The Man with No Last Name
The weekend passed just as sluggishly and stressfully as everyone thought it would. Hardly anyone said a word to another (except Mark, who was never very good at reading a room) and by Sunday night things hadn’t improved much from the week before. But when Monday morning finally rolled around, at least one member of the family was trying to have a better outlook. It was Kate’s first official day on the new job, and she’d be darned if she let herself start it on a sour note. She was still furious, of course, but she could find no rational reason to let her personal troubles affect her professional sphere (aside from the whole bringing her kids to work as punishment thing). So she decided that as long as Jules and Elliot walked on eggshells and did exactly as she told them, she would try to maintain her usual friendly and enthusiastic disposition. This was demonstrated by the way she merrily danced up to Jules’ room, entered without knocking, and said, “Alright, up and at it—time to get ready,” then skipped over to Elliot’s room, entered without knocking, and said, “Come on, get up—it’s a big day,” then flew back down the stairs, singing all the while for the whole house to hear.
She never directly explained any of this to the kids, but it was easy enough for them to figure out on their own. She’d done this sort of thing before (as Jules and Elliot were no strangers to a good grounding) and thus they remained fully aware of the precariousness of her good graces. Nonetheless, they were relieved to know she would at least be acting like her normal self in the days to come, as up ’till then, they weren’t sure if the dirty looks were ever gonna stop. Sure it was all just a put-on which did nothing to ease the awkwardness of being in the same room together, but it was the best the kids could hope for at the moment, and so they acted in kind, avoiding anything that could possibly make their mother break character. This meant no talk of their innocence to the crime—no unfair this, no totalitarian that—and above all, absolutely positively no mention of fairies. If they played it cool, maybe they could even get a couple Fridays off.
But before they got too far ahead of themselves thinking about time off of work, first they had to actually do some. They grabbed the lunches which Mark had packed for them and followed Kate out to the car, dragging their feet all the way like they had been clasped in ball-and-chain. Pretending not to be mad at their mother was one thing, but when it came to wasting their summer on community service, the kids couldn’t even fake a positive attitude, especially when they knew how bogus their sentencing was. But Kate honestly didn’t care if they grumbled about it or not; as long as the work got done, she was happy to let them be unhappy doing it.
When they arrived at the ranger station, the same guy from before was standing near the flagpole again. Only this time he wasn’t just hanging around; he was raising the flag for the start of the work day. He gave the Paiges a passing glance as they exited the car, but paid them no further mind as they entered the building. Emmet was waiting for them inside, and gleamed a good morning as soon as they opened the door. Kate returned the sentiment, but accidently referred to him as “Sir” again, and so quickly apologized for it. He told her not to worry none, though, and handed the kids a long list of chores he could think of for them to do around the office. None of it was very appealing, but cleaning the windows seemed to be the most tedious task, so they started with that just to get it out of the way.
Once they were off in another room, Kate queried Emmet about the man outside. “So who’s that guy out there raising the flag?” she asked, gesturing to him through the door. “He’s not dressed in uniform, and the last time I saw him he was just standing around outside the station. Is he someone I should introduce myself to?”
“Oh, him?” Emmet replied, almost like it was an unexpected question. “That’s Odesian.”
“O-dis-ian?” said Kate, finding the name very—shall we say—unique. “Odesian what?”
“Just Odesian. If the feller’s got a second name he’s never shared it with any of us. But we like to call him The Steward, anyway.”
“Oh. So he’s a park steward?”
Emmet scratched his beard, looking for the right words. “Uh…no, not really. Not technically, that is. He doesn’t actually work for the park, but he spends every day of the week helping out around here. He picks up trash, helps in maintaining the visitor center garden, and even raises the flag for us in the morning—that sort of thing. We don’t ask him to, but he seems to like doing it, so we got no reason to turn him away.”
Interesting. Kate figured he must be retired or something to have that much free time on his hands. “He’s here every day?” she further inquired. “Does he live around here?”
