The First Ten Chapters

Here you will find the first ten chapters presented in order, one after the other.

Chapter 1

Bitter Tonic

Callie Longstreet grabbed the frying pan off the stovetop and walked up behind her father. She lifted the pan high and brought it down hard on the back of his head. A hollow “thonk” rang out upon impact, followed by a thud as he hit the floor.
Behind her, her brother Michael entered the house; bags of groceries in his arms. He saw his father laid out on the floor and dropped the bags.
“What the hell happened?!” he shouted.
Callie whirled around. Her black hair whipped across her face and formed a cage for her green eyes.
She sported a bloody gash on her right cheek.
“He hit me!” she said.

Long ago, when they were small, they lived in a big bustling city with both their parents (Callie had no memories of this era; Michael, two years the elder, did); until the night Charles Longstreet bundled his sleeping children into his battered old station wagon and sped them away from the city, and their mother.
He never gave reason or explanation, and his refusals to take questions on the matter grew violent as the years passed.
In time, Mike and Callie stopped asking.

The two now sat at the kitchen table.
Mike, a tall boy for his sixteen years, dabbed his sister’s cheek with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. The gash was small, but deep; and would not stop bleeding.
“I was serving him supper, when I tripped.” Callie said, “I knocked over his mug, and his beer fell in his lap. When he stood up, it looked like he had wet himself. I couldn’t help it---I laughed!”
Mike groaned and shook his head.
“Anyway, he just froze. I knew I was in trouble then. I was---Ouch!---still standing close to him. And then he slugged me! Just like that!”
“You’re lucky he didn’t kill you.”
She waved this away, “I got so angry! I just couldn’t let it pass this time. So when he turned his back on me, I got up and---Ouch! Enough already!”
“Alright, alright! Don’t come crying to me if it gets infected!” Mike said, and threw away the cotton ball, “At least I got it to stop bleeding.”
“Anyway, you know the rest.”
“What cut your cheek?” Mike asked. He took out an adhesive bandage from a tin box and removed its wrapper.
“That ugly ring of his; the one he never takes off. It has that sharp black stone.” she said.
She probed the gash with her finger. “It burns.” she whined.
“Well don’t touch it, jackass!” he said.
He swatted away her hand and bandaged the cut. The nasty bruise around it would have to heal in its own time.
Callie looked down at her father.
“So what do we do now?” she asked, “He’s gonna be really pissed off when he wakes up---if he wakes up.”
“Your grasp of the possibilities comes a little late.”
Callie gave him an out-of-patience look.
“I say we get the hell out of here, Cal, like we always say we will; only this time, we really do it.”
“He’ll come after us if we run.” Callie said, “You know he will.”
“If he’s even alive.” Mike said. He got up, walked over to the lump on the kitchen floor, and squatted down by it. Charles Longstreet had fallen forward, but his face had turned to the side and rested on his cheek. Mike put his hand over his father’s mouth. Hot breath coated his palm.
“So did I kill him?” Callie asked. She winced at the hopeful sound in her voice, but couldn’t help it.
Mike looked up at her and wiped his palm on his pants leg. That was all Callie needed to see.
“I guess I shoulda hit him harder.” she said.

Chapter 2

Fit To Be Tied

Mike knelt down and tried to flip his father onto his back, but the floor was slippery, and every time Mike pushed, his father slid away.
Callie came in through the kitchen door from the adjacent garage with a prodigious coil of thin rope in her hand. "This was the only one I could find. Is it enough?"
"I think so. Here, help me with this."
With Callie’s help, they turned their father over.
“What now? Tie him up here?” Callie asked.
“No, we should tie him to a chair. The less freedom of movement he has, the better.”
Mike grabbed a chair from the kitchen table, and dragged it over.
“We don’t want him hopping around once he’s awake.” he said, “Grab his arm so we can lift him.”
Mike took one arm and Callie the other. Together they heaved their father up onto the chair and sat him down, only to have him fall forward like a sack of potatoes.
“Uhh…let’s try that again.” Mike said.
On the second try, the chair skidded away upon taking his weight, and slammed against the opposite wall. Mike and Callie looked at each other and, in spite of their peril, burst into laughter.
Then their father groaned, and they both jumped.
“Okay, let’s hurry it up!” Callie said, “Third time’s the charm.”
It was. Their father remained seated this time. Callie held him in place while Mike tied him up.
When he finished, Mike realized that it would not be enough.
“We need something else, Callie. I don’t know if this is going to hold him for long. We need to be sure he won’t be able to wriggle out of it.”
Callie gnawed on her thumbnail; her ritual for focused thought.
“We need…something like…” she mumbled, then snapped her fingers, “Duct tape! How many rolls do we have on hand in the garage?”
“Lots.” Mike said, “Dad’s a junkie.”
“Get ‘em all. We’re gonna tape him down.” she said, “And bring the dolly up here too, while you’re at it.”
Mike ran out the kitchen door and into the garage, which housed the station wagon, a work area, numerous rusty tools, and junk that had accumulated throughout the years. The garage door had been busted forever and remained always open, so it was all well lit and ventilated. Mike used a box of metal hinges to keep the kitchen door open, and picked out several rolls of duct tape scattered throughout the disarray. He wasn’t sure what Callie wanted with the dolly, but he went ahead and dug it out from under a morass of broken electrical fixtures and other such flotsam.
With the rolls of tape tucked in one arm, and the dolly pushed by the other, Mike re-entered the kitchen. He dropped the rolls at Callie’s feet.
“Let’s get to work.” he said.

