“Blood Feud”

Brigit’s Flame Entry – Week 4 June
Prompt: ‘History’
Word Count: 4,478
Genre: Science Fiction

“Keller here,” barked a voice from the car speakers.

Daniel thumbed the volume down as he replied wryly, “Keller here, too. How ‘bout that?”

“I’m in the middle of something, Danny. Call me back in an hour,” Caleb grumbled. The connection beeped off.

“Unbelievable,” Daniel muttered. “Un-frakkin-believable.” He fished his mobile from the niche below the car’s hands-free system and angrily fired off a text to Caleb. After he reread and reworded the text twice, Daniel hit send and dropped the phone into the passenger seat with a finger-flick for punctuation.

Three minutes later the car announced an incoming call.
Daniel pressed the button to accept. “Ladies and Gentlemen, my brother the Neandertal!”.

“Why do you have to say it like that?” Caleb sighed.

“Because, Big Brother, you laid down this epic directive that if we were going to meet at the tailor’s during your lunch break, I had better be on time and not leave you sitting here alone. Then when I call to see where you are you grunt something into the phone and hang up on me. I’ve earned the right to be sarcastic. Get over it.”

“No,” Caleb rumbled. “I meant ‘neander-tall’ without the ‘h’?”

Daniel exhaled loudly, “Because that is how the failed version of primitive man is referred to in scientific circles.”

Caleb audibly sucked his incisor, “Yeah, but you’re not a scientist so it just makes you sound like an asshole.”

Daniel closed his eyes and dropped his head back on the head-rest. “I actually am a…Never mind. How long until you get here?”

“About an hour. Maybe an hour and ten now that we’ve had our little chat.”

“Excellent. I’ll go in and hang out with the showgirls while you — ?”

“Interrogate a man about a murder,” Caleb replied nonchalantly.

“It’s always a murder with you,” Daniel sighed and hung up.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The Keller brothers pushed through the replica saloon doors belonging to master costumier Jean-Paul Beauchene, arms weighted down with two wardrobe bags each and stacks of twine strapped boxes.

“He’s an odd one,” Caleb remarked with a smirk.

Daniel shot his brother an annoyed look. “Can we at least get through the exterior door before you start insulting our next client?” The younger Keller used his butt to push the shopfront’s security door open and backed out onto the sidewalk. He stretched his foot out at the last second to catch and hold the door for his brother. From the corner of his eye Daniel thought he saw something falling towards him. He flinched and threw his arms up to protect his head. The boxes he’d been carrying bounced away from the curb as they fell to the ground.

“Geez, Danny!” Caleb wheezed. “Pull it together. It’s just the damn sign.”

The entrepreneurial Beauchene operated his tailoring and costume business out of his theatrical club, the ‘Moulin Rouge’. Like its namesake the Milwaukee version of the ‘Moulin Rouge’ had a windmill affixed to the building complete with slowly rotating blades.

Daniel, flushed with embarrassment, scrambled to pick up the boxes that had popped out of their twine. “At least you didn't pull your gun on it,” he muttered.

“Yeah,” the older Keller agreed, “I've finally gotten used to you overreacting to stupid shit.”

Daniel gritted his teeth and opted for dribbling the boxes back to the car footballer style. Caleb opened the rear gate of Daniel’s SUV, dropped his packages in the trunk and flopped his wardrobe bags over the rear seat. Then he relieved Daniel of his packages so the other Keller could pick the rest of his purchases up off the ground.

“Those are some expensive soccer balls you’re kickin’ around like that,” Caleb remarked.

“I’m aware.” Daniel snapped at him. “I guess I’ll be carting your clothes back to the cabin?”

“Relax, kid,” Caleb grumbled. “I know for a fact that I didn't piss in your cornflakes this morning so lose the tone.” Daniel opened his mouth to argue, but Caleb held up a hand and glared at his little brother in an unspoken warning. Caleb was not above getting physical when it came to Daniel. The brothers had traded bruises and busted knuckles on numerous occasions.

They stared at each other for a few beats as one decided if he was angry enough to push, and the other waited him out.

Daniel shifted his attention to re-organizing the boxes in the back of his car and checking on the contents of the box that appeared the most dented.

“I’ll be out to the cabin in the morning for our uh…expedition,” Caleb said casually. “Since I have to go back to work now, in the department vehicle,” he added with emphasis, “I’d appreciate it if you could take my clothes home with you?” Caleb didn't phrase it like a question, but he had the decency to imply a question mark at the end.

“That’s fine,” Daniel replied shortly. “Which expedition do you want to head out for tomorrow? The one in Perth or the sinking ship?”

Caleb made a scoffing noise. “We’re not executing that nutjob’s request without extensive research first.”

“If we don’t take his…,” Daniel growled then stopped himself, clenching his fist. “Caleb, we cannot afford the work he did for us, that’s why we are bartering with him.”

“Pretty convenient, don’tcha think?” Caleb commented with a sneer. “Guy tells us this stuff is thousands of dollars, AFTER he makes it, then comes up with this scheme to get us to go loot some sinking ship instead of having to lay out the cash. I don’t trust him. He wears eyeliner for chrissakes.”
“You are not that shallow!” Daniel exploded, his barely contained irritation boiling over. “I hate it when you try to play this bad-ass mo-fo…guy. Jean-Paul was a friend of Dad’s. They did stuff like this together all the time. And he hand wove sixteen yards of fabric for those kilts. Do you have any idea how much work that is?”

“No. Because I don’t play dress-up and flit around in costumes, lifting my skirts.”

“I’m leaving,” Daniel barked. “Go be a Neandertal with your detective buddies. I’ll do Jean-Paul’s job on my own.”

“You will not,” Caleb growled, catching Daniel by the arm roughly. He let go just as he noticed a woman pushing a stroller stop to stare at them. “I didn't say we wouldn't do the job. I just said I don’t trust the guy’s research. Just because he says he was like Dad’s business partner doesn't make it true. People lie, Danny.”

“I’m going on Ford Keller’s word here,’ Daniel insisted. “Dad wrote about Jean-Paul all the time in his journal. They've been working together since the guy first learned his trade — back when we were kids. Before Jean-Paul there was another man Dad worked with, another costumier. Jean-Paul was his apprentice. Our family has always relied on relationships like these.”

Caleb checked his watch and pulled his mobile out of his pocket. “I gotta get back to work, Danny. Just wait for me before you go anywhere. Oh,” he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and handed Danny a small slip of paper from it. “This guy texted me that our order is in. Can you swing by and pick it up on your way back up to the cabin. He’s right off the highway, exit 41.”

“Why am I your errand boy?” Danny asked the sky.

“Just get there before he closes will ya? We need that stuff for the expedition. And you’ll probably want to figure out how it all works and get extra batteries.” Caleb said this last as he closed his car door and started a conversation with someone via cell phone.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Caleb consulted a map inked on a piece of leather while Daniel tried to arrange stones as a parking marker that would not be noticed by anyone but a Keller. The time-travel machine could disguise itself as many things to keep it safe from theft or tampering (or notice) during a time jaunt. Given the heavily wooded area they landed in, Daniel chose the weathered boulder camouflage option and then worried they wouldn’t be able to distinguish it later from the other boulders.