Officer Brown rocked his head, with an expression of neither agreement nor total disagreement. “Mm…You could say that,” he replied. “The man’s got a tent out on the edge of the woods that he stays in; it’s pretty out of sight, so it don’t hurt no one. I don’t know how he does it, but even livin’ out there in the bush he manages to stay fed and well groomed. Uses our electrical outlets every now and then, but that’s no big deal; heck, it’s the least we can do. He’s the best darned volunteer this park’s ever seen.”
Talk about mixing life and work. Even Kate—an avid outdoorswoman—would get tired of camping after about three weeks. “How long has he been here?” she wondered.
Emmet thought back, but his memory only went so far when it came to Odesian. “I don’t right know,” he admitted. “30 some odd years now, maybe more; been doin’ it before even I got here.”
“30 years?” said Kate, making sure she’d heard right. “Of living in a tent volunteering at a park?”
“Dang. Is he…all there?”
Her boss chuckled at that. It’d been a while since he’d had to explain Odesian’s role at the park, and he’d forgotten how bizarre it seemed to some people. “Well, he may be a little eccentric, granted, but if you’re asking if he’s safe, I think I know more than a few people who’d put their lives in his hands, myself included. He’s gives educational tours of the park, he teaches outdoorsman classes at the visitor center, and he even helped rebuild the camp bathroom when a tree fell on it. I don’t recall ever seeing him do anything other than good, and I’ve never been given reason to suspect that’ll change in the future. If it makes you feel better, just think of him as a park employee. Heaven knows we’ve offered him several jobs before, but he says he doesn’t want to be paid to do what he’d be doing for free anyways.”
Kate was familiar with public service, but this was ridiculous. “Wow,” she said, “that’s…that’s pretty cool of him. Kind of weird, but cool.”
“Yeah, well, to each his own I suppose. Some folks is content with making an honest day’s living; he just seems to only want to help folks out. I got no room to judge a man for that.”
“No, I guess not.” Kate looked outside again, where the man was now using a shovel to edge the sidewalk. “I suppose I ought to be introducing myself, then,” she figured, turning back to Officer Brown. “Seems we’ll be working towards the same goals here, even if he’s technically not even working.”
“Can’t go wrong with that,” Emmet reckoned. “Once you get to know him it’ll be like he’s one of the rangers. And you know: if you’re really wanting to teach them kids of yours a lesson, you could think about sending them out with him on his litter patrol. He does it every few Mondays starting at 10, and is usually out for a few hours. Covers about ten miles of trails and park grounds, collecting trash that’s been left lying around by tourists, and then he comes back here and sorts it all. That’s a few hours and ten miles in the hot sun, dragging a trash bag, picking up trash. If you want those two to do some real work and maybe give ’em a sentence more fitting of their crime, I’d be happy to talk to him about it, and we may as well get you introduced while we’re at it; feed two birds with one sugar cone.”
That sounded pretty tempting to Kate. Not the sugar cone, but the litter patrol. It was definitely more fitting to their misdeed than cleaning dirty windows. “Hmm,” she thought, out loud. “They’re caught littering, and in return they have to pick up litter…I like it! And better yet: they won’t. Alright, Emmet,” she said. “Let’s go meet this O—Ode—what was his name again?”
Odesian. A man no one really knew too much about. He never went into town (not even for groceries) so most folks in Anywhere hardly knew his name, much less his story. Even the rangers, whom he spent almost every day of his life with, couldn’t get a whole lot out of him. They didn’t know exactly how old he was, but they guessed he was somewhere in his high fifties, based on the amount of grayed hair, and they also had no clue where he came from, or how long he’d been living in the park. They didn’t know if he’d ever done anything else for a living, they didn’t know if he had any family, they didn’t know who his parents were…They didn’t even know what his sign was. The most anyone knew about him was that he didn’t like to talk about himself. Anytime someone asked about him or his past he always said it wasn’t that interesting and changed the subject. Not as if he was hiding something, though, but as if there really was just nothing to tell. If he was hiding anything, he was really good at hiding the fact that he was hiding it.
