"I think I'm losing it, Em," Thomas confessed. "I think this whole thing is going to drive me right over the edge."
Emily turned to glance at her new lover. Thomas averted his eyes, looking instead at the dried floral arrangement on the other side of the room. It sat on an antique sideboard, flanked by an ancient but sturdy rocker and the enormous plant he'd taken note of when he entered. On the wall above the sideboard was an ornate antique mirror. In it, Thomas could see the entire room reflected back at him. Or almost. He could see himself in the rattan rocker, with Hayes on the other end of the image. Between them stood Emily.
The house was hers.
"Joe, would you mind putting water on for tea?" Emily asked gently.
From her tone, Thomas could tell she was uncertain of the answer she might receive. He had known her long enough to gauge even her smallest inflections. When he was paying attention. And that had been the problem, hadn't it? He hadn't paid attention often enough.
Hayes inhaled deeply and nodded so slightly that Thomas wondered if the man were aware of it. His eyes were an odd, flat color, and they gave him the impression of wisdom. He was only five years younger than Thomas himself, but looking at him now, Thomas felt as though the distance was so much greater. The weight of his fear and his anxiety had made him feel so old. Hayes was still at an age where he carried himself with the carefree attitude of the young and the foolish.
Thomas had taken his measure. Hayes did not seem like a fool. Not at all.
"Why don't you two talk?" Joe said after a heartbeat's hesitation. "I'll be in the kitchen with tea when you're ready."
Emily smiled. Thomas blinked.
He'd been off somewhere. Not himself. Recognition of what had just happened was slow in coming, but now that it was here, he could hardly believe it. He didn't want Emily's lover making him tea. He didn't want Joe Hayes in his house, no matter what he thought of the man.
"No, I . . .” he began, and Emily frowned, turning toward him. Thomas paused, then closed his mouth.
It wasn't his house anymore.
"That would be appreciated," he said to both of them, his ex-wife and the man who now shared with her what had once been the Randalls' marriage bed.
Joe turned and pushed through the two-way swinging kitchen door. Thomas watched the way the hinges worked with great appreciation. He'd spent a lot of money to have that door put in. And the dark green detailing on the door, which Emily had done herself. Back when she'd had the time to spend on such things.
When the door had stopped its pendulous motion, Emily came near to him. She sat on the arm of the sofa and clasped her hands on her knees, bent over to meet his gaze the same way she would do with Nathan when she wanted to get his attention.
"Thomas," she said tenderly. "What's going on?"
So he told her. He told her all of it.
By the time the tea kettle began to whistle, Joe Hayes had skimmed every bit of the paper, including the things he'd already read that morning. He'd checked the stats of his favorite teams, when he normally only looked at the scores from the previous day. He'd rummaged around and found a package of oatmeal cookies that were nibbling at the fringes of stale, but he ate them anyway. It was a distraction, and any distraction was good when it came to this whole situation.
It was absurd. Surreal, actually. That was more the term he'd been searching for. He couldn't blame Thomas Randall for being a little whacko at the moment, what with all that was happening to Nathan. He also could not blame the man for his discomfort. Hell, he probably still thought of this place as his house and Emily as his wife. At least a part of him would have. It was only natural.
The whole thing made Joe intensely uncomfortable as well, and as he read a review in the Arts section about a foreign film he knew he would never see, he allowed himself to wonder what in God's name he was still doing there. In the past, he'd avoided involvement with women who were divorced, or single mothers. Avoided older women, too, at least since college. He'd always believed that at his age, he needed to start fresh with someone.
No baggage. That's what he'd been looking for. He was just getting started, after all. He'd been on the fast track pretty much his whole life, ahead of the curve both academically and later, professionally. He'd had his tragedies like everyone else — his older brother had broken his neck taking a bad dive at summer camp when they were boys, and Joe was the first one to realize he was dead. His mother, even now, was struggling through a valiant war against breast cancer, a war the doctors said she had every hope of winning. In his way, Joe had baggage too.