The date was 30, September 1396; the place, Perth, Scotland. It was early in the morning on the historic day of the Battle of North Inch.

“I think I hear someone coming, Caleb. We need to get moving.”

“I can see the river, so I think that way is east.” Caleb pointed, then looked hopelessly at the dense trees all around them. “There should be a road in that direction,” he said with more confidence than he felt.

“I never checked if there were Highwaymen in this time,” Daniel nattered nervously.

Caleb chuckled. “Can you imagine if we got mugged in the middle of Sherwood Forest? Dad would be laughing at us from his grave.”
Daniel gave Caleb’s back a scolding look. “Or cursing us. I still can’t believe I let you talk me into bringing modern tech with us. Do you not understand the concept of an anachronism?”

“Kid,” Caleb said in a warning tone, “I understand far more things than you give me credit for. Quit talking down to me or we’ll be the ones on the battlefield.”

The brothers moved through the woods in silence and in the general direction Caleb suspected was correct. After a time, Daniel noticed aloud that the trees seemed to be thinning out and the underbrush was more manageable. In less than thirty feet they came to the edge of a cart trail. The brothers looked down the trail in opposite directions.

“I miss satellites already,” Daniel mumbled in amusement. “Which way to Perth?”

“Well, the river was going this way,” Caleb gestured with his arm, “and the battlefield was here,” he pointed to a spot on his wrist. “I couldn’t actually see the battlefield from where we parked, but I did see a piece of the bridge which is here,” Caleb pointed to his elbow. “So if the road is heading towards the village which is by the river (and we haven’t walked in a circle),” he made a right angle of his arms to demonstrate. “Then I think we should go that way.”

“This is not my beautiful wife,” sang Daniel.

Caleb furrowed his brow and opened his mouth to say something, then promptly shut it. A loud crack sounded up the road; it seemed to be just around a curve in the cart trail, opposite the direction Caleb had decided was the right way. Frozen with indecision, neither brother made a move to or away from the sound. They heard an animal groan and then possibly whinny, followed by the distinct sound of a man cursing.

“I think that man needs help,” Daniel whispered.

“We’re not supposed to help,” Caleb whispered back.

“I bet he knows where the village is,” Daniel suggested.

Caleb took one more look down the road to where he thought they should go. “Yeah, let’s see if we can get directions without creating a paradox.” The brothers moved toward the ongoing sounds of irritation.

“Do you know there are some quantum theorists who believe it is impossible to actually create a paradox?”

“Shut up, Egbert,” Caleb chided. “You’ll accidentally enlighten Robin Hood.”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

It took an hour to help the little man they found with his splintered axle. By the time he was travel-ready, both brothers had mud squelching through their period shoes and caked over various places on their $10,000 each kilt ensembles. The man who introduced himself as Henry, had remarked on their strange accents, but seemed to accepted Daniel’s story of growing up in the Orkneys and relocating for a marriage into a local clan.

“The wheel is serviceable,” Daniel said awkwardly, hyper-aware of the centuries of difference in their languages. “We must be on our way. I am afraid we became turned around on the road. Can you direct us to the village of Perth?” Henry looked at Daniel with something that seemed like pity and pointed up the road. It took both brothers a moment to reorient and realize it was opposite the direction Caleb had calculated.

Caleb nervously took a stab at talking to the local. “So you were on the road leaving the village? Did you not want to see the battle today?”

His reply sounded much like, “I kenny don. Iva promise to a mane in creef.” Henry pointed to the box Caleb had just loaded back on the cart after fixing the wheel.

“Crieff?” Daniel repeated. Henry corrected the pronunciation and Daniel repeated it.

After the third try Henry just said, “Aye.” and waved his hand.

“Henry,” Daniel started, “Are you the smith in Perth?”

“Aye.” Henry nodded.

“Is there another smith named Henry in the village?”

“Naan.” Henry shook his head.

“Are you sometimes called Hal o’ the Wynd?” Daniel asked.

“Aye!” Henry snapped and went off on a small tirade that neither brother could understand.

Caleb flinched at the vehemence in the small man’s response. “What are you getting at Danny?” Caleb muttered. “I think you just pissed him off.”

“He’s supposed to be there today,” Daniel said softly. “He’s part of the history. A vital part.”

Henry the Smith shook his crop at the Keller brothers and climbed up to the seat on his cart. Caleb and Daniel stepped back from the road as Hal o’ the Wynd followed his horse out of town.

“Shit,” exclaimed Caleb. “All we did was help a stranded traveler and now we've ruined history.”

“How the hell was our family able to do this for so long without creating an ocean of red journals?” Daniel wondered aloud.

“Do we still go to the battle?” Caleb asked Daniel.

“Should we chase him down and force him back to the village?” Daniel asked Caleb.

Neither answered the other, they stood beside the road and pondered the severity of possible repercussions and how much effort they had put into getting to this moment. The wrong moment. A broken piece of history.

“Okay,” Daniel said with confidence, nodding briskly. “We still go to the battle. We record what happens — for our first red journal entry — and then we go back home, figure out what changed. If the impact seems like a tiny ripple, we leave it alone. If the changes are significant, we come back to this moment and set up some kind of road block or trap or whatever — further down the road — for Henry Smith that will force him to turn around and head back to Perth.”

Caleb nodded his approval for the plan and the two headed towards the village to bear witness to the Battle of North Inch.

After what felt like a mile walked in slurping shoes they could see a small wooden bridge crossing a creek. Caleb jogged to the side of the bridge and unlaced his shoes to swish them around in the water. Daniel followed suit, then took his socks off to crouch on a stone at the water’s edge and hold them in the current.

Caleb called out to Daniel what sounded like a warning, coincidentally Daniel felt something slick and sinewy slide over his hand. He screamed and fell backwards into the brush.

A moment later Caleb was grinning down at him from above. “Did ya break anything?” he asked.

“What the hell was that?” Daniel asked tensely.

“Did it feel like an eel might?” Caleb countered.

Daniel thought about it and nodded.

“Then it was probably an eel. I saw a net full of them hung under the bridge,” Caleb informed his brother with a smile.

“Those things can take a finger off,” Daniel exclaimed as Caleb helped him up and pulled his kilt around to adjust it. “I saw them on this fishing show one time where the adventure fisherman guy was trying to determine if they could have dragged a little girl into the river and drown her.”

“I know the show you mean,” Caleb interrupted, “but this might not be the best place to talk about television.”

“O,” Daniel said softly. “What did you say to me before I fell?”

“Don’t get the equipment wet.”

Daniel felt around for the video recording equipment disguised as Highland embellishments. Then he shifted around to feel under his many layers of clothes to check that all of the wires were still connected, the battery packs were intact, and the mini hard drive was still humming inaudibly as it stored all of the audio and video the Keller brothers were collecting.

“You scream like a girl, you know?” Caleb chuckled as he laced his shoes on and set out for the bridge.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The makeshift stands around the battlefield were filling up fast. There were already two clusters of armed men standing in the field; the colors of their battle dress the only indication that they were not all brothers-in-arms. Caleb had drawn the long straw before they left home, so he was nearer the stands and the King. Daniel was meant to film the more gruesome aspects of the day. He made his way along the top of the wall to find a seat with the best view.