Of course, of all the people who didn’t know much about this “Steward,” Kate knew even less, having never even met the guy. But if Emmet said he was okay, she was sure he couldn’t be all that bad. A quick talk with him was sufficient to convince her that he was nice enough; maybe a little reserved, and definitely no-nonsense, but nice. He said he’d be glad to take the kids out with him on litter patrol, they just needed to bring a hat, some extra water, and good spirits. Kate could promise two of those things; the third one Odesian was willing to look the other way on.
The kids were happy when told they could stop reorganizing the filing cabinet of resolved fishing violations, but less so when they found out why. After only an hour of picking up energy drink cans and protein bar wrappers, Elliot was ready to build a nest in his bed and spend the rest of his sentence locked up in his room with nothing but three square meals a day if it meant never having to do this again. Not only was he not dressed properly for hiking in the sun, but he also much preferred his outdoor experiences to take place in an open-world RPG, where water was plentiful, the elements were negligible, and any item or “trash” dropped on the ground would disappear after one day/night cycle, negating the need for some poor and undeserving NPC to come and pick it up. If this was a side-quest, it’d be the one worth only 15 Exp., which you only take to run out the clock while waiting for your armor to be upgraded at the blacksmith. Unfortunately for Elliot, he had no other option, and he wouldn’t even be getting a sweet, reinforced-steel helmet when it was all over, either. He’d just have to make do with the same hat he always wore: an earthy-brown ball cap with a picture of a diamond pickaxe stitched on the front.
Equally unhappy with her lack of stylish headgear was Jules, sporting the yellow sun hat her mother made her wear, as it was the only one in the car. Not only did it not go with a single other piece of clothing on her, it was also just, like, totally old-fashioned. This was the least of her grievances, though. The path they were on was frequented by hikers, and each time one passed by she’d be forced to put on a smile and say “hi” or “how’s it going” before getting back to cleaning up their filthy, disgusting garbage. The only way she had to amuse herself was with a piece of paper and some tape she took from the station before they left. The paper read “Give a high-five if you like a clean park,” and it was currently stuck to Elliot’s unwitting back. The boy detested unnecessary physical contact with strangers, but every time someone came up to him like “good job, man” and held out their hand, he would feel bad and awkward if he just left them hanging. He figured something was wrong after the fifth or sixth time it happened, though.
For Odesian’s part, he was mostly quiet, as it was plain to see the kids weren’t up for talking, but every now and then he’d point out a native plant or some animal track just to have something to say. The kids weren’t much interested, so a flat “cool” was usually the best he could get out of them, but that didn’t stop him from trying. At one point he even went so far as to attempt to strike up a conversation.
“So what do you think of your new home?” he asked, to whomever was willing to answer.
“It’s alright,” Elliot said, meaning that to be the end of it, having given Odesian nothing to work with in return. Jules, however, actually had something more to add.
“It’s boring is what it is,” she said. “Boring and weird…No offense. This park is—you know—whatever, but Anywhere just kind of sucks; there’s nothing to do.”
Odesian chuckled at something the kids didn’t yet understand, and said, “I’ll give you that Anywhere is definitely weird, but it’s not what I’d call boring. The longer you stay here the stranger you’ll find it to be, and the more boring you’ll wish it was. Trust me, I’ve been here for a long time.”
“Oh—I trust you,” Jules assured him. “Plenty of the people around here give me the creeps already, and I’ve barely even met them. Present company—aside from my brother—excluded.”
“Nah, folks around here are just simpler,” Odesian explained, “that’s all. Not in the head—mind you—but in their hearts; you’ll get used to them eventually. Besides, the people aren’t the strange things I’m talking about…”
“What do you mean then?”
