My brother Reed ran top speed down the hall just out of my reach. The jerk just wouldn't leave me alone. He skidded to a stop in the living room in front of my mom.
"Tommy is holed up in his room again reading romance novels." Reed tossed the book to her and folded his arms, looking at me with a smug grin.
Mom put down the patch of quilt she always seemed to be working on, and handed me back the book.
"Thanks," I said, resisting the urge to chuck it at Reed. "And I don't read romance novels. Maybe Reed is jealous because he can't read at all."
"Why are you giving it back?" Reed protested. "You told me to get him out of his room!"
"I asked you to invite him outside," my mother chided. Ever since my Dad disappeared she played both roles, disciplinarian and nurturer. "I didn't ask you to steal his book."
"Same thing," said Reed, the smirk long gone. "The only way to get him away from his books is to steal them."
"Don't even think it," I said, balling my fist to let him know I meant it.
"What you gonna do about it?" Reed took a step toward me.
"Boys!" Mom's tone stopped us both. She rarely put her foot down, but Reed and I both knew when she did, it was time to scatter. A few moments later I was back in my bedroom, curled up on the bed with my book, my favorite place in the world to be.
I didn't make any friends, of course I never really tried to. I suppose it was my first day of kindergarten that let me know I wasn't the same as everybody else.
Up until that point I felt like I was a normal kid with normal parents living a pretty normal life. I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but that day is etched in my memory forever.
I remember clearly the shine of my mom’s black hair in the morning sun as we walked through the neighborhood toward school. She had half her hair all curly on top of her head with butterfly barrettes all over the place and then straight in the back all the way down to her waist. She wore her best sparkling dress and butterfly sandals on her feet. She always dressed in butterflies though, so I was used to it. Her piercing blue eyes were filled with excitement.
The late August sun promised another scorcher as it rose over the tops of the great maples and oaks lining the streets. It had been a hotter than normal summer in Covington, our little town in northern Illinois.
“Look Tommy,” my mom said, pointing excitedly at a small group of kids walking on the other side of the street. “Maybe they’ll become friends of yours!”
My mom started waving at the children who thankfully were too busy in their own conversations to notice us. In looking at them I got my first inkling that something was wrong. They all looked the same: t-shirts and jeans with short cropped hair, matching lunch boxes and backpacks with some comic hero plastered on the back. It was like they had come off some kid assembly line somewhere. I was only five so it wasn’t as big a deal as it became later, but I did notice that I looked nothing like the little clones. My white buttoned down shirt, red bowtie, bright orange shorts and yellow shoes were the kind of clothes I always wore when we went out. Mom let me grow my hair long too because I hated haircuts. I couldn’t have been more different and even at five, I noticed.
“Look honey, it’s your school!” My mom pointed ahead at the large brick building on the corner. A mass of children and parents were posing for pictures next to the Carl Sandberg Elementary School sign. Older kids were out on the playground throwing a football back and forth. There were more people than I had ever seen in one place in my life. I remember wanting to hide behind my mom for protection. At the age of five I didn’t understand much, but I did know I was entering a whole new world away from the quiet of home and at that moment I knew I didn’t want to.
I remember for some reason the crunch of dead grass under my feet as we walked through the school yard toward the main entrance. That crunch seemed to symbolize the shattering of my hopes of starting a fun new chapter in my life at school. Even before the kids began to laugh at my outfit, even before the parents started staring at me and my mom and shooing their kids in the opposite direction, I knew I was going to be miserable in that big brick building.
I wasn’t very good at schoolwork; I started out bad and just got worse. But the one thing I could do was read. While the teacher tried to get the other kids to understand their letters, I was reading words. I didn’t have to try—the words on those pages just made sense and they took me to a new existence where I had friends and adventures and pretty much everything always worked out in the end. Without books I don’t know how I would have made it through that year. It wasn’t just school; that was a minor irritant. It was my dad.
