His pants already stank with urine.
"Mommy," he heaved, his breath coming in spurts. "Da-daddy?"
"You'll be all right, boy," the Peanut Butter General said, his voice sticky, his mouth filled with peanut butter. It stretched in a web from lip to lip, and bees buzzed in and out whenever he opened his mouth.
Nathan stopped breathing, stared, wide-eyed. The General might be trying to help him, but Nathan was even more afraid of him and the bees than he was of Longtooth and Cragskull.
"Traitor," Longtooth finally snarled, staring at the General. "You know thisss isss how it hasss to be. Our Boy mussst be returned. The wood needsss him. Whatever mussst be done mussst be done."
"Not like this," the Peanut Butter General said.
Then he extended one hand and pointed at Nathan. "Take him."
The Orange Pealers screamed, and Nathan thought they sounded almost happy. They ran on their tiny legs down the hill, rows of needle teeth gnashing and spears waving. They came right toward Nathan and the boy closed his eyes, retreating completely. He couldn't look.
Until Bob Longtooth clasped a clawed hand on his arm and started to pull him to his feet. Nathan's eyes flashed open just as Longtooth began to shriek, a scream and a roar combined. It was the bees. They were swarming around Longtooth's head and he let Nathan drop to the ground again, swatting at his face.
The screaming little fruit men ran by Nathan and sank their teeth into Bob's legs, some of them jumping up to bite and stab at Cragskull. For a moment, Cragskull tried to bat them away, to duck the bees. But then Bob Longtooth turned and ran, and the instant Cragskull saw him, he did the same.
"Traitor!" Cragskull snarled as he disappeared into the gnarled and dead trees on the side of the path.
Nathan didn't know how he did it, but he stopped crying, then. Too scared even for that, he breathed quickly, terror bringing air in ragged gasps, as he stared around wide-eyed. The Orange Pealers made a circle around him, but most of them faced outward, spears at the ready, screaming a challenge to the darkness off the path.
They were . . . protecting him?
It didn't make any sense. The Peanut Butter General had said he'd be all right, but he couldn't be trusted. He was a bad guy. The worst, in fact, except maybe for the Jackal Lantern. And the Orange Pealers . . . they were savage, like wolves or something. This wasn't right. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Even Nathan knew that.
But then, nothing in Strangewood was how it was supposed to be.
"Hello, Nathan," a buzzing voice said.
Nathan jumped, turned frantically to see who had talked to him, so close by.
It was the bees, of course. There were hundreds of them, in a small cloud now, flowing like a cloud just behind him. He stared at them, afraid that they would begin to attack, to sting, at any moment. Nathan had never been stung by a bee, but he feared them horribly.
"We won't hurt you, Nathan," the buzzing voice said again.
Somehow Nathan realized that it wasn't a real voice. It was the bees' voice, the bees talking. The buzzing of the whole swarm as they greeted him.
The Orange Pealers fell silent.
A sound like feet stuck in mud made Nathan whip his head around. Directly in front of him, the Peanut Butter General crouched down and studied Nathan. The boy flinched.
"I said you'd be all right, boy," the General reminded him. "I always mean what I say."
"He does, he does," buzzed the bees.
Nathan at first avoided the gaze of the Peanut Butter General, but eventually, he felt as though he had to look. Slowly, fearfully, he looked up into the General's eyes, where stringers of peanut butter stretched from eyelash to eyelash. But beyond that, the eyes were kind. Even sad.
"Can I . . ." Nathan began, the words catching in his throat. "Can I go home now? I miss my mom."
The Peanut Butter General thought for a moment, then quickly moved a hand up to flick some bees off the peanut butter coated brim of his military cap. Nathan flinched again, frightened. Then he winced in pain and bit his lip to keep from crying again. His back was still bleeding, he thought, feeling the wetness on his skin.
"Here," the General said curtly. "Let me look at that."
He reached around behind Nathan and the boy began to whimper. But when the Peanut Butter General's sticky hand touched Nathan's back, the pain seemed to go away. The peanut butter was cold and soothing.
"Is that any better?" the sticky voice asked.
"Yes, thank you," Nathan said, uncertainly. "I'm . . . my name is Nathan. I live in Tarrytown."
The Peanut Butter General smiled down at him.
"Yes, son," he said. "I know who you are. And once I figure out how they got you here, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you get home."
With that, the Peanut Butter General slowly reached his hands under Nathan, unmindful of the pee and the puke, but ever so careful not to frighten the boy any further, and lifted him into gooey, greasy arms. The bees buzzed around the General's legs and behind his back, some creating an insectoid halo above the peanut butter man's head, but they stayed away from his face and chest. Away from where he held Nathan.
"You'll have to have something else to wear," the General said, then glanced down at the Orange Pealers. "See to it," he said.
Several of the Pealers screamed loudly, a sound like the squealing of a subway train coming into a station, and ran off into the forest. The others continued along with the General.
Nathan was still terrified. His heart still beat wildly and his eyes darted around, watchful for any danger that might spring out at them. The smell of peanut butter was so strong he was both hungry and even more nauseous at the same time. But of the General, he was no longer afraid. The books must be wrong, he thought. Of course they were.