Odesian sort of looked around—though inconspicuously—to make sure no one else was listening. “I mean Anywhere isn’t exactly what it seems,” he said, speaking a little more quietly now. “People come from all walks of life all over the country to see Silver Furrow’s rich wildlife, but what they don’t see is that there are other things out in that forest, too. Things nobody wants to encounter.”
“What kind of things?” Elliot asked, his curiosity now urging him to open his own line of dialogue.
“Well,” the old man replied, catching a napkin with his shoe as it blew across the trail, “if one is to believe the local lore: all kinds of things. Dark creatures and dangerous monsters, which everyone sees, but no one is willing to acknowledge are actually there. Strange apparitions, creeping shadows, terrible beasts; things that can only be explained as being inexplicable, or as the consequence of a disturbed imagination…” He threw the napkin in his trash bag and dropped the storyteller tone. “Or so the stories say, at least. But there’s no need to concern yourselves with such things. Just focus on keeping the park clean and leave the stories to the crazy, old country folk…” He continued on down the path, casually adding over his shoulder, “That is, unless you actually believe them.”
Jules and Elliot gave each other a look of uncertainty. They could tell they were both thinking the same thing, but where they differed was in daring to turn that thought into actual words. Jules didn’t want to stir up any more trouble for the two of them, but to Elliot, this was quite possibly their ticket out of trouble. Only one way to find out.
“These stories,” said the boy, a little apprehensively, “do any of them have to do…with fairies?”
Odesian looked back at them with a curious glance, but before he could say anything, Elliot received a punch on the arm from his sister. “What’s the matter with you?” she harshly whispered, pulling him in close. “If that old guy tells Mom we were talking about fairies again, you better have a side of eggs and bacon, ’cause we’re toast.”
Rubbing his arm, Elliot defensively replied, “Well what if he knows something that can help us?”
But Odesian didn’t hear any of that. “Why do you ask?” he wondered, picking up from the last line that was directed at him.
“Oh, he’s just into weird stuff like that, that’s all,” Jules said, hoping to prevent Elliot from saying anything else. “Please don’t tell our mom we were talking about fairies, she…told us not to waste your time.”
“Not at all,” Odesian replied, waving off her worries. “As long as you keep filling those bags, nothing to make the time go faster is a waste, especially not talking. And as a matter of fact, I have heard a little something about fairies, if you’re still interested to know.”
“Definitely,” Elliot said, eager to see if this thread led anywhere.
“Well…yeah, alright,” Jules said, hesitantly. If this turned out to actually be something, maybe it could help their case. If not, the worst that could happen is they find out they’re being trolled…and the old guy tattles on them…and they lose any chance at having any fun over the summer…Hmm, perhaps not a very well calculated risk.
But it was too late to back out now. Odesian dropped a discarded apple core into his bag and stuck his trash poker in the ground, as he was one to use his hands to help tell a story.
“There are a great many things hidden out there in Silver Furrow’s forest,” he said, highlighting the trees with said hands. “It’s teaming with animals, beasts, and humanoid monsters, the likes of which are only dreamed of in the myths and legends of another time. Something about this place—something in the air—keeps the residents and visitors blind to the truth of what’s happening. They won’t even consider that anything out of the ordinary is going on until one of the creatures they keep telling themselves isn’t real is literally staring them in the face, but by that point it’s almost always too late. One such creature is the Silver Furrow fairy: small, human-like figures with dragonfly wings and colorful gowns.”
The siblings shared another look. “That sounds familiar…” they thought.
“They’re unassuming at first,” the old man continued, “prancing around, giggling, and fluttering their sparkly, rainbow wings—but that’s just how they lure in their prey. Some poor soul sees one or two, thinks they’re cute and harmless, and moves in to get a better look, but as soon as they get too close—bam!” He smacked his hands together, and the kids jumped a little, though they were quick to try and hide it. “All of a sudden twenty or thirty of them are around you, and they’ve got these vicious teeth like daggers. They’re like piranhas: a couple you can deal with, but a swarm of them can take down an unprepared hiker before they even have the chance to realize what’s going on.