As time passes so do the memories so I really only remember brief flashes of my father. He was a tall man with dark hair and dark, bushy eyebrows. He wore a cologne that smelled like pine trees. I remember that for some reason. He had a deep voice and loved to pull me into his lap and read to me. “This is the first book I ever read, Tommy,” he said one day, handing me a red book with the title “Run, Jump, Ride” on the cover. “I loved that book, son. I hope you will too.”
I did love that book because he gave it to me; because it was my first book and even more because that was the day he left for work and didn’t come back. Covington, Illinois was a boring place to grow up. Nothing even remotely interesting happened there. My dad’s disappearance was the biggest scandal in twenty-five years. He went to his office to do a little work in the evening and never came back. Nobody ever heard from him again. At school I went from odd to mysterious. Kids began acting friendly just to see how much information they could get out of me. Once I figured out their motive, I wouldn’t go around them. More and more, I locked myself away inside my books.
As the days and weeks and months after his disappearance rolled by, our family eventually began to accept he wasn’t coming back. I was the last to give up hope. My older brother, Reed, stopped talking about my dad altogether. Mom would talk about him with me, but she would always end up crying so I stopped asking. For years I would sit in a little window seat in our front room that allowed me to see the street leading down to our cul-de-sac. Even years later I would still catch myself looking up from my book, checking the street so I would be the first to see him when he came back.
As time passed reading became my best, my only friend. Summers I barely left my house. During the school year I read as I walked, read at recess and read on the way home. I liked most types of books but my favorites contained magic. Wizards, mazes, ancient artifacts that bestowed magical abilities, I ate it all up. I loved battles and duels and warriors with shining armor. I always wished I could be an adventurer in one of my books. Walking along a dangerous path, surrounded by enemies on all sides and just as it seemed most hopeless I would take a desperate chance and save the day. I didn’t know that things like that could really happen. At least not until my fifteenth birthday.
I was in my room, in the hot June summer with my window open and I had just decided on my next book. I had a pretty big collection and enjoyed re-reading my favorites over and over again. The book I’d chosen was called “People of the Plains,” a story about a tribe of people who lived with wolves. I can still see the old brown cover, feel the faded title embossed on the front.
That book, that day, sitting at my desk, that’s where it first happened. I turned to the first chapter and began.
Reule knelt in the bushes, ignoring the pricks of the branches, not more than forty paces from his prey. Four of his fur brothers were fanned out to each side, closing in. He was near enough to loose a killing arrow into the buck before it could take another step, but he held back, knowing the slightest movement would send their prey into flight before they could spring their trap. So far, it seemed unaware of their presence.
Reule watched two of his brothers silently traversing a hill to his left. To the right, two other wolves crouched in the bushes, waiting.
Suddenly the buck stopped drinking, raised its antlered head and looked downstream. The great animal tensed for an instant, looking back at Reule's bush. His fur brothers on each side froze. Everything seemed to stop for a brief instant as if very nature held its breath. Then in one mighty leap the buck sprang away. Reule and the wolves gave chase. He ran down the bank towards the stream and in a leap jumped over the spot where seconds before, his quarry had been drinking peacefully.
He ran several miles, falling well behind the chase, running through wood and glen until he found them. They were in a little clearing. The four fur brothers had the buck surrounded. The great animal had badly damaged its leg at some point in its flight. The wolves were nipping at its heels, trying to find purchase on its hind quarters. Its large antlers kept them at bay, but the buck couldn’t break out and escape.
As Reule got closer the smallest of his fur brothers, Loup, turned to him and signaled. Reule pulled back his bow and aimed at the buck.
So here is where it got weird. I turned the page and kept reading but I began to feel strange. I got real hot all over, like standing in the sun too long. Sweat began running down my face and my heart started thumping. I wasn’t really scared at that point, more than anything annoyed. I figured I was getting sick which did get me out of chores, so there was that. The heat went away so I started the book again. No sooner had the first few words passed across my vision than the heat returned and this time, much worse. I felt this force pulling me forward. I looked around for my brother or mom but nobody was there.