He'd seen the eyes of the Peanut Butter General, and they were very kind.
As they walked back along the Winding Way, Nathan's mind drifted back to all the stories his father had read him or told him about Strangewood. He thought of all the places there and realized that Strangewood was an awfully big place. It wouldn't be long, he thought, before they would come to Grumbler's cottage, and then the Rickety Bridge after that.
With a shiver, Nathan thought of what lurked beneath the Rickety Bridge, and he huddled closer in the Peanut Butter General's arms. Before he realized it, his eyelids began to droop.
Nathan Randall fell asleep in the arms of an all too familiar monster.
* * * * *
As an intern stripped and changed Nathan's bed, a nurse named Frank Pearlman held Nathan in his strong arms.
"Poor kid," the intern said. "They don't know what's wrong with him?"
"Not yet," the nurse replied. "Not a clue, so far."
Thomas couldn't think.
Instead, he cried.
On a small jetty, built of massive quarry stones, that jutted out into the Hudson River, he sat and wept with frustration. Nothing in his life had prepared him for the feelings that swept over him now. Grief over the loss of loved ones, physical agony, none of it compared to the anguish and helplessness that crippled him now.
It was Tuesday morning and nothing had changed. He had spent the night in a hard plastic recliner in Nathan's hospital room, barely a foot away from where Emily slept on a cot. This morning, Nathan still lay motionless on his sturdy, comfortless bed. The used-to-be Randalls had declared a sort of truce, based upon feelings they'd once had for one another, and upon certain things that would never go away: an abiding, bemused affection, and a joint devotion to Nathan.
Emily volunteered to stay while Thomas went home to shower and change, so that he could then do the same for her. In that way, Nathan would never be alone, though whether he knew they were there or not, Dr. Gershmann could not say. He certainly could not see them. The doctors had been forced to tape Nathan's eyes shut to prevent them from drying out. The effect was unnerving; he looked like some horrid human experiment.
When Thomas reached his house in Ardsley, there had been seven messages on the answering machine. He didn't listen to them. He didn't look at the mail as he dumped it onto the kitchen table. Things that held an almost ritualistic importance in his life no longer had any value at all. He had showered, not bothering to shave, and pulled on a faded green V neck T-shirt and a clean pair of blue jeans.
But somehow, on the way back to the hospital, he had been sidetracked. He couldn't do it. Couldn't go back there just yet. Thomas knew he needed a moment to himself, a moment inside his own head, to commune with his id, or whatever. All he really knew was that he'd been so benumbed by the events of the past two days that he could barely think.
Which put him here, after a quick detour in the Volvo. Thomas stared out at the Hudson River, the surface ripples belying the profound power lurking there. He'd paid four dollars to park in the lot of a tree-lined picnic area in Philipse Manor, a slightly snooty suburb just north of Sleepy Hollow. He only had a few minutes — didn't want Emily to feel as though he was taking advantage of her — but it was worth four bucks just for the tranquility. Other than a few oldsters, there weren't many people home to spend time in the park on a late Tuesday morning. And the older people weren't going to be walking out on a rocky outcropping with the river flowing by only inches away.
He was alone.
"God, Nathan, I'm sorry," he whispered to the river.
Never in his life had Thomas felt so frail. He needed desperately to do something, anything, to help Nathan. Find the right doctor, track down a missing clue, find the stalker and beat the crap out of him. The two things were apparently unrelated, but Thomas couldn't help but feel that they were: that there was some connection nobody was seeing. And violence would have felt so good to him then.
With a sigh, he realized he ought to get moving. Thomas wiped the back of his hand across his face, smearing the tears but not erasing them completely. He planted one hand on the edge of a large stone, and had just begun to rise when he heard a distant splash out on the river.
Thomas grunted to himself and turned, propped in a ridiculous position for that moment, to see something wide and black disappear beneath the river's surface, cutting down into the water like a whale's tail.
"What the hell?" he muttered as he stood and brushed mostly imaginary dirt from his butt.
Curious, he narrowed his eyes and watched the surface of the water, waiting for whatever it was to crest once more. To show itself. In his mind's eye, he tried to picture what it had looked like, but couldn’t. Just his imagination, now, trying to layer a subconscious idea on top of the reality. Seemed that had been happening a lot lately.
Nearly a minute passed as he stood there. Thomas reached into his left hand front pocket, where he always kept his keys, and pulled them out by the plastic case of his alarm remote control. Reluctantly, he turned to go, still wondering what kind of freshwater fish got to be as big as the thing he'd seen, though he'd only seen it for a moment.
With a shrug meant only for himself, Thomas glanced around to see that he was, indeed, alone, save for two old gents playing chess at a table under an enormous oak, which seemed to be holding up the sky itself. Nobody else would have seen it, he thought, and began to carefully pick his way along the jetty toward the green grass of the park. At the end of the rocky outcropping, just before he stepped onto the grass, Thomas turned to look again.