When Charles Longstreet came to, he found himself strapped down tight. Only his head, fingers, and feet were free of tape.
He struggled and squirmed against his bonds, but they did not slacken. They had rolled him chair and all, with the dolly, over to the living room, facing the wall; so he could see nothing of their movements.
“MICHAEL! CALLIE!” he bellowed.
Mike appeared before him. “Ah, you’re awake.” he said, “As you can see; we’ve pretty much fused you to that chair. This is so you don’t follow us.”
“Follow you? Where do you think you're going?”
“Away from you…from here...anywhere.” Mike said. He removed the last nine inches of tape from the last remaining roll.
“You two aren’t going NOWHERE!” Longstreet roared, “NOW UNTIE ME WHILE YOU STILL HAVE A CHANCE OF---“
“Discussion time is over, pops.” Mike said, and slapped the strip of tape over his father’s mouth, “You can cram it.”
As Charles Longstreet yelled and cursed under the tape (which muffled his words into gibberish), Mike noticed the ring on the middle finger of his father’s left hand. It was the ring that had cut Callie’s face. The band was of some questionable metal that had once shined like silver, but had since degraded into a blotchy copper color, like a corrupted penny. The only thing interesting about it was its shiny black stone. It was set like a tiny black pyramid; its tip pointy and sharp.
The bastard had punched Callie in the face with that ring.
“I’ll bet Callie would love to have that as a trophy.” Mike said, “Mind if I borrow it?”
Without waiting for a reaction, Mike pulled the ring off of his father’s finger, and it slipped right off with unexpected ease (considering that his father had had it on as long as Mike could remember). Now, only a band of pasty white skin remained, to mark where the ring had been.
His father fell silent.
Mike put the ring in his shirt pocket and glanced down again at his father. There was something different about him now, though Mike could not say what; a sinister aspect about him that made every hair on the back of his neck rise. Nerves. Mike thought, and shook it off.
“Well, Dad. Gotta go get ready.” he said, “By the way, we’ll be taking your wagon, your wallet, as well as the cash you had hidden away in that hidey-hole under your bed you didn’t think we knew about.”
No reaction. His father just sat there and stared at him.
No, more than that. 
Was it possible his father was smiling at him, from under the tape?
Mike walked away. He considered slapping his father on the back in a final mocking gesture, but was now loathe to touch him for some reason. He went and rejoined Callie in their preparations.

Chapter 3

Eyes of The Watcher

With their father’s grey cocoon so convincingly escape-proof, Mike and Callie took their time and stocked the faded green station wagon to capacity: food, beverages, blankets, pillows, extra clothes, etc. When they finished, it was dark outside.
Plumb exhausted, they sat themselves down at the back of the open wagon on lawn chairs taken from the front yard. The single bulb garage light cast its flickering illumination down upon them.
Callie clamped her hand over her mouth and yawned deep. It had been a long day even before this whole stupid mess had erupted, and Callie found herself nodding off. She shook her head and turned to Mike, who was already snoring lightly. She gave him a shake.
He grunted to wakefulness. “Hmm? What?”
“It might not be wise for us to take off like this.” Callie said.
“Like what?”
“All tuckered out and sleepy.”
“What do you suggest?” Mike asked.
“Dad can’t escape from under all that rope and duct tape, so it isn’t like we have to leave tonight. Maybe we should get some sleep and head off early tomorrow morning.”
“You’re crazy, Cal. Do you really want to sleep there ever again?” Mike asked, and pointed his thumb at the house.
“Perhaps we don’t have to.”
        She motioned to the station wagon behind them. Mike looked perplexed (though perhaps it was mere drowsiness), so she got up and retrieved some light blankets and pillows from the cargo behind them, and handed one of the bundles to Mike.
        “Sleep in the wagon?” he asked.
        “We’re gonna have to get used to it anyway, on the road,” she said, “Might as well start now.”
        “I suppose…”
        He was unsure about it, but was too sleepy and thickheaded to argue. He shrugged his shoulders, which was as good as a yes between the siblings. He got up and took his batch to the driver’s side of the wagon, opened the door, and set up his bed across the single-unit front seats. Callie did the same across the back seats.
        Callie made herself comfortable right away, while Mike went back and closed the wagon’s back hatch. This done, he folded the lawn chairs, and put them aside.
        “While you’re at it, go turn off the lights in the house.” Callie called out.
        “What---? Why?”
        “Wouldn’t want the neighbors to get suspicious, would we?”
        “Our neighbors are idiots. They wouldn’t get suspicious if we parked Dad out in the front yard.”
        Mike grumbled, and walked into the house to turn off the lights.
        He went to the rooms first, his and Callie’s, followed by his father’s room. He gave each a cursory glance, before he switched off their lights. The thought that he would never see these rooms again after tomorrow elicited no nostalgia. He was glad to be leaving.
        He and Callie had talked about running away many times, but somehow had never felt ready to do so. Almost as if an interior clock had held them back year after year. “Not now.” it would whisper in its insistent voice, “Not yet.”
        Perhaps it was procrastination, perhaps it was a lack of courage on his part, but the time had never felt propitious for such a dangerous venture. Now it was going to happen, thanks to Callie’s spur-of-the-moment act of violence; something HE should have done a long time ago. 
        He felt no little shame in that.
        He came to the living room, and looked over at the man in the chair facing the wall.
        “G’night dad.” Mike whispered. He hit the switch and cast the living room and its captive occupant into darkness.
        The kitchen was the last to go. Mike then walked out into the adjacent garage and looked through the window into the back seats of the wagon.
Callie was already in a fetal position under her blanket. Mike grabbed for the grease-stained string that hung under the bare bulb, gave it a tug, and clicked off the light.
        He stumbled his way over to the driver’s side, and into his new bed. The seats weren’t too uncomfortable, and after some fidgeting, he at last found a good position.
        “G’night, Cal.” he said.
        “G’nigh, Mi…” came the garbled reply.
        Within minutes they were both asleep.

        Sometime around midnight, a pair of glowing eyes appeared in a dark corner of the garage. Silent, they hovered there; and looked down at the station wagon---through it---at the figures asleep within.
        Callie shuddered in her sleep and burrowed deeper into her blanket; Mike moaned as if caught in a nightmare.
        At last they are ready for the fire, the mind behind the eyes thought to itself, Come to me, children…the burning awaits.

