He had nothing to say.
When the battle came, they would live or die. When the fight was so real, the choice so clear, even a coward could feel brave.
What other choice did he have?
With a dry, stale mouth and a very full bladder, Emily rolled over and stared for several moments through heavily lidded eyes at her alarm clock. It was twenty-one minutes past three o'clock on Friday morning. She was barely cognizant of the low droning of voices from the flickering television screen. Upon her return to the house late the previous night, she had locked the place up tight and fidgeted nervously for some time before finally drifting off.
In her dreams, a hideous face had peered through leaves and branches at her, taking on ever more monstrous proportions as the dream repeated itself, changing and mutating as the night wore on. It wasn't quite a nightmare, since nothing beyond that took place in the dream. Still, it unsettled her sleeping mind and now, as she woke, she felt grumpy; even a bit edgy. The sound of the television cut through to her conscious mind now, and she found it aggravating.
Pushing herself up to a sitting position, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and winced as a sharp pain spiked through her head. There was Advil in the drawer in her nightstand, and she made a mental note to take some just as soon as she had relieved the pressure in her bladder.
Eyes open only enough so that she wouldn't smash into a wall or the door frame, she shuffled into the master bathroom, leaving the light off. The flickering from the television was enough to guide her nocturnal excursion. With her panties around her ankles, she let her eyes close once more, and sighed softly with relief as she let her bladder go.
From somewhere downstairs came a muffled thump.
Emily's eyes snapped open; she was wide awake now. The stream of her urine stopped instantly, and she forgot any urge she might have had to continue. Forgot her headache. Forgot her dreams.
This was no dream.
As silently as she was able, she stood and pulled her cotton panties up her legs, fitting them into place. Gently, soundlessly, she stepped back into the master bedroom. On the TV screen she saw a large ship with sails flying, and thought she remembered the film: Green Dolphin Street, or something like that. She reached out to snap the set off, and then held back. That was sure to draw attention. Instead, she walked around the bed — not wanting to make any springs creak by laying across it — and picked up the phone. She dialed 911 as quickly as she was able and waited far too long for the line to be answered.
When the operator finally picked up, Emily spoke in a low voice, praying the TV noise would cover for her.
"There's someone in my house," she said, then quickly added her name and address before hanging up. No need to stay on the line now, she knew. The police would be on their way soon.
But what if it wasn't soon enough? That was the overriding thought in Emily's mind, the one that prompted her to slip silently to her bedroom door. It was open, and she was grateful for that. She'd meant to get around to squirting some WD-40 on the hinges, but just hadn't had the chance. That was the kind of thing that Thomas had always done. Theirs had been a good partnership, a comfortable division of labor, for a long time. Before it all went to hell. She still didn't quite understand why that was. The Thomas and Emily of ten, even five years before, wouldn't have let that happen.
Entropy. Shit happens. Things rot.
When you aren't looking, the world turns and your whole life is fucked up beyond recognition and first your son and then your ex-husband get taken off the chessboard without any warning whatsoever.
And then some insidious little motherfucker with a cruel glint to his eye and a stupid smile on his face sneaks into your house in the middle of the night, and the world just keeps sliding down the greased pole of life into . . . shit.
"No," Emily whispered, anger mixing potently with fear.
It was all catching up to her now, as she stood with her back to her bedroom wall, ears attuned to even the slightest sound. But there were no sounds. Not the thump of someone moving below, or the creak of a foot on the stairs, or the distant wail of police sirens. She had a moment where she wondered if she hadn't overreacted. Perhaps it had been nothing. Some local punk throwing an egg at the house or her purse sliding off the edge of a chair where she hadn't placed it as firmly as she'd thought.
That's what she wanted to believe.
Then she tasted copper in her mouth and realized that she'd bit her own lip and blood flowed into her throat. Emily began to cry and could not understand why. She was angry, and she was afraid, but the crying made no sense to her.
Quickly, she wiped the tears away. It felt like her eardrums pulsed with her rapid heartbeat. Silently, she slid around and bent over slightly so that she could peek out into the hallway.