But after a few seconds things seemed normal again so I decided to give it one more try. The first words on the page skittered through my head and there it was again, but this time even worse, a force pulling me forward, toward the book. I put out my arms to keep from cracking my skull on my desk, but the force was too great. No matter how hard I pushed against it I felt myself slipping, my arms shaking. After several agonizing moments my arms gave out. I flew forward toward my desk with enough speed to knock me out. I waited for the thud, waited for the pain, but neither happened. My room disappeared. Blackness closed in all around me and then I was falling. In front of me a white wall appeared with black markings on it but I fell too fast to see what they were.
It was pretty horrible in the beginning but eventually I got used to the sensation. It could have even been fun if I had some way to stop before I hit bottom.
A few moments later I felt a change, pressure, like I was being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste. My insides felt like they were coming outside. I’m not too proud to admit that I screamed my head off. The pain about caused me to blank out. Then a light flashed in front of me. I closed my eyes and my feet hit something hard.
When I opened my eyes the tunnel and the white wall were gone and I found myself in a clearing, surrounded by trees. Right in front of me a large buck with antlers lowered stood surrounded by four giant wolves nipping and lunging at it. The buck held its badly damaged front leg off the ground. Just then I noticed I had something in my hands. I looked down to see a bow with an arrow nocked and pointed at the buck. I relaxed the string in confusion. It looked like the small forest out back of my home but something wasn’t right about it. There were no wolves anywhere near Covington, the air seemed different too. It was hot but not humid and the sun seemed smaller somehow. Am I dreaming? I fell asleep reading all the time but everything was way too vivid to be a dream.
The bow in my hands looked so real, the arrow had scrape marks from where a knife had carved it. It was then that I noticed my arms and hands. They were much larger than normal and covered in dirt. Looking down I had some kind of buckskin shirt open down the front. “Holy crap! I have chest hair!” I said out loud.
"Tamaska, why do you wait?" a short, stocky guy said, scaring the crap outta me. He’d been standing right next to me the whole time but until then I hadn’t noticed. My arms flew up, the bow and arrow fell to the ground.
The man laughed and lifted his own bow, aiming at the buck. For an instant he paused, held his breath and grew still. With the slightest movement he released the arrow, which flew the short distance between us, slamming into the buck's heart. The great animal snorted and rushed the nearest wolf, breaking through the circle, ignoring its leg and the arrow protruding from its chest. The wolves just let it run.
“I’ll get the horse, Tamaska,” said the short man, running off into the woods. I watched him go, still in a daze. The man, the wolves, the buck, I knew that scene! It was the story I had just been reading. I had dreams before about my books but not like that. There were too many details. My dreams were always hazy, with each scene moving slowly while my mind made up the surroundings, characters and dialogue. This vision, dream, injury, whatever it was, flew by. I could see individual leaves on the odd trees. The meadow stretched out for a mile. Little hillocks of deep grass waved back and forth in a light summer breeze.
The wolves played in the grass, wagging their tails, growling and nipping at each other like pups. The wolves, they were huge! I’d always thought of wolves being about the size of a big dog. Not these. The largest wolf, a grey beast, stood as high as my chest. The others weren’t much smaller. It was then that it occurred to me that I was alone with four monsters, any one of which could have taken me down easily, let alone four of them. I began to back away, thinking if I gave them a little space, maybe they’d leave me alone.
The big grey noticed my movement though and walked over to me, growling. The hair on its back stood on end. My hair stood on end too. I’m not ashamed to admit how frightened I was. I kept looking off towards the woods, hoping for that short guy to come back. Maybe he had some control over them. He was nowhere in sight though and when I looked back to the wolf it leaped right at me. I didn’t yell, what would be the use? I figured that was it. I’d die ripped apart by a monster wolf. Not the way I would have picked for sure.
I held my hands up as we hit the ground, trying to keep its jaws from my throat. But then the darn thing changed tactics and started licking me. At first I figured he was trying to see how good I tasted but he just kept on licking, making a whimpering sound. I didn’t realize I had closed my eyes but when I opened them the licking stopped and the beast hopped off me. Its long bushy tail was wagging a mile a minute. It was then that I thought of the book.