Chapter 4

The Plan

Callie woke up early; it was now Saturday.
“Mike, get up!” she said.
She leaned over the back of the front seats and prodded him.
Mike wasn’t ready to get up just yet. Callie had to twang his earlobe and slap his head around for a few seconds.
“Alright! Alright! I’m getting up!” he said.
“Go check on Dad!”
“Why? What happened?”
“Just…in case.”
Mike had somehow ended up on his stomach, his least favorite sleep position, and now his right arm was crushed under his body with a cramp to end all cramps, and his back ached like an old man’s, after a fall.
“Gimme a minute.” he said.
He extricated his right arm, and then began the arduous task of turning himself around.
“Is this going to take long?” Callie asked.
“Me kill you now if not shut up.” Mike answered.
He sat up and opened the passenger door, which was closer to the kitchen entrance. He scooted out of the wagon and tossed his pillow behind him to the backseats as he did so. Once out, he yawned and stretched, then walked into the house. He flicked the kitchen lights on, as it was still dark, and looked over to the living room, where his father had been placed.
His father was not there.
Mike’s breath staggered to a stop.
Hoping his bleary eyes were only being deceived by the dark, he walked into the living room, switched on the lights, and blinked as they flickered on.
There he was.
A sigh of relief escaped Mike’s lips when he saw that his dad had only fallen backwards, but was still well bound. During the night he must have somehow tipped himself over. Now he lay there next to the sofa like an upside-down turtle; asleep, apparently, in that awkward position.
Just for scaring me, Mike thought, I’m going to leave you like that.
Charles Longstreet opened his eyes.
Mike almost screamed; his father’s eyes had gone jet black.
At least they had seemed so, for a moment there. A second look showed normal eye coloring; the whites of the eyes still…white.
Just a trick of the light, that’s all, Mike thought, Had to be.
He went back to the garage. Callie waited for him there. She had a change of clothes ready, as well as a plastic baggie of toiletries.
“So?” she asked.
“It’s okay, he’s still there.”
“What kept you?”
“Nothing. Just…nothing.”
“Well then. Let’s wash up so we can get the hell out of here. I’ll go first.”
She walked past him, into the house.
“Steer clear of Dad, Cal.” Mike called after her.
“I intend to.” she called back.

They did not dally. 
Ten minutes later they were both back in the wagon, and good to go.
Mike backed the wagon out of the garage and onto the empty street. He turned them in the direction of the shortest route out of town.
“We’re really doing it this time.” Callie said, with a nervous flutter in her voice, “I can’t believe we’re really doing it this time!”

Soon, their hometown of Noah’s Oak was behind them. 
Half an hour later, they were out of Fasenbuk County altogether. A few hours after that, as they neared the state line between New Heedol and Minnago, they stopped for gas in a town named Crayton; then drove over to a nearby picnic area for breakfast.
They located a decent table under a shady tree and brought to it their provisions. They had the whole park to themselves, and the breeze was delicious.
Callie had packed pancakes in foil. She also brought paper plates and cups, utensils, napkins, and juice.
They set their table, sat down, and had their breakfast. They ate in silence; in enjoyment of the moment, the scenery, and their freedom. Only when they were about finished, were they ready to get down to business.
“I think it’s time we talk about where it is we want to go from here.” Callie said, “Putting miles between us and Dad is good for a start---but sooner or later we’re gonna have to figure out what to do with ourselves when that’s no longer the pressing issue.”
Mike thought it over as he washed down the last of his pancakes with a swallow of juice.
“I think our basic problem,” he said, “Is that we don’t have any relatives to turn to…that we know about, anyway. Our only known relative is Dad, and he’s the problem, not the---“
“Mike…” Callie interrupted, “What about Mom?”
“What about her?”
“We can try to find her!” Callie said, already enchanted with her idea.
“Find her where? We don’t know where she is. She could be dead by now, for all we know.”
“Dad’s alive. Why not her?”
“If she’s alive, why didn’t she ever come looking for us?”
“We don’t know she didn’t try.”
“What if she doesn’t want us?”
“What if she does?”
“I’m not talking you out of this, am I?”
“Okay, you got my vote.” Mike said, throwing his hands up in mock defeat, “Beats wandering around aimlessly, I suppose. So where do we even begin to look for her?”
“Let me think.” Callie said, and gnawed at her thumbnail, “What about that city you always tell me we used to live in, when we were little; back before Dad took us from Mom. Maybe she’s still there.”
“But where? I only remember a city; I don’t know which city it is.”
“Well…” more nail biting, “You say you remember that the trip from there to Noah’s Oak took several days, right?”
“Yeah, but my memories could be wrong. I was just a little kid, and that was so long ago.”
“True, but there’s no reason we can’t take a blind stab at it.” Callie said, and spat out a speck of thumbnail, “Go over to the gas station and buy us a road map.”
“New Heedol too.” Callie said, “Might as well cover our bases.”

The gas station was close enough for Mike to walk over to it. There was a mini-mart there, and there Mike picked up the maps at the counter. The clerk had bright yellow skin and golden eyes. Mike tried not to stare; Sardossians were rare in this part of the country, and he had never seen one before, outside of television. He paid for the maps and rejoined Callie at the park.

Callie had already cleaned up the picnic table, and thrown the refuse into a nearby trashcan. She was storing their supplies back into the wagon, when he arrived.
“You got ‘em?” she asked.
“Minnago and New Heedol,” he replied, “Just like you asked.”
“Let’s try New Heedol first.”
She took the New Heedol map, unfolded it, and spread it out on the table. A rising wind tried to snatch it away, but they weighed it down with stones off the ground.
Callie studied the map, “The closest thing to the kind of city we’re looking for in New Heedol is the capitol, Elaan. Not quite the bustling metropolis. Let’s give Minnago a look.”
They unfolded the Minnago map, placed it on top of New Heedol, and reset the stones.
“There’s a lot of minor cities here,” said Callie, “But I don’t see---“
“Right here, Metromax City.” said Mike. He pointed it out to her.
“Ah! Looks just like what we’re looking for,” she said, “And it’s about four or five days away; a possible match with your memories, Mike.”
“There could be a problem. See all this yellow expanse several towns before Metromax? According to this,” Mike said, referring to a block of text boxed away on the lower left of the map, “This area is known locally as ‘The Rough Country’. It is a dead region that takes about four hours to cross. If you want to go around it, it’ll take more than a day longer to get to Metromax.”
“It’s a dangerous area. Gallanashes, wullarks, and cwarnas have run of the place. Nobody lives there. There are no rest stops or gas stations. Just one long stretch of paved road. Used to be a whole county, but went to seed, or went bad, or somesuch.”
“We’ll deal with that when we have to.” Callie said.
“Okay then,” Mike said, “We have a plan. Metromax City it is.”
The moment he said this, a strong gust wrenched the two maps from their stone weights and sent them scurrying through the park, like unruly sprites. Mike and Callie ran after them, but only managed to catch Minnago; New Heedol fluttered away like an unbound kite, over a hill and out of sight.

