Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
See also: http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart
My name: Brian Martin
Alison was late. That was why she decided to take a shortcut through the alley. What had seemed like a good idea at the time now began raising the little hairs on the back of her neck. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being followed.
Up ahead was an intersection she knew. Going straight would take her home most quickly; turning left would take her back to the street where there were lights and maybe even people about, but she’d lose almost fifteen minutes. Deciding it was better to be late than scared, Alison made up her mind to turn left.
Just a few more yards to the intersection, she told herself. And anyway, she thought, that feeling of being followed wasn’t so strong anymore. Maybe whoever it was had gone away. Relaxing a little, Alison peered deep into the fog to be sure not to miss the intersection. But there was little chance of that. Someone, she noticed, had placed a large rock right in the center of it.
The rock was dark, bumpy, and irregular. Alison wondered what it was doing there. Someone who wasn’t paying attention could easily trip over it. She should move it, she thought--just take a second. She looked from side to side and decided to put it off the pavement to the right. Then she bent down to pick it up.
A scream caught in her throat and she stumbled backward. It wasn’t a rock at all: grinning and staring up at her was the largest frog she had ever seen. And that wasn’t the worst part. Protruding from the front of its mouth were two gleaming white fangs.
Alison started backing away. The frog hopped forward. Alison turned slightly and the frog moved to stay in front of her. She felt a sharp cutting pain on her ankle and it took her a moment to realize the frog had nicked her with its tongue. Another cut: Alison winced in pain, amazed that the tongue moved so quickly she couldn’t even see it. Hopping forward, the frog backed her toward the fence.
A vampire, she thought. A vampire frog. Soon her back would be against the fence and she’d have no way of escape. Without thinking, her hand went to her throat even though she knew that would be no protection. Nervous fingers closed around the pendant of her necklace. Then the frog jumped.
“What do you suppose a Jungle B is?” Brenda asked. She was standing close to the alley wall, squinting at a poster that had been plastered on to the brick.
Jack didn’t need to look at it to know what she was talking about. The poster, its once-vibrant colors now faded due to exposure to the weather, was already very familiar to him. In bold lettering across the top it declared, “Mr. String’s Circus Stupendous,” and below that, in smaller type: “See the Wonders You’ve Wondered About.” Jack had memorized all the “wonders,” things like Lightning in a Bottle, The Amazing Elastic Monkey, The Devil Dog, and others, including the last one, which ran right into a tear on the bottom corner: See!, it said, The Jungle B--.
“I wish I knew,” Jack said.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve seen a couple of other posters, I just never bothered to look before.”
“But I am worried,” Jack said.
“Because those other two posters you saw? They’re this poster. I know because of the way it’s torn.”
Brenda thought about that for a minute. “What you’re saying is we’ve been going around in circles? And that we’re lost.”
“It’s worse than that.”
Back at the water fountain, Jack learned that Brenda’s first memory of this place, like his own, was of standing in front of Cooper’s All Night Drug Store and Fountain. Since they had no other ideas, Jack thought they ought to go back there, back to where they had both started. Brenda couldn’t remember the way, but Jack was certain he could.
“I have a very good sense of direction,” Jack said. “I know I went the right way. But no matter what I do or which way we turn, we keep coming back here.”
“So we’re not only lost, we’re trapped,” Brenda said.
“I guess. Still,” Jack continued, trying to be positive, “it could be worse. I mean, at least we aren’t thirsty anymore.”
Maximus’ instruction to “drink first” hadn’t made any sense to Jack, but his mouth was so dry he decided to give it a try. So he stepped up to the entrance to the passageway, and instead of looking along it to the fountain thirty feet away, he closed his eyes, bent his neck, and reached out. And it worked. His fingers touched a round metal button and when he pressed it, cold water splashed onto his face. With a little adjustment, he was able to take a drink. After showing Brenda how to do it, they had both gulped down as much water as they could.
“Yeah, I know,” said Brenda, “but I drank so much water, now I have to pee.”
Jack started to laugh, then suddenly realized that he needed to pee, too.
“Listen!” Brenda whispered.
Jack listened. The night was quiet. Like a tomb, he thought. Jack had never seen a tomb, and he’d certainly never been in one, but he remembered the phrase from a book. He knew that tombs were houses of the dead. He guessed they would be quiet places, all right. He wondered what Brenda could possibly have heard.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said. “Maybe if we--”
A screech, followed by a short scream sliced through the fog and cut him off.
“What was that?!”
“It was this way,” Brenda said, and dashed off down the alley.
She had already disappeared--swallowed by the fog--before Jack got his own feet moving. She was faster than Jack, but he could hear her shoes pounding the pavement ahead of him; he had no trouble following. That wasn’t what worried him.
What worried him was the thought that they’d lose the one point of reference they had left, the poster for Mr. String’s Circus Stupendous. Then, he thought, we’ll be truly lost. He didn’t much like the idea that they’d be wandering around these alleyways forever--or at least until they were so hungry their legs started to wobble and they couldn’t walk anymore. He didn’t like that idea at all.
The truth was, something else was worrying him, too, but he didn’t want to think about it. That scream: it had been full of horror and terror and it had died much too quickly. What exactly were they running toward? And why were they making so much noise doing it?
Up ahead, Jack heard Brenda’s steps slowing down. He ran harder in hopes of catching up with her. He thought maybe he could convince her to take it easy, to slow down and move quietly. Instead he plowed into her back and the both of them fell headlong into an intersection.
When they looked up, they were staring at a young woman with long blonde hair and ice-blue eyes who was kneeling down beside a girl who appeared to be…who wasn’t moving. The blonde-haired woman was frowning.
“My name is Miranda,” she said. “It’s about time you two showed up.”