Their clients had two goals in today’s time jump:
1.To determine the parties involved in the battle; a long disputed nugget of history that had never been settled.
2.To observe the battle strategy of Clan Chattan, the King’s demeanor, and the crowd’s reaction.

Question one had already been answered by listening to the crowd. Based on the research Daniel had done beforehand, there were some historians and history buffs who would be disappointed. What they knew — the Battle of North Inch had been arranged by the King to settle a dispute between clans or families who were not satisfied with a jurisdictional ruling. They requested a trial by combat.

For decades Clan Cameron or Clan Kay as they were also called, had been creeping into lands that belonged to Clan Chattan. That clan was formed by the family ties of two natural brothers and their sister’s husband — The MacIntosh, The MacPherson, and The Davidson. Following a battle that went wonky almost 20 years prior, the Davidson factor had been more than decimated. This caused The MacIntosh and The MacPherson to take into fostership their natural niece and nephew from the Davidson union and adopt management of the struggling factor.

What they didn’t know — in those 20 years, the children grew up, as did the children of the other Davidsons who lived. They sought to reclaim their birthright and resume governance of their own lands. The MacIntosh was not inclined to relinquish control as, his nephew, the man who stood to become The Davidson [family chief] had been known to dally with the daughter of The Cameron. It was his fear that the couple would wed, tying Clan Chattan to their sworn enemies. For years the families had sought a reasonable resolution, but the living son of David had his sense poisoned by the old Cameron – father of his beloved.

When the young man made his plea to the King that his uncle was trying to steal his lands. The King, Robert III agreed to the extreme resolution of a trial by combat. The Battle of North Inch was a feud among clan chiefs that had bled into the next generation to divide the clan over land and the right to love.

The men waiting to kill each other were a mix of all of the families involved. There was the main Davidson, joined by some of his kinsman, a handful of Camerons, a MacGillivray, and The MacPherson’s youngest son. On the other side, were the older men of Clan Chattan who’d fought in the campaigns against the Cameron’s and alongside the original Davidson. They were joined by their sons and while they were ready for the battle to come, they were disheartened by the prospect of fighting their own.

Daniel had not considered before leaving Wisconsin that he might feel for these ancient people. It was meant to be a replay of history; inevitable events they could not change. Yet by helping a dwarfish man with a wheel on a cart, the victory was no longer guaranteed. It was anyone’s win. Who should it be? Would the outcome be more significant for the old soldiers in their wisdom or the young warrior in his passion?

Settled in an excellent perch on a wall in Perth, Daniel Keller discreetly checked again to verify his equipment seemed in working order. He adjusted all of the little spy cams he was wearing to make sure they were unobstructed. The moment came when the side fighting for Clan Chattan called to the crowd for a volunteer to make up their one missing man. For the briefest insanity of a second, Daniel thought he should throw up a hand to pay his debt to the Chattan’s for helping their erstwhile hero leave town. Then he heard the crowd cheer as a small man clambered over the wall and threw in his lot.

It was Henry the Smith — Hal o’ the Wynd — the Gow Chrom himself. Daniel tingled with the realization that they had already come back to right their mistake and turn the day’s savior back towards the battle he was meant to win.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

“Caleb,” Daniel exclaimed in an excited whisper shortly after the brothers had crossed the small creek on their way to the time machine, “do you realize what happened out there?”

“Forty-eight men died over some brat’s lack of respect for his dead father?”

“Oh, I…” Daniel fumbled his words. He hadn’t really thought much about the ramifications of the battle once it looked like history had been set back on the right path. “I was talking about Henry showing up.”

“Yeah. That was weird. I wonder why he turned around and came back to the village? He seemed like a man on a mission when we saw him this morning.”

“Obviously he went back because he had to. We planned to come back if it was necessary and block his way to Crieff, so it would seem that we did.”

Caleb stopped a moment in the road and looked thoughtfully at Daniel. “Maybe you could be right, but that doesn’t feel right. We hadn’t decided to do it. We had discussed doing it if history was too distorted by the outcome of the battle without him. I don’t know, Danny.” He started walking again. “This shit’s just too complex and my brain’s not right after watching all those people get their heads cut off. I feel queasy and…after today I don’t know if I can do this time travel stuff. Maybe Dad was right to keep us out of it.”

“You’re kidding right?” Daniel jogged a few steps to catch up to Caleb. “You’re a homicide detective. I have not had a day in your company for the last year when the word ‘murder’ hasn’t come up.”

“I solve murders, Danny, or try to. I don’t watch them committed. Were you watching any of what went down on the battlefield?”

“It was pretty chaotic. I closed my eyes a lot.”

“You know what little brother,” Caleb growled, turning on Danny with a suddenness that stopped the younger Keller in his tracks, “there are days that I really don’t like you, as a person. Forty-eight men died horribly at the hands of their once-sworn brothers and you’re being glib. Life matters, Danny. The force that animates us and the choices we make, both of those things matter. It’s not something to be studied remotely, it should be respected.”

“You don’t like me? Caleb, I can’t remember the last time I thought of you as someone I’d like to hang with. And while you’re up on that high horse, cast back to last night and this morning when I made a similar argument against recording these events for the historian who hired us. I told you it wasn’t something to be ogled at and rewound for parsing, but all you wanted was the fat paycheck they had promised so we could put off doing any work for Jean-Paul.”

“Shut up!” Caleb said abruptly.

“What the f –?” Daniel started to say but Caleb roughly covered his mouth and struck a listening pose.
There was a sound coming from their left where the trees became more dense. Silently they brothers stalked the sound. A familiar cart had been forced back into the woods with such power a tree was leaning precariously and one whole plank had been sheared from the vehicle. A few minutes of careful walking took them to a pair of horses, still yoked, nibbling at some autumn berries.

Daniel opened his mouth to wonder aloud at the presence of the cart and horses, but Caleb held up a hand to stop him. There was still that other sound, out passed the horses. As they trudged along in silence, Daniel felt a thrum from the key fob that controlled the camouflage on the time machine. They were almost to the place where it was parked. Daniel felt his stomach drop as it occurred to him the sound and the proximity of their ride might be related.

Less than twenty feet from the boulder the brothers recognized as the time machine, they found Henry the Smith gagged and bound to a tree. The man was crying but did not seem injured. It took Daniel a second to realize that there was a piece of duct tape over Henry’s mouth.

He inhaled sharply and looked at Caleb. “Could we have done this?”

Caleb helped the man to his feet. Henry seemed grateful not angry, which relieved Daniel for the moment that they had not tied him up. Then, after a long confusing conversation, the brothers came to understand that the horses ran the cart into the trees and then broke the pin in their fever to escape. A strange and terrible noise and light had spooked them. Henry had been thrown from the cart when it stuck in the trees. He didn’t know anything after that until the moment he woke up tied to the tree, far from his cart.

The brothers spent two hours helping him get back on the road, noting that this time he headed toward Perth and not Crieff. Then they slogged, exhausted back to their time travel boulder to head home.

When Daniel clicked the button to turn off the camouflage, a strange grey square remained. Leaning in to the square the Keller brothers recognized it as duct tape, with the a note scribbled on it in an unfamiliar hand.