Chapter 5


They drove all morning.
At noon they ate on the road. Callie had packed plenty of sandwiches; stored in a cooler to keep them fresh. When the juice ran out, they stopped at a store and bought sodas.
They drove all afternoon.
Around six, they stopped on a lonely dirt road, to have supper, and so Mike could get some rest. They got out and set a blanket under a canopy of trees. Mike lay down, rested his head on one of the pillows Callie had brought with them, and fell asleep right away. Callie decided to wait until Mike was awake to get the cooler out and eat something. She brought out one of her paperback books, leaned back against a tree, and started reading.
Twenty minutes passed, and Mike awoke with a scream.
“Mike? You okay?” Callie asked.
“Man alive!” Mike gasped, as he sat up and looked around.
“Bad dream?”
Mike nodded. “You know me.”
“Was it the falling off a tree one again?”
“No, it was something new.” Mike said, “Me, you, and some guy I don’t know, only in the dream I did, were walking through the empty ruins of a city.”
“Metromax City, by any chance?” Callie asked.
“Don’t know. Could be, I suppose. Anyway, we were walking through this empty city, on the tops of cars for some reason, and then these things started to flow out of this huge hole in the ground. They were black as coal and blubbery-looking, like wet seals. They had no eyes as far as I could tell, and they made awful grunting noises, like the kind pigs make when they eat. There were thousands and thousands of them! Pouring out of that hole, leaving behind oily streaks everywhere they passed.”
“They started to come after us.”
“Then? What did we do?”
“Not sure. Things got kind of surreal at this point. I think there was flying involved, or something. It’s all a blur after that.” Mike rubbed his face. “I think I’ve had enough rest for now. Let’s eat.”
They went to the wagon, retrieved food and drink, and returned to the blanket.
“Oh! I forgot to give you something.” Mike said, and slapped himself on the forehead.
He unbuttoned his shirt pocket, and brought out a ring.
“I took this off Dad.” he said, and handed it to Callie, “I thought you might want it. It’s the ring that cut your face.”
“It sure is.” Callie said, inspecting the ring.
She considered it an ugly thing, best thrown away, but did not want to seem ungrateful for the gesture. So she put it in her own shirt pocket.
“Thanks Mike.” she said.

By nightfall, they entered the town of Gough.
“We gotta find a place to stop for the night.” Callie said, “Nice hotel maybe?”
“Sorry, but no. We have to make our money last.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Callie said, “…cheapskate.”
“Come to think of it, we should also start rationing our food supplies.” Mike said, “We’ve been eating like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Alright already, but where do we stop for the night?”
“There.” said Mike.
He pointed to a grungy motel called (without any apparent irony) Rottsett’s Inn. Mike drove in and parked the wagon at this establishment’s parking lot, between a battered yellow van, and a white car with MACATTO INSURANCE stenciled on its sides in black paint.
They would see this car again…later.
“What a lousy excuse for a firetrap.” Callie said, referring to the motel, “But I guess it’s better than nothing.”
“We’re not staying in the motel.” Mike said, “We’re sleeping in the car.”
“Oh-h-h. Yes, I see.” Callie said.
“Anyone sees the wagon; they’ll think it’s just another motel customer.” Mike said, “At least until morning. Just don’t forget to lock your doors.”
Callie climbed over to the back seats and retrieved pillows and blankets from the back compartment of the wagon. She handed a set to Mike. They made their respective beds.
“G’night Mikey.”
“G’night Cal.”
Five minutes of silence passed.
Then, from the back seats: “Mike?”
“Uh huh?”
“What if Dad…”
“He can’t. He won’t. Don’t worry about it.” Mike said, “Even if he did, he could never find us. We’re too far away now, and he doesn’t know where we went. He’s out of our lives forever.”
“That’s good to know. Thanks Mike.”
“Sleep easy, sis.”
She did, and he followed soon after.
Thus ended their first day on the road.

Back in Noah’s Oak, Charles Longstreet lay, pretty much in the same position Mike had last seen him in. His stomach growled and cramped. The last time he had eaten was lunch, yesterday. Callie had brained him before he’d had a chance to eat supper. He also stunk to high heaven, having been forced to relieve himself, both ways, where he lay.
Despite the hunger and physical pain of being on his back for all this time, he had not moved or despaired.
He was waiting for something.
For someone.
It came with the sound of a click, and the dark living room was suddenly bathed in flickering light. Longstreet heard the sounds of a late night talk show.
Someone had turned on the television.
He turned his head in the direction of the tv (the bones in his stiff neck crackled like dry twigs all the way) and saw channels zip by, but there was no one there to change them, and the remote was sitting on the tray next to the sofa.
The channel surfing stopped at a station showing static. From behind the static, a pair of glowing eyes appeared…then the face that went with the eyes. It was a face known to him.
Hello again, Longstreet thought; he knew the owner of that face could read his mind.
“You remember, then?” the face asked. It spoke through the television’s speakers, just above the hiss of static.
I remember everything, now. They removed the ring.
“I have another task for you.”
What do you want this time?
“Come morning, someone will find you and free you. You will kill him, take his car, what money he has on him, and make whatever preparations are necessary before you leave. I would suggest a bath. Eat a hearty breakfast as well; you’ll need your strength. You may have to kill someone else along the way to change cars and replenish funds.”
Where am I going?
“After your children. I think you know who they’re going to go look for.”
I do. Are they headed in the right direction?
“Being who and what they are---of course.”
What do I do when I catch up with them?
“Listen close…”

Chapter 6

Three Days

Mike was having another nightmare.
A giant snake with the head of a woman chased after Callie. There was a tattoo on the woman’s forehead, of a spider; and the spider seemed to wiggle as if alive.
Mike himself was trapped in a cage, helpless to do anything but watch as the snake woman caught Callie and began to devour her, feet first. As Callie’s head disappeared screaming into its maw, the snake woman looked over at Mike, and spoke the following in mocking tones:
 “Poor Eternus! Left for dead!
In his heart, not in his head!
For the Man Aghast we wait.
Blood upon the Darkling gate!
This was followed by gales of derisive laughter, which ended abruptly when some movement caused her to glance over at something behind Mike, who suddenly realized he wasn’t alone in the cage. He turned around to find a dark and frightful creature staring back at him with red bestial eyes.
“Will you ever take that off?” it asked.
Mike touched his face with his hands, and felt its falseness. It was a child’s plastic mask, with an elastic string around his head to hold it in place. The elastic was worn down and would not hold for long.
Mike felt under the mask and touched a smooth formless softness that moved and changed under his fingertips. Fear overcame him, and he held the mask tight against his face.
“What am I underneath?!” he asked the beast.
“Guna shaal isanno a’dahj.” the beast replied.
“What? I don’t understand---“
“It’s not your place to understand, but to burn.”
The beast advanced on him. It extended it’s claws, which were molten with fire. Mike tried to back away, but there was no room to do so. The beast grabbed the sides of his head.
“Burn for me, Michael.” it said.
Mike screamed as fire engulfed his face, mask and all.