In the story the wolves and people were friends. Could it be he thinks I’m one of the People of the Plains?
The improbability of it all boggled my mind but there it was. Reality stood right there in front of me, wagging its big bushy tail. The other wolves were still playing. The big grey appeared to be friendly, so throwing caution to the wind, I decided to join in. Tentative at first, I started out petting and then scratching behind his ears. He leaned into it so I knew he liked it. Then I decided to push it. I tackled him and yelled a mighty roar. Its strength and speed were startling.
One minute I was on top, the next minute the wolf lunged high in the air above me, looking ready to devour me in one bite. I just barely dodged its murderous assault in time, thinking maybe I should’ve stuck to petting. I did notice his tail wagging though so hopefully that meant we were still playing. The wolf made another lunge at me but this time I was quicker. Not only did I avoid the leaping animal but I got in a pretty good shove to his side, sending the animal sprawling. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the wolf. I looked down at my hands and again noticed the bulging muscles in my forearms and biceps. I looked like a pro wrestler. My moment of distraction cost me though as the beast knocked me over and pinned me with its girth to the ground. It looked the animal was in it for blood, but then both our heads turned at the sound of the short guy’s return.
“Tamaska, Ula, playing again?” He scoffed, “Ula, I would think you would have learned your lesson after the last beating Tamaska gave you. You should try Reule instead.” He said, beating his chest.
The revelation that his name was Reule brought my predicament back into focus. This is Reule and I’m inside a book. How is this possible? I didn’t have time to think on it for long.
Reule led a small horse from the trees into the clearing. “Come Tamaska, I believe my buck should be ready.” The small man made a series of movements and whimpers to the large wolf, after which the animal and the three others ran off in the direction of the buck.
With the wolves gone I had time to look at the strange little guy. Could it really be Reule? I’d read that book many times before and always had a picture in my mind of what Reule would look like. Well, this wasn’t it. He was too short, his black hair shiny and plastered to his head like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. His buckskin clothes fit but they were filthy. They looked like they had years worth of filth ground into them. Hadn’t this guy ever heard of a washing machine? He talked in a slow halting manner but smiled often and seemed like a nice enough guy. I didn’t make friends pretty much ever but I found myself liking him.
We left the meadow behind only to find thick underbrush in every direction, most of it filled with enormous thorns and stuff that stuck to me, grabbed me and scratched most of my skin off. I fell more than once and by the time we found a little opening in the tangled mess I was cut, bleeding and miserable. So much for a great adventure. It was a painful, sweaty, tangled mess.
A thought suddenly stopped me in my tracks. How do I get back home?
I didn’t even know how I got there. How do I get out? Can I get out?
I started getting that sinking feeling in my stomach like that long walk to the principal’s office when you know you are busted, only this was life-and-death type stuff.
I mean, I’m not equipped for hunting and fighting and battles. People in this book die, lots of em. I’m probably the most likely to end up in a dusty little grave than any of them.
I began to sweat, which had nothing to do with my hike. What am I going to do?
My misery was interrupted by a sound not far away. A lone wolf’s howl filled the air, bringing me back to reality, or at least my current reality. Soon we heard several wolves howling and set off towards the sound.
Over a hill we found them, circling a group of bushes. As we came closer I saw it. The buck was laying there, dead. The thing that hit me first was the blood. It was everywhere. It smelled like iron and drowned out the wild smell of the wolves, the forest, even the short guy who could really use a week of showers and couple dozen sticks of deodorant. I don’t consider myself a wimp. I mean, I’ve read about blood and guts or seen it in movies and didn’t even flinch. This was totally different. The smell, the blood, the glassy eyes of the buck looking right through me, it all became too much. I emptied lunch, breakfast and last night’s cookies all over the ground. By the time I finished, the wolves had stopped their circling and were staring at me. The short guy was giving me a look. I couldn’t decide if it was concern or amusement.
