The street outside the jailhouse was empty, but it wouldn’t be for long. The shouts of the bound jailer inside echoed down the roadways that would soon be full of the curious and, worse, Makas.
As the kids huddled together on the street and Selwyn Harris looked with concern over the various avenues of escape, Gelsomina began slapping her clothing. She beat at her thighs and over her stomach and chest, until a dark cloud of dust lifted off her, hovering before Gelsomina like a veil.
The other kids watched Gelsomina knowingly and without instruction began to beat the dirty clothes they wore. With confusion, Selwyn looked at the kids pounding on themselves. That confusion disappeared with his clouded vision of the kids. The group was cloaked in dirt and could now make good their escape.
Silently they moved down the street and towards the river. People passed them without more than a hand to cover their faces and a cough to dislodge the airborne dirt caught in their throats. An angry patrol of Makas marched within inches of the unseen kids. The object of their search was unsuspectingly within arm’s reach. Selwyn smiled at the ease by which he and the kids moved undetected through the now busy streets.
Nickelan Wand’s eyes burned from the dust. It felt sticky and uncomfortable on his skin, camouflaging as well as choking him. He couldn’t imagine ever having been so dirty, so intimate with grime, but of course he was or had been. That felt like a lifetime ago.
Fischel Bocephus slapped Nickelan on the back, hard. “Where’s your dirt?” he snarled and punched Nickelan between the shoulder blades with such force Nickelan almost fell to his knees.
“Cut it out,” Gelsomina whispered. “You’ll get us captured again.”
“Leave the Redeemer alone!” said the same pip-squeak voice that had earlier hailed Nickelan as savior. The boy’s name was Spike Vrusho. He was even shorter than Gelsomina and the youngest of the group. A baseball bat rested on the shoulder of his pinstripe uniform, which was soiled as if he slid into every base on the diamond and took most of the field home with him.
“Nuts to you,” Fischel spat at Spike. “This guy,” he said, poking a finger into Nickelan’s back, “is bogus!” Gelsomina narrowed her eyes, but Fischel kept on talking, his voice rising with emotion. “Look how clean he is. There’s not a speck of dirt on him that didn’t come from us. What kind of kid walks around like he’s got a bar of soap in his pocket?”
Nickelan placed a hand in his pocket. The soap from his bath was still there. He discreetly dropped it at his foot and kicked it aside.
“I’ll tell you what kind of kid is scrubbed cleaner than a newborn’s bottom,” Fischel continued, “no kid. Nickelan Wand, or whoever you really are, is a spy. He’s a grown-up, and we’re taking him to Kid City. This is crazy!”
“If you don’t shut up,” Gelsomina spoke through clenched teeth, “I’m going to have Spike grand slam that motormouth of yours.”
Fischel looked down at Spike, who gripped his bat and spread his legs for a couple practice swings. “Redeemer…” Fischel grumbled and then was quiet.
The group moved in silence again. Selwyn led them to the docks, where he knew a croc driver that would take them as far as The Septic. The cloud of dust they traveled in obscured the faces of the group. Nickelan could only make out an arm or leg as it brushed by. Beyond that was only an outline of Thunder World, but he could hear voices that shouted in anger, the clash of metal as fights broke out around them. They had moved far from the jailhouse and these disturbances were not directed towards them, but simply the routine sounds of daily life in this brutal land.
Nickelan was lost in the bog of memory even more clouded than the dusty shroud that hid the group as they made their way to the waterfront. His thoughts were tied to his parents, the image of them forcing him to bathe and in so doing unknowingly sentencing Nickelan to this gruesome detention. Then the image of them, possibly prisoners themselves, being taken to Thunder World on the back of a giant crocodile. Were they in danger, running scared like he was, or were they responsible for Nickelan’s abduction?
For a time the thought of losing his parents had made Nickelan happy, like the fantasy of flight or being able to turn oneself invisible. It was impossible, but his imagination hugged it like a teddy bear for security. Now the reality of being separated from his parents wasn’t as sweet as it had been in concept. Nickelan never referred to his parents by their first names or even by the familiar “Mom” and “Pop.” They were always Mr. and Mrs. Wand—a formality between them as if Nickelan was their employee. He hated his bosses, but now that he was unemployed, Nickelan missed the job of being a son, the simplicity of it, the blissfully tedious regularity.