The dream changed.
Mike now found himself in his father’s house; the kitchen, in fact. The daylight that came in through the window looked noonish, perhaps late morning. The window also afforded a view of a dusty brown car, parked in front of the house.
There was a body on the kitchen floor; a butcher knife stuck in its back.
The body was that of a tall middle-aged man in a bland blue suit. Splayed out beside him was an open briefcase; its former contents spilled on top of and around the dead man.
Mike walked into the living room and looked for his dad, but found only the empty chair tossed aside in a corner. The TV was on, but showed only static. Strips of cut duct tape were scattered everywhere on the floor, along with pieces of sliced up rope.
Mike heard a noise and turned to see his father walk out of the bathroom. His hair was wet, and he had on a clean set of clothes.
His eyes were blacker than the darkest night.

Mike awoke with a gasp.
I don’t think I’ll tell Callie that one.
He had no watch, but guessed it was around three or four in the morning. As quietly as he could, he sat up and looked over at the back seats. Good, Callie was still asleep; he was afraid he had woken her up. He knew he talked in his sleep, sometimes loudly; not to mention the times he had woken up screaming.
That’s two nightmares since we left home, he thought to himself, that can’t bode well.
He looked out the driver’s side window and saw the MACATTO INSURANCE car pull out of the parking lot. Its bleary-eyed driver headed off in the direction they had come from.

The pattern of their next three days on the road matched that, more or less, of their first.
On Sunday, they feared they were about to be pulled over by a frain officer (not a good thing as Mike did not have a licence), but he was after someone else. Halfway through Monday, they ran out of stocked food (despite their half-assed attempts at rationing), and had to start buying it. The bruising on Callie’s face was starting to fade by now, but the gash on her cheek still looked nasty. By Tuesday night they had reached Kraddok, the last town before the Rough Country.
“Tomorrow morning, we start off across the Rough Country.” Mike said, as they stopped for the night, “We’ll be in Metromax City by noon.”
But he was wrong about that. 

Chapter 7

The Triple-F

Early Wednesday morning, they went to have breakfast at a local diner called Friq’s Food Farm. The place was empty except for a middle-aged Yapul man who sat at the front bar reading a newspaper. He had the reddish skin, thick black hair, and short stature that were the hallmarks of the race that had originated in the volcanic Meriatos Islands. Above his clothes he wore a crisp and clean white apron. When he saw Mike and Callie, he put aside the paper and walked around to the business side of the bar.
“Welcome to the Triple-F! I’m Jahu Friq at your service, and you two are my first customers of the day!” he said with a smile.
He took out two faded menus from a shelf under the bar and placed them in front of the Longstreets.
“Whoa! What happened to your face, honey?” he asked Callie.
There was no malice in his question, only curiosity; but before Callie could answer, he clapped his hand to his forehead.
“Damn, that was rude!” he said, “That must’ve sounded awful. I meant about the cut on your face.”
“That’s okay,” Callie said, “It was just---“
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me, and I should know better than to pry.” he said, “So, what would you two like to order?”
He took out a memo pad from his apron pocket and a stubby pencil from behind his ear.
“I’ll have the bacon and eggs.” Mike said, glancing at the menu.
“Pancakes for me.” said Callie.
“And to drink?” Friq asked.
“Jandra, for both of us.” said Mike.
“Anything else?”
“Is it possible to order some burgers this early?” Callie asked.
“You kids that hungry?” Friq asked.
Mike raised a questioning eyebrow at her as well.
“For the trip.” she said, “It’ll be lunchtime by the time we’re on the other side of the Rough Country.”
“Oh, right.” Mike said, “I see your point.”
“You kids crossing the ‘Country’?” Friq asked.
Mike and Callie nodded.
“Most people just go around. That’s a lot of wide empty nothing to have to cross.”
“We know.” said Callie.
“Well I don’t usually do this, but I’ll cook you up some burgers after I get your breakfasts done. My kitchen staff is late as usual, and my regular clientele won’t begin to show up for another ten minutes or so. Your order will be ready before then. Find yourselves a table.”
“The bar will do fine.” said Callie.
“I assume you’ll want some sodas with those burgers.”
“Sure.” Mike said, “Why not?”
“Okay then, all that remains is to work out the vulgar matter of payment.” Friq said, as he sidled over to a big old-fashioned cash register. He keyed in the items on his pad, and the register rang up the total.
“That’s a lot less than I thought it would be.” Mike said, taking out his father’s wallet.
“At these prices, I’m practically giving food away.” Friq said with a friendly wink, “Breakfast will be ready in a jiffy.”

When Friq returned from the kitchen, it was with Callie’s pancakes. He went back to fetch two glasses of Jandra, a common fruit juice, then Mike’s bacon and eggs.
“Please enjoy your food while I go whup up those burgers.” he said, and once again departed their presence.
Mike found the bacon to be superb and gone too soon. The eggs, not so much; he plowed through them just to finish them off. Callie, on the other hand, ate her pancakes with exaggerated delight.
“Mmmmm! You shoulda ordered the pancakes, Mike.” she said, “They’re delish!”
“Now she tells me.” Mike said. He washed down the eggs with the last of his Jandra.
He looked over at Callie. “Almost done?” he asked.
“I’m gonna enjoy these pancakes at my own pace, dammit. Why don’t you go do something useful with yourself and stop bugging me?”
“Well, I could go gas up the wagon---“
“Yes, yes, go gas up the wagon,” Callie said, waving him away, “I’ll be finished by the time you get back.”
“Not the way you eat.” Mike snickered.
He turned, got up, and walked out of the diner. As he did so, Friq called out to Callie from the kitchen.
“Where’d your brother go?”
“He’s gonna go gas up the wagon.” she said.
“I hope old Gus don’t scare him.” Friq said, “He’s a harmless old gent, been pumping gas since there’s been gas to pump; but he can get eccentric at times.”
“Hey, what can you tell me about the Rough Country?” Callie asked.