Without a word he pulled a long knife from a pack on the horse and a leather strip and began sharpening it. First he leaned over the buck and began to cut. He split the hide open from front to rear. Next, he used a bone-handled saw to cut the tailbone. This opened the carcass up. Then he started removing the entrails, tossing them to the wolves who snapped them out of the air hungrily. All this I watched from a safe distance. It was completely gross but also fascinating. This wasn’t mentioned in the book at all. I could see why the author would have skipped it but watching firsthand, I have to admit to being intrigued.
So after the entrails were removed, Reule took a water bag from the horse and used it to flush the cavity several times. Then he wiped it dry with a cloth. When he finished he removed several large chunks from the front haunches and tossed them to the wolves as well. I couldn’t believe how much those beasts could eat. Together we lifted the carcass onto the horse and tied it down with a thin, corded rope.
"Tamaska, we must be getting this meat back to the family. They will be starting the supper pots with nothing in them this night unless we go quickly."
I don’t know where he came up with that name but it was close enough to Tommy that I just went with it. With a tug on the reins from Reule, the horse began to move and we were off. I kept a safe distance behind the carcass, which was still dripping small streams of red down the sides of the horse.
Okay, here is where I started to get ticked off. In the book it takes a few words to say they walked back to the village. The real journey took hours. I’m not talking a leisurely stroll through the grass, either. We were walking through mostly dense brush and hills adding scratches and scrapes by the hundreds along the way. All while being eaten alive by very large mosquitoes, flies, and these little annoying pests that like to buzz right in your face.
The wolves ran off not long after we set out, probably trying to outrun the hordes of insects determined to eat us alive. The short guy, Reule, didn’t say much. Not that I wanted to talk anyway. I was still trying to figure the whole thing out.
People don’t jump into books and walk around. These things just don’t happen.
This wasn’t just a dream though. I thought maybe I could be in a coma or something.
Maybe the dreams in a coma are more vivid? Maybe I really did knock my head on that desk. I must have knocked it pretty good to have this happen, though.
The sound of a stick breaking shook me from my thoughts. Reule stopped the horse, grabbed his belt knife and crouched. He looked like a snake, ready to strike. From behind trees to the side and in front of us stepped three men, their skin painted black. White circles were painted around their eyes and lips with a line drawn from ear to mouth down their cheeks. They carried spears, which they held ready to throw.
“Look like you make nice hunt, Reule.” The man in front said. “We hungry too. We let you live if you give meat.” He raised his spear, pointing it right at Reule.
Reule looked at me as if I knew what to do. I guess the dumbfounded look on my face clued him in. Reule threw back his head back and howled. The painted men froze for an instant, their eyes darted around, but nothing happened. The guy in front smiled, his white-painted mouth split wide, revealing black teeth.
“No four-paws come. You give up meat or we take.” The man pointed his spear again at Reule and reached for the horse’s reins. Reule slashed out with his knife as a warning which caused the man to leap back to avoid the thrust. The guy growled and reared back his arm, getting ready to throw his spear at Reule. The throw was cut short though by a leaping blur of hair and teeth, crashing into his back, driving him to the ground. Two other wolves appeared from nowhere, jumping the man to our left, knocking him to the ground. The remaining thief took off running with Ula chasing right at his heels.
My mind was whirling. It had happened in like two seconds. One minute, we’re about to get run through with some nasty-looking spears, the next minute we have them captive or running in terror through the trees.
This whole wolf-man friendship thing could come in handy. I can think of a few jerks I would like to have Ula chase through the halls of my school.
Reule walked over to the leader and put his knife to the man’s throat. “We’ll be keeping our meat, Jubuska. If you ever try this again, I will gut you like this buck.” Reule picked their spears up from the ground and broke them across his knee.
“Now take your man and run.” Reule signaled to the wolves, who let the men go, but not without a nip at their behinds as they started. The last we saw of them was a blur of black paint tearing through the underbrush of the forest.
Reule looked at me, smiling. “The fur brothers wanted to kill them. I am glad they did not. We cannot afford a full-out war with the tribesmen.”