Were Mr. and Mrs. Wand so bad? They forced him do inexcusable acts, such as brushing his teeth each night, taking a bath when they could catch him, making him change his clothes almost on a weekly basis. It was barbaric. Yet there was affection from both sides. Mr. Wand would hold Nickelan’s hand in his gloved one. Mrs. Wand would take his other and in her callused palm. It not exactly a loving embrace, but his parents’ version of a tender hug and kiss. That ignited a spark of kindness within Nickelan’s chest. Every family expresses their love differently. Nickelan knew nothing else, for his parents were his only parents. They were all he knew, and he knew them so well that over the years he could not deny the emotional attachment. Stockholm Syndrome, Nickelan thought, a mental condition where people held hostage become fond of, even learn to love, their captors. It was not so different from what binds families together.
Nickelan’s feet sunk deep into mud. He smelled something. It was wet and foul like dirty dishes left overnight in a clogged sink. Water rose to his ankles. The group stopped. They had arrived at the river.
The dock was not much of a dock. There was no wooden boardwalk or even one boat floating in the rotten sea. There was, however, a dockworker. He looped thick and moldy rope around his thick and moldy arms.
Tobias McGleaner stopped what he was doing to examine the dark cloud that had appeared by the river’s edge. “Usually, I find you over my head not by my side,” he spoke to the cloud as if expecting a response.
He got one. A colorfully clad arm emerged from the dark cloud and offered itself in greeting. Tobias took it and shook the hand firmly. “Selwyn Harris!” he exclaimed in good spirit. “Do you find yourself in need of a ride across the river?”
“McGleaner, you old river rat,” Selwyn said, appearing from the cloud cover with a broad smile on his round face. “A ride, yes, but not for me.”
As the dark cloud dissipated the figures of nearly a dozen young kids made Tobias’ happy expression drop to a frown and his brow knot in irritation. “What are you up to, Harris? Get those brats out of here now! I’m not risking my neck for a bunch of no-good boys and girls.”
“Calm down, friend.” Selwyn snaked an arm around Tobias’ shoulder and turned him towards the river so his back was to the kids. He continued in a whisper, “I’m sure we can work this out.”
Nickelan hardly noticed that he and the group of kids were again in plain sight. They stood silently as Selwyn sweet-talked Tobias into getting them across the river. There were no people on the waterfront, which was bordered by empty buildings with shuttered windows looking like black eyes.
Gelsomina was speaking to Spike, but Nickelan wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. His mind was still trying to unfold the tangle of Thunder World, Kid City and now his parents. Separately they made little sense, but together they were meaningless. This world was like a random series of shocks to Nickelan’s system. All he could do was try to keep up with the events spiraling around him.
There was also the voice. Nickelan hadn’t thought about it since the bathtub incident. Someone had called him, by name, while he was still in his world, fighting off his bath. Not only did that disembodied voice know his name, it needed Nickelan. There was something terrible about to occur and Nickelan was the only hope in stopping it. But who belonged to the voice that called him to this place where terrible things happen regularly?
“All right, Selwyn, for you I’ll do it,” Tobias said, as if the words were chewy and hard to dislodge from between his teeth. “But just this once!”
“Well, boys and girls,” Selwyn said, though the words “boys and girls” came out more as an insult than a term of endearment, “you’re on your way to Kid City. Be sure to tell your President that Selwyn Harris saved your mangy butts.”
“Why don’t you tell the President yourself?” Gelsomina snapped back sharply.
“That’s just it, Gelsy.” Selwyn wrapped a smile over his face as garish as his colorful suit. “I’ll not be going with you. There’s business of mine I need to attend to here in Thunder World. I don’t have the time for a sea voyage nor the stomach for croc-riding.”
Just then Tobias took the rope he had been holding in his hands and tossed one end of it out into the mucky waters at the river’s edge. As he pulled the rope back from the greasy water, it came attached to a long scaly tail. The tail belonged to a crocodile that surfaced as silently as it was large. It rested half-submerged in the dank waters, its tail twitching gently over the muddy bank of the river, creating a bridge.
“Your ride.” Tobias bowed with mock civility.
Without hesitation, Gelsomina led the group onto the crocodile’s tail and they rested on its bumpy back. Nickelan was not so sure riding the back of a toothy crocodile was an improvement even to the bloody risks of Thunder World.
“Never rode a croc before?” Tobias asked, offering his hand. “Don’t be a baby, boy.”
Nickelan took Tobias’ hand for support and stepped up onto the surprisingly soft surface of the crocodile’s tail. He needed Tobias’ hand to steady himself as he made his way onto the creature’s back. Nickelan then let go of Tobias’ hand and collapsed on the rough surface of the crocodile’s back, which made an uncomfortable seat.
Tobias climbed aboard from the shallow waters and straddled the crocodile’s neck. There was a leather rope tied to a bit in the crocodile’s large mouth. Tobias pulled the strap to his chest, and the crocodile slithered towards the deep waters.
“Next stop, The Septic!” Tobias shouted. There was no reason to shout. The crocodile swam quietly, cutting through the water without a sound.