“You’re welcome”

“Hello Again”

Everglades_rescaled

“I don’t understand why we are doing this,” Daniel Keller whined again as he flailed at a mosquito that was strangely intent on the corner of his eye.
The sky was a cloudless, washed-out denim; the sun so bright you couldn’t actually see it behind its own glare. A limp breeze kept flapping at the brothers’ booted ankles as it skittered off the water and tripped over the tangles of mangrove roots. Buzzards glided gracefully overhead, tracing some poor animal’s corpse outline in the blue. To the right something loud splashed into the river, causing both young men to startle and turn.

Caleb Keller abruptly shrugged a mosquito away from his ear and picked up the pace.
“Because it’s what we, as a society, have decided is the right thing to do,” Caleb grumbled in agitation. “When your father dies and with his final bit of energy and voice tells his sons to go to the middle of the godforsaken Everglades, and has already gone so far as to hire an air boat captain,”
“I don’t think they’re called captains,” Daniel quipped, happier once he discovered his brother was miserable.
“Air boat operator, then,” Caleb groused. “Crazy old man Keller wants his ashes spread in a swamp thousands of miles from his own home…once it’s labeled as his dying wish then suddenly we carry the burden of some insane obligation to make his dreams come true.”
“Meanwhile he’s a 1 ½ pound box of dust,” Daniel added, ducking under the whip of a tree branch. “What if they gave us the wrong box and we’re doing all of this to spread Mrs. Finklestien’s ashes in a swamp, when it was her wish to get tossed into her daughter’s geraniums?”
“No one asks to be spread in the geraniums,” Caleb growled, struggling to pull his foot out of three inch deep mud without losing his boot.
“That’s what she said,” Daniel guffawed.

The Keller brothers were fairly average looking – average height, average build, medium brown hair, normal brown eyes. Caleb was a little more solid with a little more grit to the jaw and a little more furrow to the brow. Daniel dressed a little younger than Caleb, wore glasses even though his vision was 20/20, and was currently sporting some fashionable two day stubble to go with his fashionably unkempt hair. (Which was stuck to his forehead by sweat, in a most unfashionable way).

“My point is,” Daniel danced away from a low-hanging spider web being monitored by the Godzilla of all Orb Weavers. “Good Lord I hate this place!” he shouted in frustration. “Why don’t the damned monster spiders eat the damned monster mosquitoes and then…”
“Daniel, lower your voice,” Caleb hissed. “The last thing we want is that stringy air boat operator swooping in with his shotgun to save us like we’re two damsels in distress. Pull yourself together.
“You were making some kind of point?”
Daniel retraced his steps mentally, “O yeah. What if it’s not Dad in the box?”
Caleb stopped and gave his little brother a heavy dose of Dad’s patented ‘What are you, stupid?’ look and said, “It’s not Dad in the box. That’s not the point of any of this. Dad’s already dispersed into the cosmos or whatever. He did this for us, so we could bond over his death and make memories or some such shit. He probably felt we were growing apart.”
“He couldn’t have bought us Blackhawks tickets instead?” Daniel noticed a giant buzzard settle on a tree just thirty feet away. Sweat was sliding in a sheet down the small of Daniel’s back and into his boxer briefs without even pausing at his fashionable belt. “Why couldn’t it be his dying wish that we go on an Alaskan Cruise?” he asked the buzzard. The carrion eater just shuffled a bit on his branch and fluffed his four foot wings in a shrug.
“Quit talking about cold things, you’re making me sweat more,” Caleb insisted. “I think we’re here,” he added.

Daniel followed his brother through an open spot between two pond apple trees. Nestled into the sawgrass and mangroves was a shipping container. Daniel ducked into a partial crouch and whispered urgently to Caleb, “Back up, man. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Caleb mimicked the crouch and scanned the ground, “Is there a snake? A gator?” Caleb instinctively reached for his gun, which was not at his ribs.
“No, Cale,” Daniel whispered, “that container is probably some kind of Swampbilly Meth Lab.”
Caleb signed loudly, ending in a whistle. “Man, you scared me. Get with the program Daniel, we’ve been following dad’s orange paint spots, the container has one right on the door.”
Daniel stood and grabbed Caleb’s arm. “Do you think Dad was cooking meth? Maybe that’s what this is all about. Maybe there are oil drums full of money in there.”
Caleb pulled his arm away and shook his head, “This is why we never hang out anymore. Not everything is an AMC series or a Michael Bay movie. When are you going to grow out of this dreamy weirdo phase and join the real world? It’s embarrassing.”
“It’s only embarrassing to you because you have a detective’s badge pinned to your rectum,” Daniel sulked. “And how is that shipping container not weird to you? A daub of Dad’s magic orange paint and it all makes sense? What the hell is it doing all the way out here and what does it have to do with Dad? What does it have to do with us?”
Caleb shook his head again, smiling this time. “Our whole lives Dad has been setting up his little scavenger hunts and sending us out to follow them. This is…”
Daniel cut him off, “…way more elaborate than any trip into town to pick up ingredients for a mystery barbecue or Christmas hunts to find what cabin/tent/cottage he was waiting in with a spiral ham and the old slide projector.”
Caleb swiped at a mosquito on a flight path to his face and took in the setting with a pang of heartache and homesickness. “It’s the last one, Danny. Guess he pulled out all the stops.” He turned to Daniel and handed him their father’s quest guide, “Looks like you’re up. I see a combination lock on that container but no combo written here. Time to employ your nerd powers.”

It took about thirty minutes for Daniel to decipher the fifteen digit code from the travel instructions their father had left. Where old man Keller had found the lock was a mystery in itself. Neither brother had ever seen one so elaborate. Once they had the master lock off, they released the four lock latches and swung the doors open. Inside was what appeared to be a second, slightly smaller container. It was locked. Daniel looked for a second code (after trying the first one on it) while Caleb crouched in the shade and drank a bottle of water.  He was so slick with sweat by the time he rejoined Daniel, Caleb felt like he’d poured the bottled water over his head instead of down his throat.
Once the second lock was down, the Keller brothers stood poised to open the doors on their father’s last quest for them. Daniel wondered aloud if there would be another set of doors behind the second and gestured as if he were blocking out a movie title – ‘The Case of the Humid Matryoshka’. Caleb chuckled at this. It was one of the first jokes out of Daniel that he’d understood in years.
The brothers pulled open the doors on the count of three.
They were met by utter darkness…until their sun-glazed eyes had a chance to adjust to the faint reflection of light inside the container. Caleb pulled a flashlight out of his rucksack and tried to hand a second to Daniel, but the younger brother had already pulled out his cell phone and was waving its glowing screen into the dark space.

“It’s full of junk,” Daniel stated, annoyed. “I mean it’s great that Dad saved all of these things from our childhood, but what a waste of effort just to get it back to us.”
The container was packed tight with boxes against both side walls of the container. There was about an 18” wide path down the center that divided the stored items and allowed one to walk through to the back. Caleb had quickly determined that the boxes on the left were his and the ones on the right were Daniel’s.
Caleb didn’t say it out loud, but he was a little disappointed too. He had hoped to open those doors and find something amazing, or at least amusing; instead the trip had been downgraded to something like clearing the attic before the house went on the market. He stopped sorting through the baseball cards, super balls, and old detective comics when his fingers slid across the familiar texture of worn leather. Caleb worked the item free from the other detritus of his childhood and held it under the beam of his flashlight.