Now that it was all over I slowly started to relax the tension in my muscles. Having my life threatened was a whole new experience for me. I always thought I could be an adventurer in one of my favorite stories. I never thought I would turn out to be a wimp. My image of myself took a serious beating at that moment. I realized I was no hero, no adventurer. I just wanted to go home to the safety of my house, my room and yeah, I’ll admit it: I wanted my Mommy.
“You are not yourself, my brother.” Reule said as we watched the wolves chase the painted men through the trees.
The tension returned in an instant. What would Reule do to me if he knew I wasn’t really Tamaska? Reule continued to watch the men as they ran out of sight. “Are you not feeling well?” he said, turning to me, “First the hunt and then emptying your stomach when I cleaned our kill. I thought perhaps you were ill but I am not accustomed to you deferring to me in a fight. If there is something wrong and I can help, please let me know brother.”
He looked at me with such concern I almost told him the truth but I wasn’t sure what the truth was myself. I was clearly in more than a dream. Was it a vision? A hallucination? I knew Reule wanted an answer but I needed one even more. How long would I be there? How would I get home? What if I couldn’t?
“Tamaska,” Reule started but I cut him off.
“I’m okay, Reule.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “I think I’m sick or something but it isn’t bad. I’ll be fine.”
I couldn’t tell by the look on his face what he thought of my explanation. He grunted something I didn’t understand and took the lead for the horse and began our journey again.
Hours of walking later, my legs felt like mush, my breathing came in gasps and I wanted to give up. Reule hadn’t said a word, which was a good thing. My throat was dry; my stomach reminded me it was empty. I began looking for a nice place to crash but just then Reule pointed to some curls of smoke rising above the tops of the trees ahead. We climbed yet another hill and finally saw the village.
I have to admit I was more than a little excited and not just because our hike from Hades was over. Down there might be Rendall. I remembered everything about the village from reading the book. It looked just like I pictured it. People and wolves were everywhere. Small children and pups were rolling around, playing together. Thatched huts with hardened mud on the outside were built in uneven rows along a large steep hillside. Several dwellings were carved into the hill itself.
There was a large entrance in the hill where wolves and a few women were coming and going. That would be the dens, home of the wolf chief Rendall, my favorite character of all time. He was the reason I had read the book so many times. What would he be like? I couldn’t wait to get down there and see him.
As we entered the village, however, I was surprised I didn’t remember reading anything about the mud and filth which were everywhere. The people were covered in it. The children were a mess. I wondered along the way why Reule didn’t stop by a stream so we could wash off some of the blood and filth. Now I understood. Why bother? We fit right in.
The wolves broke into a run, stopping when they reached a small pack of pups. As I got closer they started regurgitating meat so the pups could eat it. I didn’t have anything left to upchuck but I started getting the feeling my stomach wanted to try anyway. That was definitely not in the book.
Nearly everyone said hello and stopped to admire our hunt. They all seemed to know me, men and women, old and young, and all dirty. Reule led me into the rows of huts and ducked into the opening of a large dwelling with me following close behind.
"We have been blessed with meat," Reule proclaimed to a full room of more than a dozen people. He looked at me and said, "Tamaska let me have the shot for once."
Everyone laughed and came up to talk and slap Reule and I rather hard on the back. A few went outside and returned with the carcass and began working on the meat. First they cut it into large pieces. Some went into a pot, some to a different part of the fire to be cured.
A smelly and very dirty woman approached me and just stared. As if I should know what she wanted. She could have been pretty with a few long hours of soaking in a tub and some toothpaste. She didn’t say anything so I started to move around her but she grabbed my arm in a death grip and pulled me down close to her muddy face. Before I could pull away she planted her lips on mine in a long and rather sloppy kiss. Another followed before I could catch my breath from the first. Her breath made me recoil in disgust. This was not how I pictured my first kiss.
"Thank you, husband,” she purred, “you have brought my brother home safe and kept the raven from our door another week."
Reule looked at her and then back at me and winked. I was nearly knocked over when her words finally hit me.
I’m trapped in a book. I don’t know how to get out. I’ll probably die but even worse, I’m married!