Nothing. No one in the hall. No one, as far as she could see, on the stairs. Her decision was made and her body was moving before she even realized what she was doing. Emily moved across the hall and into Nathan's room without making a sound. Her eyes darted back and forth, scanning the toys for one particular object, something she'd been convinced he was too young for when Thomas had first brought it over. She'd been right, too. The thing was too unwieldy for the boy. At least for now. But Nathan wouldn't let Emily stick it in the basement for when he got bigger. He'd insisted that it stay right there in his room at all times.
It stood against the wall next to Nathan's bookcase. Emily reached out and grabbed the shaft, then hefted the classic wooden Louisville Slugger over her shoulder.
Out in the hall, one of the steps creaked. Third from the top. Emily recognized the sound well. The creak had been there since the Randalls had first moved into the house.
Emily nearly squealed with fright but caught herself. She stood for a moment, breathing deeply, trying to calm down and slow her heart, which seemed to be about to shatter in her chest. She tossed her blonde hair over her left shoulder and crept to the wall inside Nathan's room. For a moment, she saw herself in the mirror over her son's bureau, and her eyes widened at how ridiculous she looked. She had a Tweety Bird t-shirt and her panties on, and that was all. With the bat over her shoulder, she looked absurd.
Somehow that only terrified her more.
She could feel him. Out in the hallway. So close. With her back to the wall, she stood just inside the door and waited for the intruder to come into Nathan's room. She could hear the TV from her bedroom, and for a moment it distracted her. Then she tried to listen to what might be there beneath that sound. It was crazy, of course. She wouldn't be able to hear him breathing or anything.
Then, as if on cue, she was proven wrong. Out in the hall, just outside Nathan's room, probably, she surmised, at the door to her own bedroom, she heard someone snickering. A low chuckle, but going on and on. It wasn't something on the television, either. This was real, and close by, and terrifying. She felt like she might throw up, but when the sound stopped, it brought her up short, and Emily stood up straight again, ready to bring the bat down at the first sign of someone entering the room.
As she straightened, the bat gently bumped the wall behind her. Emily closed her eyes tightly, squeezed out a few last tears, and then held her breath. She'd given herself away for sure, telegraphed her position to some lunatic who was truly enjoying the dread and terror he was inspiring in her.
In the darkness of Nathan's bedroom, with only the dim light from outside to offer any illumination in the room, the intruder appeared suddenly at the door. He walked straight in, with no deviation. He was short, but lean, and she could make out facial hair, like a heavy beard, or something. And his face . . . his face was so strange . . . and the way he walked, hunched over just a bit. She couldn't see him very well, but he seemed somehow freakish, and all the more frightening for it.
Emily ran out of air. She had to breathe, and she allowed herself a quick, sharp intake of breath.
Emily's scream felt to her like a roar. She swung the bat as hard as she was able, pulling a muscle in her right bicep while doing so. The wooden bat cracked over his forehead, splitting it in two. The intruder's head snapped back, and he yelped in pain like an injured dog before stumbling backward to sprawl with a crash into Nathan's bureau.
In the darkened room, she could only make out the bulk of his body as the intruder drew up on all fours, scrambling to get to his feet. For a moment, she hesitated. Her body seemed to be pulling at her to run, to flee out into the hall, down the stairs and . . . but no, he would catch her. Emily forced herself to move toward him, bat raised once again. As the intruder struggled to rise, a growl came from his throat. Emily thought of a Doberman that had lived in her neighborhood when she was a girl. A dangerous, vicious dog. The growl was the same.
With a whimper of her own, Emily brought the bat down with all her strength, ignoring the sharp, needle pain in her bicep where she'd already torn a muscle.
Without raising his head, the intruder's hand snapped up and stopped the bat in mid-descent. She thought she heard bones crack in his hand and his growl grew louder. The intruder yanked the bat from her hand, and stood quickly, effortlessly.
Emily stood frozen in the room as this . . . beast was the only word that came to mind . . . turned his back on her. The growling subsided, and he grunted softly.
"Don't do that," the intruder said, his voice higher, less savage and more boyish than she would have imagined.