“Hey Cale,” Daniel called, his voice sounding excited. “Look what I found!”
Daniel held a white plastic rocket up in a ray of daylight near the doors. It was about two feet long with a red nose and fins and a sticker down the length that said USAF.
“This can’t be the same one, but do you remember the rocket I had?” Daniel’s eyes were aflame with the memory. “One of Dad’s friends brought it by a couple of weeks after my sixth birthday.”
“Yeah,” Caleb interjected, “he brought you the rocket and me an odd pair of rainbow socks with the individual toes.”
“Hells yeah,” Daniel nodded enthusiastically, “I remember that now. That’s why you weren’t wearing shoes. We were playing with my rocket in the field beside the motel and I had to stomp the button because I was the one with the shoes on.”
“You had to stomp the button because you were a spoiled little bitch and didn’t want me playing with your toy,” Caleb corrected with a grin.
“I let you go get it for me when it landed,” Daniel teased.
“And I nearly lost my foot stepping through the pane of a discarded window,” Caleb retorted.
“Dad was so pissed at us…” Daniel reminisced.
“Yeah, and I don’t remember ever playing with that rocket again. Did he take it away from you?”
“Nope. I forgot it in the field in all of the excitement. I thought about it the next day, but Dad had already forbidden us from going over there again,” Daniel picked at the edge of a sticker, still half in the memories.

“Well look what I found. This one has a great story.” Caleb brandished a beaten-up child’s ball glove tightly wrapped in a long, leather thong. As he spoke Caleb unwound the leather to display the dirty baseball trapped inside. “I had this with me the night you were born. Dad and I had been playing catch out in the yard when Mom yelled through the window that she needed to go to the hospital right away. I kinda stood back while he fussed around her – grabbing a suitcase and helping her into the car. When they were ready to go I was still standing in the kitchen, confused. Dad called to me and I just took off for the car still wearing my muddy shoes and holding on to this thing. I don’t think I even shut the kitchen door behind me.”
Caleb flopped the leather thong in Daniel’s direction, “I must have wrapped that glove 80 times while mom was in the delivery room. I was bored, hungry, tired, and I don’t know what else.”
“Well you were like, five or something,” Daniel interrupted.
“Yeah, I was being a brat, for sure,” Caleb nodded, “but Dad was really distracted – really edgy – and I think I was thrown off by his energy. Anyway, you were born eventually and we went to look at you through the glass and then went in the room where Mom was resting. We talked to her a bit and hugged her a few times. Then Dad bought us hero sandwiches and took me home. I remember we had heroes because he gave me this speech about being a big brother and told me I would be your hero, after him of course. It was a week before I realized I had left this behind somewhere in the hospital,” Caleb held up the glove. “I guess Dad got it back for me. It is weird he put it away instead of giving it back. He even had to buy me a new one to replace it.”
“It’s definitely the same glove?” Daniel asked.
Caleb nodded and shined the flashlight on his name, written in fading black marker, just inside the glove opening. On the other side of the hollow was the word ‘Brewers’ with a capital M on either side.
“I asked Dad to mark that in for me. I wanted to play for the Brewers when I grew up.”
“Yeah, that is weird,” Daniel agreed, though Caleb wasn’t sure what he was agreeing with.

“What’s that back there?” Daniel asked, shining his phone toward the end of the container.
“Dunno,” Caleb replied with a shrug, “I haven’t ventured that far. Put that phone down and take a real flashlight, would you? That thing barely pushes light out a foot and you’re going to kill your battery.”
Daniel did as he was told and wondered what happened to the little boy who actually had seen Caleb as his hero. As he shuffled along the narrow aisle between boxes of past lives, Daniel abruptly registered the sensation that a bug was crawling in his hair. He squealed a little and flailed a lot, slapping his own head to rid his hair of invaders. The flashlight hit the floor and rolled away. A chilly bug was knocking him in the wrist. When he flicked his wrist to swat the thing, he felt something else slide across his hand. It was a thin, beaded pull-chain. He pulled it. Lights buzzed to life down the length of the container.

Caleb stepped up behind Daniel and handed him the lost flashlight, “Nice dancin’, Beyonce,” he said with an audible smirk.
“Are you seeing this, Caleb?” Daniel asked, ignoring the jibe. “What the hell is that thing?”
“I know not, young Padawan. Looks like one of those landspeeders from Tatooine.”
“I don’t know what’s more shocking, you making an accurate Star Wars reference, or the fact that there is seemingly a landspeeder parked at the end of this metal box,” Daniel said.
“Star Wars was mine first kid, those prequel movies may have come out during your heyday, but the originals were all mine. You never even liked Star Wars before they brought in the dancing teddy bears.” Caleb brought up the old argument as they picked their way down the aisle past some boxes that had spilled their contents across the path like a dead fall.
Daniel sighed, “Can we focus please. Do you think it’s some kind of movie prop? Do you think it might actually work?”
“Danny, wait,” Caleb put a heavy hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Daniel turned around to look a question at Caleb, but his brother was crouching down to pick something up from floor. He stood, holding a large book. It was wrapped in a leather thong, much the same way the baseball glove had been.
“Dad’s journal,” they both breathed in unison.

“I’ve searched his room and office for this thing a hundred times since he passed,” Caleb said emotionally. “I can’t believe it’s been here all along.”
Daniel ran a finger along the leather of the cover, all thoughts of Star Wars and hovercraft toys forgotten. Old man Keller never went anywhere without his journal. Many times in their lives the brothers had tried to steal it and unravel its secrets, but something had always interfered with their snooping. When Caleb had reported to Daniel that it was not with their father’s effects, he’d felt the last piece of his grief come back and kick him in the gut all over again.
Finding the book made swamps, mosquitoes, and crazy huge spiders worth it. Dad may not be in the box of ashes, but he was definitely in this worn leather diary. Daniel felt choked up and almost lost it when he met Caleb’s eyes and saw the well of tears at the brink of spilling over. He closed his hand over Caleb’s and said, “Open it.”

The lights flickered out in the container and a fizzing sound hissed into existence in a back corner. There was a confusing whump-whump that ramped up to a whir then whumped back down to silence. The lights came back on and a man stood between the brothers and the “landspeeder”. He was pretty average looking, but his hair was white instead of brown and there was a touch of something wild in his eyes and at the edge of his smile.
He took a long step toward the brothers and stood straight, thumbs tucked into the loops on his jeans, “I’d have never guessed I could have raised two such weepy, little, momma’s boys. Look at you about to cry over a book.” Old man Keller harrumphed.

Daniel and Caleb’s mouths hung open. There was nothing happening in either man’s head for a full thirty seconds as they stood in a shipping container, inside another shipping container, on an island in the middle of the Everglades, thousands of miles from home…in the presence of their dead father – who currently appeared to be alive. The mental silence broke like the sound barrier and questions flooded into their brains with the force of a tidal wave.