Mike drove down to Kraddock’s only gas station, which was called GAS GUS’S (“Last gas for miles” a rusted sign on the office window read). It had only two antique-looking pumps, but the place was full service. The station’s owner, an antique himself, pumped Mike’s gas, washed and squeegeed his windows, and checked his oil. He was efficient, if slow.
While Mike paid him, Gas Gus asked, “Ain’t you a liddle young to be driving?”
“I look young for my age.” Mike replied; his stock answer to such questions.
Gas Gus shrugged. He took out a grubby coin purse made of worn down leather, and counted out Mike’s change. Mike stuck his hand out the window to receive it.
“So where you headed, younger?” Gas Gus asked; out of ingrained habit than any actual curiosity.
“Metromax City.” Mike replied.
“You going ‘round the ‘Country’?”
“No. Through.”
Gas Gus shook his old head.
“I would suggest you rethink about that.” he said.
“Well, yes, I know it’s long, and there are wild animals, but---“
“They’s more dangerous things in the Rough Country than wile animals.” Gas Gus said, “It’s a curse place. I know because I was here when it become what it became, and I’ll never forget seeing that arful light descenting over Oboul County; or the arful screaming. Everything there was dead an dust after then.”
“Uhhh, okay.” Mike said, wondering how to extricate himself from this conversation without seeming rude.
Accustomed to being patronized, Gas Gus took this as a prelude to a snide remark.
“But you youngers know everything, don’tcha?!” Gas Gus said with a huff, “So you just go an get youself gone!”
He turned and shuffled back to his plastic chair.
What a weirdo, Mike thought. He started the wagon and drove out of Gas Gus’s little corner of senility.

When Mike got back to the Triple-F, the place was alive with the first of Friq’s regular customers.
Callie was ready to go.
They said their goodbyes, exited the Triple-F, then packed themselves and their lunches into the wagon.
They departed Kraddock, and headed off towards the Rough Country.
Friq watched them leave from a window across from the kitchen, where he and his just-arrived staff were busy making breakfasts. He uttered a snippet of an old Yapul prayer poem:
Vari nani valla na, fir ando anan da san dos va.”
Which in Thrist, the language of Marriak, roughly translates into:
“Gods be with them, on the dark roads they must travel.”

Chapter 8

The Rough Country

Mike and Callie saw fewer and fewer houses as they drove, till there were none; just flat land as far as they could see. They reached a sign on the side of the road and slowed down to read it. It was an ancient plank of sun-toasted wood, with red painted letters cracked with age.
It read: THE RUF   K NTRY.
“Not sure if that’s rustic or just plain illiterate.” Mike said.
“According to Friq,” Callie said, “This used to be THE RUFUS KANTRY ROAD, way back in the olden days. Some of the letters peeled off the board, and no one ever got around to repainting it. It’s been called ‘The Rough Country’ ever since.”
“So who was Rufus Kantry?”
“Some guy who did something important here once, long time ago; Friq didn’t say what.”
“So they named a road in a barren waste after him?”
“It wasn’t a barren waste at the time. It once held towns and farms and fields. Then something bad happened.”
“Evidently.” Mike said.

It was a desolate place.
A place of dry cracked earth and weeds. The occasional trees they saw were twisted things that looked too wretched to hold anything heavier than a poojee bird upon their brittle branches. Yet many held aloft the black carrion birds known as wullarks.
“Are we in any danger from those things, Mike?” Callie asked.
“I don’t know. I think we’re okay as long as we stay in the wagon.”
To their left, numerous rock outcroppings arose in the distance.
“See those, Mike?” Callie asked, “That’s where the gallanashes and cwarnas live. They come out of their caves at night to hunt.”
“Wow, someone’s an almanac today.” Mike said.
“Well, I am the smart one.” Callie replied.

About three hours in, something began to bother Mike, but he was unsure what.
As usual, Callie cut to the heart of the matter with a simple question.
“Shouldn’t we be able to see civilization or something by now?”
“You’re right, Cal.” Mike said, “It’s been three hours and the frikking scenery hasn’t changed.”
“Maybe the map people just underestimated the drive.”
“I guess. Let’s just hope not by much.”
“You look tired, Mike. You want to eat something?”
“A burger and a soda would be nice. I can eat and drive.”
“Just watch out for traffic.” Callie said with a snort, “You know, one of these days you’re gonna hafta teach me how to drive this thing, so we can take turns.”
“I’ll take it into consideration.” Mike replied.
Callie brought out two of the burgers Jahu Friq had made for them. She gave one to Mike, and reached for the sodas from the cooler in the back. She popped their tops and put one on the cupholder for Mike.
They ate their lunch.

Bother turned to worry as another hour clock by with no apparent change in the forward horizon. Worry turned to unspoken panic, as yet another hour passed without progress.
Mike stopped the wagon.
“Something is wrong.” he said, “No way we should still be here.”
“How could the map be this wrong?” Callie asked.
“I don’t think it’s the map.” Mike said, “Call me crazy, but it’s like…” he struggled a moment to find a metaphor, “It’s like a play, where they create the illusion of motion by moving a loop of scenery-painted fabric around and around behind the actors. It looks like they’re moving, but no one’s actually getting anywhere. That’s what this feels like---like we’re not really moving. Does that sound nuts?”
“Well, yes.” Callie said, “But what is really happening here? It isn’t like we’re lost, there’s only a single stretch of road for gosh sakes.”
Mike thought for a moment.
“There’s a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment, Cal.”
Callie opened the glove compartment and took out a small pair of plastic binoculars. She handed them to him.
“Not exactly professional grade.” she said, “Didn’t you win that at the coin toss last county fair?”
“No, the duck pond.”
“The duck pond?” Callie smirked. “Isn’t that, like, for kids?”
“Now is not the time for that discussion.” Mike said. He opened his door and walked outside. Callie followed suit.
Mike climbed to the roof of the wagon, and glanced about with his binoculars, while Callie walked ahead of the wagon to stretch her legs.
Far off in the distance ahead of them, Mike spied a black dot; then another, smaller dot.
“We might just get an answer after all,” Mike said, “Someone is coming this way.”
“Well that’s a relief.” Callie called out, still striding ahead like she intended to walk to Metromax, “Maybe they know what’s---“
Callie disappeared mid-sentence.
Mike dropped the binoculars; they clattered and broke upon hitting the pavement.
“What the hell?!” he said, not believing his eyes, “Callie?”
She was gone.
Mike climbed down the front of the wagon and jumped off. He ran to the spot where Callie had stood before she blinked out of existence.
“CALLIE!!” he shouted and nearly ran into her as she suddenly reappeared.
“---IKE!!” she finished saying.
“What the hell happened to you?!!” Mike cried out, “Where did you go?”
“What the hell happened to YOU?! And the wagon?!!” she replied, “When I turned back, nothing was there!”
“You disappeared!” Mike said, flailing his arms spastically.
Callie noticed something, and grabbed his arm.
“Mike, LOOK.”
Mike did, and saw that his arm, the one pointing at the spot where Callie had disappeared, was missing a hand. He withdrew the arm quickly, and the hand returned. Callie moved her arms into this space and they too disappeared.
“Look Mike!” she said and stepped ahead, disappeared; stepped back, and reappeared.
“Stop that!” Mike said, “What’s it like on the other side?”
“It looks exactly like this,” Callie gestured to the scenery around them, “Only you and the wagon aren’t there.”
“That’s it then.” Mike said, “That’s the answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it.” Mike said, “Imagine two of these…whatever they are, spaced a few miles apart, in the center of the Rough Country. You drive past site A, no problem. You pass site B, and it sends you through site A again. You don't even notice cause it all looks the same.”
Callie’s eyes widened. “Holy Gloeis! That would explain why we haven’t gotten anywhere after hours and hours! But what if we just turn around and go back through the first one?”
“But you just did that. Twice. Where did it send you?”
“Oh, that’s right. It just brought me back here.” she said, “The doors must only swing one way. You can come in from outside, but once inside, you’re stuck in a closed loop. But if you’re right, and I think you are, we’re talking magic here. The real kind.”
“Someone went through a lot of trouble to get us stuck here.”
“But who? Why?” 
“We'll find out soon enough. Someone is coming this way.”