“And that’s not even the most dangerous part of them. The most dangerous part is their magic. They’re only basic users of the arcane arts—novices, really—so they can’t do any spells that can directly hurt someone, but what they can do is use a low-level, blanket perception field to appear invisible to anyone around them. It takes some energy, so they can’t do it while they’re attacking, but they can—and do—use it to surround their victim while they’re preoccupied looking at the cute, harmless decoys. And you do not want to run into the queen. She is something else entirely.”
He realized from the kids’ expressions that he had just said all of that like it was fact or personal experience, so he hastened to follow it up with, “If you believe the stories.”
“Well…Do you believe the stories?” Elliot asked.
Odesian shrugged. “Sure, why not? Makes this place a little less boring, doesn’t it?”
That’s for sure. But that wasn’t exactly what Elliot was concerned with. “I guess so…” he said. “But—hypothetically speaking—how exactly would one go about defeating these fairies?”
Odesian smiled like that was a fantastic question. “Hypothetically, the best way would be to capture the queen, as the others would never do anything that could put her in harm’s way. But aside from their little magic spells, the fairies are no different than a common insect. Swatting them with a glass pop bottle is as effective as anything…For example.”
Yet another shared look of suspicion by the kids. That was an awfully specific example. “Did you say glass pop bottle?” Jules asked, eying him sideways. “How did you…”
“Uh—sorry, I meant ‘soda bottle,’” Odesian quickly said—if the kids were not mistaken—a little nervously. “Forgot you kids are up from California—heh-heh.” He cleared his throat and took a more serious tone. “Alright, that’s enough fairytales for now; let’s keep it moving.”
He grabbed his poker and went after a plastic bag that was stuck amongst some ferns, leaving the kids to contemplate that highly irregular shift in topic. If there was one thing both of them understood well, it was how to dodge a question and deflect a conversation, which meant they could also see clear as day when someone else did it to them. Well today there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and there was obviously something Odesian wasn’t telling them.
“Ooh, have I told you about this little beauty yet?” he said, pointing out a white, star-shaped flower. Now he was just plain trying to distract them.
Whatever he knew, clearly he wasn’t very keen on telling them about it, which just made the kids want to find out that much more. Elliot reasoned their charisma skill wasn’t yet high enough, though, and they’d already blown their speech challenge for today, so they’d have to wait at least another day/night cycle to try again. Jules, of course, called his videogame analogies a load of crock, but she did agree they should wait and circle back to this conversation when the old man wasn’t on his guard. So for the time being they played along, and asked about the star-shaped flower.
When they returned to the station a couple hours later, Kate asked how everything went, and Odesian said the kids didn’t complain much, so neither could he. And that was the extent of his input. He said he had to rush out, as he had an appointment at 1:30 to help replace the site markers at the campground, so he said “see you later” and jogged out across the parking lot.
“It’s about time they replace those things,” Emmet commented, after Odesian was gone. “They’re more rotten than a deviled egg in Hell’s kitchen.”
“Eh…what?” said Kate, not quite getting the full meaning of his metaphor. But then she figured Emmet’s explanation probably wouldn’t help either, so she said, “Nevermind,” and instead asked the kids, “You guys have fun?”
“We sure didn’t,” Jules sarcastically replied.
“It wasn’t as bad as she makes it sound,” said Elliot. “In fact, that Odesian’s a pretty cool guy to hang out with. Can we work with him again tomorrow?”
“That sounds dangerously similar to ambition,” Kate teased. “What changed your minds?”
“Oh he was just cool, you know?” Elliot explained, not entirely truthfully. “He knew like a whole bunch about the park and just made things interesting.”
Kate acted surprised. I mean, she was surprised, but she acted even more so. “Well I’ll be; someone made you find nature interesting? That’s almost too good to be true.”