“Dad” was the first word spoken. For Daniel it came out with a question mark, Caleb’s was followed with a very distinct exclamation point.
Old man Keller raised his hands to hold the flood of questions back for a few moment’s longer, “Okay boys, I don’t have a lot of time to spend here, and it’s really important that you don’t say too much to me about how I died and all. I’ll get to why in a minute. Actually…okay. I’ve been practicing this for the last few hours but nothing can really prepare you for being in the moment.” He took a few deep breaths before continuing.
“Some things you should know. I’m your Dad, obviously, but this me is alive. Again, obviously. Before I came here, I was in Egypt and it was May 23rd, 2010. So we all know that I have died by this particular date in your timeline, but I have not personally died yet in mine.

Thing number two. A really long time ago, a grandfather in my family line built a time machine. He passed the science and mechanics on to his son who improved upon it and passed it on to his.” Their father took a moment to gesture behind him to the “landspeeder”, “That’s it right there.”
The brother’s gaped at the vehicle for a moment and returned their gaze to their not yet departed father.
“Okay, in this container are boxes of journals, tools, schematics, gizmos, and time travel whats-its. Take some time to study them and familiarize yourself with how it all works. Also, take care to read the red journals. These will describe all of the really stupid stuff our family did with the power that messed things up royally. Don’t repeat that part of our history.
“In the front of my journal there are “the rules”. It’s pretty strict, but highly necessary. That machine down there is not for joyriding in. The first rule of time travel is that you don’t talk about time travel.” Their dad grinned a moment at his own joke, Daniel managed a confused twitch of a smile in reply.
“Too soon, understood. Okay sooooo…O, behind the rules are a few pages that catalog what’s in the container. Uuuumm, there’s an air conditioning unit and small fridge over there so you don’t bake to death. Also in the master journal are a list of clients so you can get started. Most of them are museum curators, but there are a few bibliophiles, an anthropologist, one guy who writes novels about ancient conspiracies…you’ll look at the list and figure out the rest.

“Very important, never take passengers. Only the two of you should ever put your butts in those seats, until you have your own sons to pass the tradition down to.
“O and Daniel, before you ask, the reason girls can’t travel has to do with ovulation. The device messes with their reproductive clock. My dad thought he could get around that by taking your grandmother for a quick jaunt to see the pyramids being built after she went through menopause and she ended up pregnant with your uncle Tommy at the age of 63.” Keller stopped to take a swig from a water bottle in his cargo pocket.
“Can somebody hit that a/c please? I’m sweatin’ like a grifter in church who just dallied with the butcher’s wife.”
Caleb grinned and worked his way to the chill box on the wall. There was a slight path between the boxes to get to it that he hadn’t noticed before.
“Danny, take this fob,” Keller said and dropped a black car remote into his hand. “This controls the doors from inside and out, we’ll cool off faster if they are closed.
Daniel hit the lock button twice and the doors settled back into place.

Caleb called from across the container, “Why didn’t you tell us all of this sooner, Dad?”
“Fair question. I had thought to be done with it all, for good. Just kill the family business and let you two have normal lives. This may seem like a fun adventure at first, but one day you’ll see it for the major pain in the ass it really is. Also, I was kind of worried about you Caleb, and how you would handle everything. You are the first person in the family to ever join law enforcement. There are millions of injustices in the history of our planet and we can’t do a damn thing to change any of them. That’s really important. I wasn’t sure you could restrain yourself.”
Caleb opened his mouth to protest, then he pictured himself shooting Hitler in 1937 or warning people outside the World Trade Center. How could you know and not act? Daniel watched his brother’s face as he weighed the two types of responsibilities against his own sense of justice.

“How do we do it, Dad?” Daniel asked. It was an open question, but they were family and their father knew what he meant.
“You just don’t allow yourself to see it as an option. We can observe, we can collect things after they’ve been lost,” he gestured to the boxes, “but we cannot change one second of history. And if you have any doubt, read the red journals.
“Caleb, I think you should start with the red journals and let your brother work on the mechanical end. Daniel, pay close attention to the science.”
Both men nodded, lost in thoughts of awe and trepidation.
“Okay, I’ve got just enough time for a test drive,” Keller grinned, “Let’s take care of that while the a/c does it’s thing. When we get back I’ll pop the hood and show you where she likes to be tickled.”
“When are we going, Dad?” Daniel asked with a smirk.
“I promised your mom a long time ago that I’d bring her adult sons to meet her one day. Let’s go give her a squeeze.”
Caleb gave his father a stern look, “I thought you said we couldn’t talk about time travel?”
“Your mother and I spent our whole lives together, it came down to telling her the truth or having her leave me under suspicion of adultery. I loved her more than the whole of time.”
Daniel beamed, “I can’t wait to see her. C’mon Caleb.”
“Guess this wasn’t a complete waste of time after all,” Caleb Keller thought as he called shotgun for the passenger seat in the family time machine.

 

Everglades Orb

What The Trees Told Me: Part Two – “Indian Summer”

It must have happened during that odd heat wave twelve years ago. Remember the Indian summer in the middle of October? Wick and I packed up the car and headed northeast to clear our heads and rejuvenate. It had been a difficult time for us, inside and out. Not the worst of times, because by that year we had passed the worst and come out the other side. Still, there were days we couldn’t bear to be in the same room and others when I knew I would wither and die inside if we were ever parted.

We were married our senior year of college during this crazy May Day celebration…we had such dreams. Wick would take the architectural world by surprise (or force, if necessary), and I would put my gold-medalist arguing skills to good use saving the world one disenfranchised underdog at a time.

We would have two children in our mid-thirties and keep the door open into the first few years of forty for one last blessing to surprise us. There would be a dog – yellow Lab or Golden Retriever, depending on the mood of the day – at least two goldfish, and possibly a ferret if the children were responsible and the dog was well-trained.

For the early years of our careers, we would be metropolitan city-dwellers, but once there were children in the picture we’d head out to the suburbs and commute like good little yuppies.

Looking back, I can’t help thinking that marching into full-fledged adulthood with such a structured plan was a mistake…that fate saw it as hubris and decided to smack us around with a little reality. Our careers happened as we’d envisioned, but the children kept eluding us.

We spent five years actively trying, but had stopped <i>trying to prevent it</i> years before that. Of the 60 months when making a baby became our mission, we spent about 40 pursuing various fertility assistance programs. In addition to the baby-making doctors, we eventually started seeing professionals about my frame of mind and our relationship – neither were thriving.

After the final failed in vitro attempt, I checked myself into a mental health rehab center. I felt a desperation about my inability to conceive that extended beyond concern for my marriage into an even darker place. In my nightmares and daydreams I had become convinced I could not conceive because <i>I</i> was not meant to be. I was some kind of human anomaly that should never have lived into adulthood. When I closed my eyes I felt as though I were made of ash and just the wish for a breeze could end my illusory life.

Wick agreed to a temporary separation (and to pause all fertility attempts) when I explained this vision to him and could not provide an answer when he asked if I wanted that breeze to blow through. We had lost sight of each other. I had lost sight of myself. Having a baby had eclipsed all of our other goals and our promise of “not before death will we part”.

I lingered four months in rehab before I called him and asked him to drive up for a weekend so we could talk. We spent almost eight more getting to know each other again before resuming our cohabitation. I honestly never thought our marriage would survive. But it did. The key was letting go of the dream to have children naturally and to assert that we were a family together, regardless of offspring.