But he had always thought he would end up with someone in the same position, someone just getting started. He'd graduated college at twenty, received his Master's at twenty two, and even now, as an associate professor of English at Marymount College, he was working toward his Ph.D. He was only twenty-six. He'd never had a new car, never owned his own home, never even had a pet all to himself. He had always thought he would share all those things with someone who was also experiencing them for the first time.
That was before Emily. That was before he'd fallen in love.
When he'd met her, he had known she had baggage. She had not hidden anything from him. Ex-husband, a son, a career going strong. Debts. Doubts. Attachments he could never hope to touch.
But that was before any of this. Before Nathan was hospitalized, before this crazy “stalker” business, before Thomas had started to act like a lunatic. As he sat there, in a hard oak chair, barely perceiving the words of Ann Landers, Joe Hayes thought very seriously about lighting out for greener pastures. He could do it, too. Just take off. No one would blame him. Not even Emily, though he was certain she'd be hurt. He hadn't signed up for all of this pain and anguish, never mind the awkwardness of it all.
For Christ's sake, he was only twenty-six years old. This soap opera wasn't meant for someone his age. And now Thomas was getting a bit frayed about the edges, maybe more than a bit. That could get even uglier.
Joe buried his face in his hands, elbows on the edge of the kitchen table. He was tired, and frustrated, and too much in love. For when he pictured Emily in his mind, when he looked around the kitchen, when he thought of Nathan — whose face he'd only ever seen in pictures — lying in that hospital bed . . . he just couldn't walk away.
That wasn't the way Joe Hayes was built.
The tea kettle was still whistling, and he'd let it go, assuming it would be enough to call Emily and her ex into the kitchen. Now he rose, took the kettle off the burner, and fixed himself a cup of tea. It was chamomile, and already, it was something he associated with Emily.
With the rain pounding the window at the far end of the kitchen, and the warm mug steaming in his hands, Joe sat down to wait out the storm. No matter what, he vowed, he was in it for the long haul. Or, at least, as long as Emily wanted him there.
* * * * *
A cool breeze blew off the broad lake behind Grumbler's cottage. In the clearing in front of the cottage, just along the Winding Way, the Peanut Butter General stood holding Grumbler's fedora in his right hand, with the left resting on the pommel of his sheathed sword.
For once, the Orange Pealers were silent.
"Why should we trust you?" Brownie growled.
The others, one by one, mumbled or merely nodded their agreement with the grizzly. The General squinted, his vision splintered through a web of peanut butter stretched between his eyelids. He didn't notice, of course, for there was nothing at all unusual about this. With a low grunt of annoyance, the General scrutinized those who had gathered in the clearing: there was the grizzly, of course, the dancing bear they had all taken for a fool for so very long; the musical little dragon — the General thought he was called Fiddlehead or . . . yes, Fiddlestick; Dave the Crow; Mr. Tinklebum, the little bell-bottomed man who might be the only survivor of the firestorm that enveloped the Land of Bells and Whistles. The bell bottom was not smiling, and the General thought that might be a first. Then, of course, there was Laughing Boy, who was more hyena than human.
They all stared at him, and the Peanut Butter General stared back. The breeze blew through the trees that surrounded the circle. Wooden chimes that hung from the side of Grumbler's cottage made tinkling music, reminding them all that the dwarf was nowhere to be found. Other than that, the sun-drenched clearing was silent.
"Dave?" the Peanut Butter General asked. "Where is your brother?"
The crow cawed, flapped his oily-looking ebon wings, and then fluttered up to sit heavily on Brownie's shoulder.
"I don't know! Caw!" Dave Crow replied.
"Well I know!" the General snarled. "He's in the same place you'll find the dwarf and that annoying little horse."
He thought of Feathertop, the pony who had green feathers sprouting from the top of his head, and how many times Feathertop had eluded him in the past.
"The same place," he continued angrily, "that you'll find Bob Longtooth and Cragskull."
The collective intake of breath gave him much satisfaction. Dave Crow's wings fluttered and Brownie growled low and shifted his weight. Fiddlestick grew completely still, and Laughing Boy did not so much as chuckle.
"Has anyone seen Gourdon lately?" Mr. Tinklebum asked grimly, and he too shifted his weight, the clapper inside his body allowing one gentle "bong" before quieting again.