Chapter 9


Mike managed to salvage one of the halves of the broken binoculars, and used it to look ahead. The dots were now shapes, and they had gotten closer since Mike last checked.

“I see them.” Mike said, “The big one’s a man, the other one is either a really big dog, or a really small horse.” Mike adjusted the focus, “More likely a dog.”

Callie was off to the side of the road testing the span of the mysterious “event” that had trapped them in the Rough Country. Alas, it was distressingly not limited to just the road.

“So, how can we even see them?” Callie asked, as she returned to the front of the wagon where Mike stood, “Aren’t we essentially looking at that other stretch of road this thing opens into?”

“No.” Mike said, “If we were, you wouldn’t have disappeared when you walked through it. We must be looking at what you’d see if this thing weren’t there. By the way, we need to give this thing a name; I’m tired of calling it ‘this thing’.”

“I vote for ‘doohickey’.” Callie said.

“The ayes have it.”

“Alright then,” Callie said, “How will we know if the guy with the dog is the one that done this?”

“If he avoids walking into the doohickey, I would consider that proof enough.”

“So, if he’s an innocent, you’re just gonna let him get trapped here like us? How will that help?”

Mike scratched his head, he hadn’t really thought of that. “I guess we can warn him at the last minute; if it looks like he’s not going to stop.”

“Here’s the big question,” Callie said, “If this guy IS the one responsible for the doohickey...”

“What does it mean for us that he’s coming here?”


“It could mean he’s here to finish us off.” Mike said.

Callie gulped. “And what do we do about that?”

“I don’t know.”

As the shapes neared, Mike and Callie began to see details.

The bigger shape was an elderly gentleman. He had a snow white beard cut short and wispy white hair under a crude straw hat. Both hair and beard had the choppy uneven look that results when one tries to cut one’s own hair. He wore light tan canvas pants and shirt, both of which looked homemade and well-worn; much repair work had been done on them, in the form of patches.

As for the shape Mike had thought to be a dog; it became clear that the massive animal that walked beside the old man was no mere canine. It was a cwarna.

“Is that what I think it is, Mike?”


“Holy Gloeis in the sky!”

Related to wolves, cwarnas were bigger and more ferocious than their lupine cousins. They were well-known for being hostile towards people. Yet this one stood by the old man like a loyal dog, and growled at Mike and Callie in a low, menacing manner.

“Ja’sao, Rydu.” The old man said to it, and it stopped.

The two stopped short of entering the “doohickey”.

        “You know it’s there, don’t you?” Mike asked, his voice grim.

“Of course.” The old man replied, “I could smell it a mile away.”

“What manner of magic-maker are you?” Callie asked.

“I’m a Ma’jai.” the old man said.

“What’s a Ma’jai?” Mike asked.

“They’re kinda like hereditary wizards.” Callie said.

“How would you know?”

“I read books.” Callie said, “You know those things in the library with the flappy papers?”

“She is, more or less, right.” the old man said, “It’s a simplistic definition but…it’ll do for our purposes.”

“And what is your purpose?” Mike asked, “Why have you done this?”

“Who said I did this?” the old man asked.

“What?” said Mike, confused, “I thought…?”

“Just because I’m a Ma’jai you think I go around dropping spells on people willy-nilly? We may not be the most sociable of creatures, but we’re not monsters. At least not most of us.”

“Then why are you here?” Mike asked.

“I live here. Why are you here?”

“Trying to get the hell out of here!”

“I think the important question is: can you help us out here?” Callie asked, “We’re kinda stuck.”

“I can give it a whack.” the old man said, “I am a Ma’jai, you know. The name’s Kantry, by the way. Rufus Kantry.”

“THE Rufus Kantry?”

“Last time I checked.” Kantry said, “Now, I’m going to need some quiet time for this, if you don’t mind.”

Kantry closed his eyes and seemed to draw into himself, as in preparation for some exertion. He raised his arms up and forward in close proximity to the invisible boundary.

He opened his eyes and spoke in a loud, booming, supernaturally amplified voice that echoed throughout the Rough Country: “Abresiim!

A low rolling vibration, like that which presages a thunderclap, followed in the silence after this incantatory phrase.

Pel vras Maala’na, Jao’an e’yeug nebah zeuma!

As he spoke, bright sparks of green and red flashed outward from Kantry’s splayed fingers.


This concluding word echoed longer and deeper than it should have by natural laws. Kantry wiped his brow with his shirt arm and exhaled a long slow breath.

“That took some effort.” he said, “You can step forward now, the spell is broken.”

Mike and Callie took a few steps forward, and nothing disappeared.

“The doohickey’s gone.” Callie said, “You did it.”

“Of course I did.” Kantry said, “I may be older than dirt, but I’m not quite useless yet.”

“I’m still not entirely convinced you’re not the one who put the whammy on us.” Mike said, “It’s awfully coincidental that you happened to be strolling around just when we needed a Ma’jai.”

“Coincidence? There’s no such thing.” Kantry said, “All things serve the Voss Vedu’un. But I am NOT the one who did this to you.”

“Then who did?”

“Who’s to say?” Kantry replied, “Someone obviously has it in for you. Someone of great power.”

“We don’t know anyone of ‘great power’.” Mike said.

“Or ANY power.” Callie added.