On the first anniversary we celebrated, but never named, the unexpected heat and typical pressures of the city were bearing down on our relationship again. We fled for rural vistas and the hope of a little romance to bind us together for another year.

I remember driving through a particular valley, in the blaze of that Indian summer, where the red and gold leaves of trees seemed more like a forest fire than Fall in the forest. The cicadas song even resembled the crackle of flames. I repeated this sentiment aloud to Wick and he commended me on my poetic thoughts. He always calls me ‘Counselor’ when he mocks me like that.

As the sun set behind a distant mural of mountains, the tires crunched gravel on an overgrown lane. What little light had been infusing the sky for the last hour was instantly gone as two, long rows of hoary Chestnut trees drew us into darkness. Some distance later the crispy, scraping, bumpy tunnel spit us out into the clear night of a surrealist’s canvas.

In the center of the drive, what upon first look appeared as a copse of trees, was revealed by our headlights to be a single, ancient oak. Deep-seeded arboreal ambition and seclusion had allowed the oak to stretch its limbs so far from its massive trunk, gravity had pulled the lower boughs back to earth before they reached once again for the sky.

The house, a restoration project of Wick’s colleague, seemed to spiral up into the star-filled night. From the wrap-around porch with its bookend gazebos, to the peaks and turrets of the second floor, to the terraced tower extending beyond the bounds of a third story to gouge the indigo sky with its weather vane. I wondered aloud if the old Victorian had aspired to beat out the tree in size, or if everything in this rural patch grew so plenteous when abandoned.

That night we slept downstairs, on a bed that sagged like a hammock and smelled like mice feet. Despite the heat, we kept the windows and doors locked tight against the vast, unexplored space outside our retreat. There weren’t enough stars or floodlights in that pitch-black wilderness to explain the shapes and scrapes twisting and bowing an arm’s length from the porch rail.

Our rented Keep was not fortified against the sounds of all that terrifying nature. There are things in a country night that don’t have the courtesy to simply bump. They scream like tom cats being torn apart by mountain lions and caw like 50 foot crows. There are other sounds, all the more unnerving because your brain cannot classify them. No similes or metaphors spring to mind when the song of the crickets and katydids stops abruptly to allow an undulating snort-cackle-thud-rend-crack to pass over the lips of the wild.

The first hours of the first morning in our ghastly resort were spent making plans to find a Hilton or even a Howard-Johnson’s; then maybe a diner. In our haste to arrive, we had not considered this old house would not have coffee, eggs…a continental breakfast. My search of the kitchen turned up two old-fashioned milk glasses and the dim possibility of a clean towel to wipe them out with.

Luckily, the faucet was new. Water slipped out of a graceful goose-neck in a sparkling stream that danced in the light of another belated summer day. I felt myself strangely drawn to that shaft of liquid sunshine. Sliding my hands into the cool flow, a moment of pure peace whispered over me. Then a flicker of movement through the window caught my eye and broke my trance.

The morning breeze was making an apple tree dance at the edge of a grove just a dozen yards away. From where I stood, I could see at least two fat, red apples hiding in the upper branches and an odd little ladder. Calling upstairs to Wick to join me, I pushed through the backdoor and stopped short at the edge of the porch steps.

Behind the house, stretching for miles to the base of a small ridge, were thousands of trees. Some had colored completely for autumn, some were browning or shedding from the recent frost, but a few – like my apple tree – glowed green in the morning light. The delight I felt was indescribable and eclipsed all of the irrational fears that had come to me in the night. I skipped down the porch steps and sprinted to the leaning ladder, calling out again for Wick.

As I propped the ladder against the tree I’d seen from the window I noticed two beautiful apples on a lower branch, dappled with shade but otherwise unblemished. One rung up, a gentle twist and I’d just resolved our breakfast issues. In my giddiness at finding the orchard, I thanked the tree for her fruit and bobbed a curtsy. I wanted to wait for Wick, but my stomach grumbled and my mouth started to water just a bit.

It crossed my mind to polish the apple on my shirt first, but it seemed rude and my shirt wasn’t necessarily all that clean considering how the bed had smelled. The skin of the apple snapped under my teeth and the juice ran down my chin in a surprising gush. That fruit was so perfect, I actually closed my eyes to increase the input of my taste buds.

I don’t even remember taking a second bite, or the last bite, but before long I was standing there with nothing but two cores in my hand. Wick stood in front of me with a wondering look. I grinned at him like I had that May Day seventeen years before, when we had a whole life ahead of us and improvised vows of sacrifice and serendipity on our tongues.

“Don’t judge,” I implored. “You promised in your vows to me that if ever we were lost and starving and there was only one apple left, you would let me eat my fill before you took your first bite. Did you sincerely and literally pledge that oath?”
Wick stepped forward and rubbed his thumb over my sticky chin, “I do, Counselor.”
In one small movement between a stride and a lean I was standing in the circle of his arms. “You mean you did?” I corrected.
His lips hovered over mine, “Don’t lead the witness. I said, ‘I do’,” he whispered.
As his mouth brushed me, I felt a tingling elation. Inside my chest a wall broke open and I wanted to run. Not to run away like I had two years before, but to run into the unknown with Wick at my heels or at my side.

I would run with him anywhere. On that day, we ran together through grove after grove – from shade to light to shade again. And when we couldn’t run anymore, we laid down in the cool shelter of a venerable tree whose name I did not know and made love like it was the first time.

It turned out to be a first of sorts, we just didn’t know it right away. Eight months and three weeks later, Emmaliene was born. I had always thought it was a miracle; one we maybe didn’t deserve. But it would seem now that our little girl was a gift from the trees.

What The Trees Told Me: Part One – “Emmaliene”

“Emmaliene Taylor is a very sad girl.”

It was the same thing the teachers always said (followed by sober nods and regretful shakes of the head) when the waif-thin, tawny-haired girl’s name came up in conversation.

“I think it’s the father,” the math teacher stated primly. “A little too charming, you know?  Can’t trust a man with eyes that blue.  And he’s always smiling,” Mrs. Carter added in a tone of condemnation.

“No.  I believe the mother is to blame,” the French teacher objected (she was quite fond of Mr. Taylor’s marine eyes). “The woman is a cold fish – with that rigid posture and eyes like an ice storm…I’m sure the child gets no affection from that quarter,” Miss Colbert confided with a judicious nod.

 

In truth, both of Emmaliene’s parents were utterly devoted to their daughter.  They began and ended each day of her life with warm hugs and kisses and filled the time in between with thoughtful conversation, family outings and many I love yous.  The girl did not want for affection or endearments.

But Emmaliene had never smiled, not even as a toddler.  She did sigh a lot, particularly when gazing from the windows of the Taylor family penthouse.  It was a lovely and spacious apartment on the twelfth floor of an old but quaint building overlooking Central Park.  Emmaliene’s sighs were not those of contentment.  Rather, they were filled with the heavy weight of loss.