“The man’s got that effect on people,” Emmet attested. “He knows just about as much about this park as anybody, and he’s gotten pretty good at teaching people about it, too. It’s sort of his passion.”
“Exactly,” said Elliot. “So can we work with him again?”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, usually,” Emmet informed them, “but on Tuesdays he’s booked solid at the visitor center. Bless his heart, really; he spends all day with the tourists and then spends all night keeping the night rangers company. ’N they need it, too; gets pretty slow around here after hours.”
Elliot considered this problem. Theoretically it just meant they’d have to wait an extra day to work with him again, but Elliot was too anxious to learn the man’s secrets. So he went for the radical solution instead. “Then can we work the night shift tomorrow?” he asked.
To this, Jules just had to protest. “Wait, what?” she said.
“Think you’ll get less work at night, huh?” Kate presumed.
Elliot shook his head. “No, we just…want to know what it’s like to work the graveyard shift, that’s all. Maybe gain a new appreciation for what you do here. Who knows; if all goes well maybe you’ll be looking at two future rangers. Maybe someday we’ll even thank you for this.”
Kate could tell there was some ulterior motive here that she wasn’t quite seeing yet, but even so, she kind of liked what she was hearing. “Hmm…It’s a good pitch, I’ll give you that…And it would be a good opportunity for you two to get a fuller perspective on the working woman—and man’s—world. Hmm…”
Jules looked around like “Did no one hear my ‘wait, what?’” Apparently the answer was no, so she stopped the presses and demanded to be heard. “Now hold on a second,” she said, stepping in front of Elliot. “I never signed up for this. You know I don’t do well after 10pm.” Then she added an “Ow!” after a pinch on the arm from her brother.
“Hey!” Elliot shouted, after she pinched him back.
“Okay,” Kate said, “what’s going on here?”
Elliot laughed nervously. “Uh…Just a moment.” He pulled his sister in close—which was in no way seen as shady by Kate—and whispered, “You and I both know that steward guy is hiding something, and whatever it is, maybe it can help us clear our name.”
“Maybe,” Jules whispered back. “Or did you ever consider that maybe he’s just weird and a little crazy?”
“Well if he’s crazy then so are we,” Elliot argued, “and while I know you’re crazy, I know you’d never admit it, so he must not be crazy. We saw what we saw; we just don’t have any proof. Maybe he can help us find one of those things and catch it. If not, well…what have we got to lose?”
“Uh—a good night’s sleep?” Jules countered.
“…Ok, you got me there. But the longer we give him, the better his cover story will get.” He leaned in closer and whispered even quieter. “Plus there’ll be no chance of Mom being around to hear what we’re talking about.”
That was always a bonus. “Oh…Fine,” Jules relented, “but if it turns out he actually is crazy, you owe me a hundred bucks.”
They split back apart and Jules gave her verdict.
“Alright,” she said, to Kate, “I—*fake heave*—think it’s a good idea or whatever. I—Ach!—agree with Elliot. Growing experience, little rangers, blahdy, blahdy, blah—you get the point.”
She didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about it, but then Jules never seemed particularly enthusiastic about anything, so nothing unusual there.
“Well, if both of you think it’s a good idea,” Kate said, “I see no reason to say no. I can’t tell yet if this is initiative or some sort of scheme, but if it is a scheme, believe me when I say I’ll find out. And if I do find out, you’ll find yourselves shoot out of luck, understand?”
“Good. Hey Emmet!” she yelled, having forgotten he was standing right next to her. “Oh—sorry. Is this little…thing…something we can make happen?”
“Sure,” he replied. “I’ll just let the officer on duty tomorrow know and you can drop them off at midnight. We’ll need to call them interns for the time being for legagistical reasons, but otherwise consider it done. I can’t promise you kids anything exciting will happen, but then again nothing ever does on the night shift. All the same, it’ll be a good experience for you. If you’re lucky, you might even see an owl.”