Then he lifted the bat and, with a powerful swing so fast she could barely follow it, he shattered Nathan's bedroom window. The screen popped out when the bat struck it and fell soundlessly to the lawn below. Half a dozen large glass shards bounced off the screen and back into the room. The rest of the shattered window showered out onto the grass.
The intruder began to laugh. A cackle, really, like nothing Emily had ever heard.
He dropped the bat to the floor, seemed to pause a moment, and then hurled himself bodily through the broken window. Emily screamed. They were two stories up. She ran to the window, but in those precious seconds, he had already struck the ground and was now up again, sprinting across the lawn faster than she had ever seen anyone run.
"Oh my God," Emily whispered to herself.
Blue police lights flickered as a pair of prowl cars slid silently into her driveway. Eyes still wide with astonishment, she went down to open the door for them.
It occurred to her for just a moment, as she was unlatching the front door, that it was possible she had simply never woken from her dreams, now nightmares. All of this might be a bad dream, she thought, almost hysterical. Nathan. Thomas. Her intruder. All of it.
It was a blissful thought.
Then she tasted the blood from her lip once again, and reality returned without delay. Without mercy.
* * * * *
In a clearing at the heart of Strangewood, where a cairn of large stones burned with blue fire, stood an enormous oak tree. In the branches of the tree sat the small dragon called Fiddlestick. The dragon stared down in horror as the Peanut Butter General, with whom he was now allied, raised his sword against the Queen of the Wood herself.
It was blasphemy.
The General cried out to Fiddlestick for his aid in this battle, but the dragon would not move. Could not move. She was the Queen, after all, and if she wanted them dead, then dead they would be. Smoke filtered out of Fiddlestick's nostrils as the little dragon began to cry. The General shouted for his aid once more, and Fiddlestick did nothing.
The Peanut Butter General was bleeding.
Through the thick swirls of sticky peanut butter, blood seeped through where the sharp wooden talons of the Queen had slashed. Bees buzzed round his body, agitated and unsettled, the conflict keeping them moving. The General breathed deeply and paused a moment, waiting for the peanut butter to cover the wounds. After a moment, it did so, soothing and cool. But he ached there, and he had to wonder if the bleeding continued, deep within.
Behind him, the cairn burned blue. Before him, the Queen snarled angrily, her back to the tree that was her home. He stared at her, noted where the edge of his sword had chipped a chunk of bark off her right breast, scoring the wood beneath deeply, but apparently not enough to truly hurt her.
"You defile the wood with your arrogance," the Queen of the Wood sneered. "Even the bees desert you now."
And it was true, he noted. One by one, and then in tiny swarms, the bees moved away from the General into the trees. They knew something he refused to acknowledge. He shouldn't be here. Not at all. It mattered very little or not at all that he had not entered this clearing of his own free will. The Queen would not suffer his presence, nor his quest. And the General would not allow himself to be stopped, or even delayed a single moment longer than necessary.
He would die before he would be diverted from rescuing Nathan.
Even as that determination crystallized in his mind, another thought gained strength within him. He stared into the white, glaring eyes of the Queen and knew that he would indeed die.
"Fiddlestick!" he shouted. "Dragon, come to me now! Before it is too late!"
At the edge of the clearing, all around the circle, wood nymphs with burning red eyes tittered in amusement, then shied back with fear as the Queen's gaze passed over them. But Fiddlestick did not respond.
"Come then, my Queen," the General said, brandishing his sword with practiced casualness. "Let us finish this, then."
Her body was covered with huge thorns. Her talons were wood sharp as razors. Her willow branch hair moved as if of its own volition, whipping from side to side, like the tail of a scorpion, positioning itself to strike. The Queen of the Wood drew herself up to her fullest height, more than seven feet, and she smiled at the Peanut Butter General. He held his breath a moment, drinking in her beauty. For, surely, she was the most alluring creature who had ever set foot within Strangewood. She was its Queen, after all.
Her natural state, her nakedness, drew him now. But the General had fought too many battles, engaged in too many pointless wars, to be distracted from his task for long. This war was about something more precious to him than patriotism or politics, or even life itself.