 

“Have the Taylor’s sought any kind of help for the girl?” This question was posed by the new art teacher, Miss Holly.  The latest addition to the teacher’s lounge was a youthful, (and disastrously freckled) red-head from one of those southern states none of the urbanites could be troubled to remember the name of.  Her accent alone had inspired many covert smirks from the other teachers.  And the woman’s wardrobe!  The art teacher’s flowing patchwork skirts hanging low over form-hugging body suits in bright jewel tones had earned much scorn from the fashion-minded teachers of the Upper East Side.  “She’s actually wearing pumpkin,” Miss Colbert had sneered to Mrs. Carter not ten minutes before. “Could she be a bigger cliché?  And those boots!  Is there a rodeo in town?”  “Hillbilly Chic,” the math teacher had chimed in with a derisive snort.

 

The school psychiatrist, stood between Mrs. Carter and Miss Holly now, rocking thoughtfully on his heels while contemplating his coffee.  “Emmaliene Taylor.  She does warrant some concern, yes…”

“I think she has some real potential…” Miss Holly began but Mr. Dodge cut across her words with the precision of one who listens for a living.

“Troubled girl.  I’ve seen her many times myself.  Even referred her to some of the top psychiatrists in the city.  No one can decide what to do with her.  Sadly, the latest word from a specialist of my acquaintance is autism.  A mild case, nothing too severe – there’s no denying she’s a better than average student – but socially she’ll never fit in.  I am working with the parents to find a more suitable school for the child.  She needs a different kind of attention than she will ever get here…and really, she would be more at ease with her own kind.  I’m afraid the parents are being quite stubborn about the whole thing.  Denial,” Mr. Dodge decreed.

Miss Holly beamed with delight over the sketches Emmaliene had spread across the desk, but the girl did not notice.  She was mesmerized by the ghost of a mud stain across the pointed toe of her teacher’s boot.

“Emmaliene, these are lovely drawings.  I’ve never had a student choose a woodland scene when working on a perspective assignment.  They usually choose cityscapes, perhaps because the lines are easier to follow, but your wandering tree lined path is perfectly rendered.”  Miss Holly followed the footpath to its vanishing point with a paint-flecked fingernail, “You’ve completed the perspective exercise like an expert and the setting is wonderful.”  The art teacher squeezed Emmaliene’s shoulder gently, “I do believe you are a natural artist.”

Emmaliene gazed at the drawings and sighed as if they were scenes of nuclear holocaust, “The pencil was black so I couldn’t draw any leaves.  They’re all dreaming now.”

Miss Holly nodded thoughtfully, “Do you spend much time in Central Park?  You’ve captured the organic lines of the branches beautifully.”

“I don’t like the park,” Emmaliene frowned. “It’s full of ghosts.”

The skin on Miss Holly’s arms prickled.  Arms crossing her chest, she hugged herself tightly until the chill passed.

It was a breezy spring day.  The kind of day where no child wants to stay indoors and even adults can feel the hope of new possibilities writhing just under the skin.  The chartered Coach bus pulled to a stop with a soft wheeze, exhaling twenty jubilant students, three harried teachers and one hesitant Emmaliene Taylor.  Miss Holly placed a hand on each of Emmaliene’s shoulders and called the rest of the children to order in her sugary, no-nonsense tone.

“You each have your group assignments.  Stay with your chaperon at all times.  Have fun and draw anything that grabs your attention.”

Miss Holly led the way to a set of huge wrought iron gates under an arch which read ‘Inwood Hill Park’ in ornate letters.  As the children passed through in a surprisingly orderly fashion, she felt a trembling in Emmaliene’s shoulder.

“It’s okay Em,” she said in a reassuring whisper.  “I’m right here with you.  If you see any ghosts you just let me know and we’ll face them together.”

 

The art teacher led her group of seven to a copse of ancient trees that seemed to brush the clouds.  All of the children were laughing and carrying on as children do when they’re not corralled in a classroom.  All the children that is, except for Emmaliene.  She was shaking visibly and wide-eyed, looking everywhere at once.  Miss Holly had not dared let go of the girl’s shoulder for the short hike into the park for fear she would bolt.  There was also Sarah Fowler and Dirk Westin to consider.  The two trouble-makers were the worst of the lot when it came to picking on Emmaliene.  The two had been whispering together since they’d exited the bus and Miss Holly wasn’t about to let them spook the girl any further.

As the students were choosing their places on the grass and pulling out their sketch books, Sarah called out boldly, “Miss Holly, Emmaliene is looking kind of green.  Maybe she should go back to the bus and wait.”

Snickers rippled through the lounging children and Emmaliene shook severely as though stifling a sob.

“One more word out of you Miss Fowler and you’ll be the one sent back to the bus,” Miss Holly threatened.

Sarah stalked away with a triumphant glance at a jeering Dirk only to trip over a thick tree root.  When the girl hit the ground face first, Miss Holly let go of Emmaliene and rushed to Sarah’s aide.  The other children were laughing at Snotty Sarah’s misfortune until they saw the blood dribbling from her mouth.

 

“She’s just bitten her tongue, but it seems in tact.  I doubt she’ll even need stitches.  Do you want to call the parents and ask if we should take her to the hospital?” the paramedic asked.

Miss Holly nodded and stepped away to redial an anxious Mrs. Fowler.

 

“Has anyone seen Emmaliene?” asked a frantic Miss Holly.  Nineteen pairs of shoulders shrugged as the eyes of two teachers widened in alarm.

 

Hours passed in a frenzy of phone calls, explanations to park rangers and police and a long fruitless search of the entire park.  The Taylors and Miss Holly alternated comforting one another and calling Emmaliene’s name.  Around dusk, a tearful Miss Holly walked back to the copse of trees where she had last seen the child.

“Em honey, if you can hear me please come out,” she sobbed. “Your parents are here and they’re so worried about you.  I am too.  I’m sorry I left you.  I know I promised we’d face the ghosts together.  Please Emmaliene,” Miss Holly pleaded in a whisper, “please be alright.”

“There aren’t any ghosts here Miss Holly,” Emmaliene sighed from somewhere in the shadows.

“Emmaliene?” the teacher spun in the direction of the child’s voice.

Standing in the space between two giant trees was Emmaliene.  She looked so different Miss Holly almost thought she was another child altogether.  It took a moment to register the biggest change – Emmaliene was smiling.  There were leaves in her hair and enough dirt on her skin that she appeared as brown as bark, but she was smiling in a way that Miss Holly could only label as beatific.

“Look what I can do,” Emmaliene whispered with a wild grin and Miss Holly gasped.

 

Dazed and bewildered, Miss Holly stumbled back to the edge of the search party staging area to pull Mr. And Mrs. Taylor aside.

“Follow me,” she breathed and turned back toward the forest.

Confused but hopeful, the Taylor’s followed the eccentric art teacher down a moonlit path to a copse of ancient trees that seemed to touch the sky.  Miss Holly stopped in front of the smallest tree in the circle and turned toward the expectant Taylor’s.

“Well, I have some good news and some weird news.  The good news is – Emmaliene is alive and safe and I’m fairly certain your daughter is not autistic.”

Mrs. Taylor looked around with concern, “If she’s safe, then where is she?”

“Well, that’s the weird news,” Miss Holly gestured to the tree. “Emmaliene is a dryad.”

From the shadows, the Taylor’s heard the sound they’d been dreaming of for eleven years  – Emmaliene giggled.