"Hush!" Brownie said quickly.
"Ah," the General observed, "so Squashhead is with them, as well. You see, you all know what has happened. The boy, Nathan, has been taken. Even now, Grumbler spirits him away to the Jackal Lantern's fortress.
"Strangewood must be saved. That is something upon which we can all agree. But that is not the way to do it. It is simply not acceptable, and likely to bring more destruction rather than a return to the idyllic days we shared before. In truth, it may be far too late to ever return to such innocent times. The unthinkable has happened. Now, I know that you have been attempting to contact Thomas . . ."
Once again, he had shocked them with his frankness.
"Our Boy," Brownie growled.
"Yes, yes," the General said, waving him away. "I have also been attempting to contact him, but breaking through is no mean feat, as you have discovered. Efforts in that area will continue, of course, but we cannot rely on Thomas . . . on Our Boy . . ." the General paused oddly at this, seemed to lose his train of thought. Then he hurried on, hoping the others would not notice.
"The Orange Pealers have allied themselves with the cause, and so will others. Just as some of your friends have joined the Lantern, so will some of those who have troubled you in the past now become your allies."
The General let his gaze linger on Brownie. "I'm not asking for your trust," he said bluntly. "I'm telling you what must happen if you wish to save that child, and if you hope for any chance to save Strangewood, and yourselves.
"If the boy dies," he said gravely, "we all die."
The odd collection of characters around the clearing made no response at first, save to exchange awkward glances with one another. All but Fiddlestick. The little dragon still sat as though made of stone, at the center of the small group upon whom the General had now placed his hope for the future. Several of them whispered to one another, but still no reply was forthcoming. The General was about to reprimand them, to demand action, when Fiddlestick moved.
The little dragon sat up a bit straighter on his hind legs and fluttered his wings. But the music that came from them now was not the light and delicate sound of harps and chimes and violins. This sound was dark and ominous, as his wings moved slowly on his back. Eventually, the dragon settled down again, but now he'd gotten the attention of all those gathered in the clearing. It was suddenly clear to the General that, much to his surprise, the amiable little fellow was as close to a leader as the creatures of Strangewood had ever had. He would have guessed Grumbler first, or even Brownie.
Fiddlestick stared at the Peanut Butter General.
"If it will save the boy," Fiddlestick said, "we are at your command."
* * * * *
On Wednesday morning, Emily stood on the back deck sipping her second cup of coffee. Her robe was loose around her body, and the short night shirt beneath fell suggestively across her breasts and barely reached down to cover her panties. To either side, her neighbors could have gotten a decent view of her from porch or side windows. It wasn't that she didn't mind. It was simply that she hadn't thought of it.
Her mind was otherwise occupied. She stared hard at the swingset in the backyard, the hard rubber seats so very still, undisturbed by the light breeze. The rain had stopped hours earlier, but the sun hadn't quite broken through and there were small pools of water all over the deck. Thomas had chosen the right stain when the deck had been built, apparently. She'd have to reapply it herself this summer, she thought.
There was a tiny creak behind her. Emily imagined she could feel the disturbance in the air. In her mind's eye, she saw the house: its paint was Chatham Sand, the shutters a deep green. The slider would be open, and through it, she would be able to see a large portion of the kitchen she'd been so proud of.
If Joe weren't in the way.
Without turning around, Emily said, "Don't you have a class to teach?"
She could practically hear him grinding his teeth. "Why are you putting this on me?" he asked. "It isn't my issue. It isn't even really my business."
"No, it isn't," she snapped. "Life isn't black and white, Joe. Don't get me wrong. It would be wonderful if things were as simple as you apparently think they are."
Another creak, as he stepped back into the house. She heard the shush of the screen sliding closed.
But he wasn't done. She knew that. She already knew him well enough to know that he wasn't about to walk away until he was certain she had understood his intentions.
Emily waited, sipped at her coffee, imagined Joe pulling his clothes on, lacing his sneakers. A few minutes later, she heard the front door close, and blinked in surprise. She took a deep gulp of java and then began to turn toward the house.