“Well...someone knows you.” Kantry said.

Mike and Callie got back in the wagon.

“What do you think?” Mike asked.

“You mean about that whole ‘someone has it in for us’ thing?”


“I don’t know what to think, frankly. Why would anyone have it in for us? Who the hell are we to have an enemy of that magnitude? We’re just some dumb kids!”

“I know!” Mike said, “And if they’re that powerful, what’s with the stupid half-measure of trapping us here? Why not just smash us already and be done with it?”

“What about Kantry?” Callie asked, “Do you still think it was him?”

“Truth be told, I don’t. Not really.” Mike said, “I don’t know why, but I believe him when he says it wasn’t him. It’s just that no other possibility seems to make sense.”

“Let’s just go.” Callie said, “If it turns out that there IS some ticked off magic-maker after us, we’ll deal with it then.”

“Agreed.” said Mike, and started the wagon.

Rufus Kantry watched the wagon until it was lost to sight.

“So,” he muttered to himself, “Threed’s bloodline has resurfaced. A time of war draws close.”

After another hour and a half of driving, Mike and Callie began to see trees and houses in the distance.

Soon they were out of the Rough Country altogether.

There were many towns to go through before Metromax City, but the Longstreets stopped at the first they got to, and found a park full of families and laughing children. They stayed there a little while to rest. Later, they stopped at yet another park to have supper.

By nightfall, Metromax City loomed large in the darkness ahead.

Chapter 10

Metromax City

They entered the city through a labyrinth of overpasses and underpasses that seemed to loop and loop around forever.

“I’m not sure if we’re coming or going anymore.” Mike said.

“Just follow the other cars.” Callie said.

“They’re lost too, by the look.”

They had tried to follow the road map, at the cost of devastating confusion. Callie gave up on it and tossed it in the back unfolded. She now tried to make sense of the road signs as they zipped by.

“Look, there’s an exit. Take it!” she said. She didn’t know if it was the right one, but she was tired of the endless loops.

“Okeydoke!” Mike said, and turned the wagon into the exit. She was right; the turn took them straight into the heart of the city.

“What now?” Mike asked.

“Let’s start with something simple. We find a phonebook and look up the name Longstreet. See if she's here.”

“And if she’s unlisted?”

Callie gave him an exasperated look. “One problem at a time, please!”

“Maybe we should try a mall.” Mike said, “Malls have public phones, and it’ll give us a chance to take a break from the road and stretch our legs a little.”

“Okay, let’s do that.”

They meandered through the city’s streets, letting the flow of traffic guide them. At last they found what they were looking for: the CityScape Mall. A big three story building with all the architectural beauty of a painted brick. The parking lot was huge, and still mostly full. They drove in, parked in the closest space to the mall they could find, and got out.

“Remember where we parked.” Mike said, as he locked up the wagon, and joined Callie in gawking.
“That’s bigger than any mall I’ve ever seen.” she said.

“That’s not saying much. We haven’t seen that many.”

They walked towards the mall. Even from a distance, they could see that the place was a beehive of activity.

They reached the entrance, and the automatic doors swished open. The place exhaled upon them it’s cold air conditioned breath. Mike and Callie shuddered at the unexpected frigidity, and entered.

“Shoulda brought a jacket.” Mike said.

They walked first to a “you are here” map. Backlit and color-coded, it was a square monolith that stood in the center of the entrance hall like a solemn guardian. Callie ran her finger over its shiny plastic face.

“The phones are here.” she said, and tapped the spot with her fingernail, “Let’s go.”

They walked past the map, and entered the mall’s main promenade. A beautiful pool-sized water fountain encircled by benches took up its wide center. They jostled past swarms of loitering shoppers. On the top floor, which housed the food court, two kids leaned over the railing and spat down at the people that walked by on the ground floor.

Mike and Callie reached a square pillar with phones on all four sides. Each phone was bracketed with sheets of curved stainless steel as a concession to privacy. Fat phonebooks hung from absurd metal cords and bindings. Callie picked---or rather, heaved---up one of these phonebooks, and thumbed through it. As she did so, a blonde haired boy of about twelve bumped into Mike.

“Sorry, guy!” he said, and scooted away.

“Sure.” Mike said, and turned his attention back to Callie and the phonebook. He put his hands in his pockets to warm them, and noticed something missing.

“I don’t believe this! That kid just took my wallet! All our money’s in there!” Mike said, and ran after the boy, who was already hightailing it.

The kid led Mike on a merry chase. Mike was faster, and managed to close the distance, but the boy dodged him at every turn, and weaved through the crowds in expert fashion.
The kid ducked into a clothing store, and Mike followed him into it; but lost him amidst the shoppers and the racks. Mike backtracked to the entrance in time to see the boy running up an escalator to the second floor.

Clever little snot! Mike thought to himself, and ran to catch up. 
He reached the escalator and, hop-skipping two steps at a time, ascended to the second floor. He skimmed down the rows of stores, and looked inside each one, hoping to catch a glimpse of the little thief. He got to a bookstore, and to his surprise saw Callie walk out of it, with the kid in a headlock.

“Were you looking for this?” she asked.

“How did you---?”

“I’m the smart one, remember? As for you,” she squeezed the boy’s head a little harder, “Give him back his wallet.”

The boy yelped, retrieved the wallet from inside his tucked-in shirt, and handed it to Mike.

“Sorry, guy.” he said with a sheepish grin.

Mike took the wallet and counted the money. Once he was sure everything was there, he put the wallet back in his pocket. “Well, it looks like we got you, kid.” he said.

“It looks like we got you.” a voice said, from behind them.

The voice belonged to one of two severe-looking mall security officers.

“We have strict rules here against kids running around and disturbing the customers.” he said, “You three better come with us.”

“Not today!” the boy said, and stomped on Callie’s foot.

Callie, who had loosened her grip on the boy’s head in the distraction, yelled “Oww!”, and let go of him.

The boy made to run off, but one of the officers extended his long arm in a lightning quick reflex, grabbed the kid by the back of the shirt collar, and pulled him back.

The other grabbed Mike and Callie’s arms, to prevent a similar attempt. People began to stop and stare.

“By resisting, you three have just made your situation worse.” the one with the boy in hand said, his voice as cold as the mall itself.

“But we didn’t resist!” Callie said, “We don’t even know him!”

“Officer, this kid stole my wallet! I had to run to catch him!” Mike explained, in his best grown-up voice.

“Tell it to the frain.” the officer said, “We’re taking the lot of you downstairs.”