Dooley Downs

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X The Straw Dog

X The Straw Dog

Priscilla hauled Peter down Maple Street’s sidewalk, gripping his wrist almost painfully. The few adults out and about had all taken interest in the multicolored smoke cloud expanding into Swenson Park and the shouts and laughter emanating from it. Peter followed his sister reluctantly, craning his head back to witness the fate of Bug and Doodle. Of course, after a flailing web-shrouded Officer Holt barreled into the thick smoke, there remained very little to see outside of the other curious onlookers.

“C’mon, Peter,” Priscilla growled, pulling him along, “quit balking!”

At the end of the block, she angled right on New Goat Road, dragging Peter with her. New Goat Road was the town-side portion of Old Goat Road, which eventually led to the Mirror Falls Overlook. The north town exit, where Old Goat Road began and New Goat Road ended, still sat several blocks away. Priscilla briefly hesitated as she surveyed the non-existent traffic conditions, wondering if they should make a break for the town exit. She nixed the idea and B-lined for the alleyway between Ming’s Chinese Restaurant and Goode’s Drugstore. Any resemblance of a plan had died at Red’s and Peter was withholding information from her that she needed to hear right away.

They traveled deep into the alley to where it ended in a larger open area at the back kitchen door of Ming’s. The alley continued on at a left angle, leading back to Maple Street. The pavement in Ming’s back alley was wet and puddle riddled from a recent hosing. A metal hooded wall lamp staved off the growing darkness from the failing sunlight with a single yellowing 60-watt bulb while illuminating the puddles with rippling amber diamonds. Priscilla stopped, pushed Peter up against the brick wall, and looked around furtively. She became aware of a high-pitched rhythmic sound.

A few feet away, a small, dirty white doggy barked incessantly, seemingly at nothing in particular. Then Priscilla’s eyes adjusted to the changed lighting conditions and focused in on a tall, black painted wicker dog that looked similar in shape to a Doberman. The dirty little white doggy shivered on its haunches as it angrily barked at the straw dog. It hadn’t even noticed Peter and Priscilla’s arrival and they stood silently by, watching the pup curiously. The real dog started jumping up and down as its barking grew louder, apparently furious that the straw dog wouldn’t react or even acknowledge it. Then, just as Priscilla wondered if perhaps she had chosen the wrong alley and that the dog’s barking might draw unwanted attention, it suddenly stopped. The mutt let out a whimper, then trotted swiftly down the passage to Maple Street with its tail between its legs. It looked back only once, frightened and defeated by an inanimate object.

“Okay, Peter,” Priscilla turned around and glared at her twin brother, “out with it. Why are you balking? Why didn’t you show Red the Sooth Jewels and Dad’s real letter? Just what is the matter with you?”

“Because it’s all a bunch of jaw jack and jibber jabber; it’s all one big load of dogalog.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ll show you what I’m talking about!” Peter reached into his book bag and withdrew the combined Sooth Jewels. They shone a faint blue in the muted lighting. Peter held them out in front of Priscilla’s face, smiling humorlessly and wiggling his eyebrows as if what he was about to show her would blow her mind and prove his point. She crossed her arms and opened her eyes wide at him, waiting patiently for his antics to end and the revelation to begin. Still wagging his eyebrows at her and smiling, he dropped the metal arrow into the puddle between them. Startled, Priscilla stepped back and looked down. The arrow floated on the surface of the water and spun slowly, gradually coming to a halt.

“See?” Peter asked pointedly.

“See what?”

“See?” Peter bent over and pointed. “See? See where it’s pointing. They’re not pointing at Red’s. See? They don’t work. Do you know how I knew they wouldn’t?”

“Fine, I’ll bite,” Priscilla said, deciding for the moment to humor him.

“Back at Kramer’s Kompound we arranged these ‘Sooth Jewels’ into a bunch of different shapes and stuff and came up with a bunch of rich theories as to what they meant. Then we get the bright idea to arrange them into an arrow and Kramer figures they might be magnetic and brings some water that we put the Jewels in. And so naturally the arrow is going to point somewhere! Oh, so brear, the arrow points into town and right at Red’s Recovery Room. Hmm, Dad spends a lot of his time at Red’s. So that must mean these worthless paperclips are leading us to Dad, right? Wrong!”

“Peter…”

“No, wait! I’m not finished! So we follow these ‘magical’ paperclips to Beer Can Flats and meet our friends. And oh, brear again, there are six of us! Just like the Sooth Fools told us! And so I drop it in a puddle to show our friends and lo and behold, they still point to Red’s. Oooo!”

Peter raised his hands and wiggled his fingers in the air while he spun around slowly and blinked his eyes rapidly, apparently as a gesture of awe or fascination. Priscilla just watched him, arms folded, tongue poking the side of her cheek as she tapped her right foot. Peter was on a tirade. She could break in and argue the point he was missing, but it would only serve to escalate an argument. At least one of them needed to remain clear-headed and logical. Priscilla supposed that task belonged to her at this moment. Peter would finish soon, she hoped.

“So we nearly get cleaved and clawed by Max the Axe and his psychotic Monkey, poor Bo Bo gets hurt and nearly lost, we give up our bikes at Last Eddie’s Fast Gas, I nearly get rap… killed by Max in the bathroom, we lose Peela in the park, and when we finally get to Red’s? He doesn’t know dogalog from donuts! Now our friends are gone and we are alone! We know nothing about Dad’s whereabouts, we are being chased down by Aunt Gretchen, Max the Axe, Officer Holt, and maybe even some fancy dressed lawyer lady, and we are alone! So do you get it now? Do you see? The ‘Sooth Jewels’ are nothing but a fantasy that has led us on a pleeb’s quest. We are fools… and we are alone.”

“You said Last Eddie’s…”

“What?” Peter looked dazed and sad. Priscilla’s heart broke with that look, but she needed to remain strong and sensible.

“You said that we gave our bike’s up at Last Eddie’s Fast Gas; it’s Fast Eddie.

“Oh… so? Who cares? You know what I meant.”

“I don’t really care, but I am pointing it out to show you that you are missing two big things, beside the gas station attendant’s name.”

“Oh really? What’s that?” It was Peter’s turn to cross his arms and await her coming revelation.

“Number one, Dad never said that the Sooth Jewels were magical or had any power of any kind. He said that they are symbols. We assign the meaning; we assign the power. Remember that dirty little white mutt barking at that wicker dog over there when we came into the alley?”

“Yeah, sure… so?”

“So there was nothing real about that straw dog. We come by and see a dumb black painted wicker dog. That little pup comes by and sees the same thing, and yet he doesn’t. He gives the straw dog power by thinking its real. He doesn’t just give the straw dog power; he gives the straw dog power over him. You see? The straw dog isn’t being anything but an inanimate straw dog, but the mangy little pup is allowing the straw dog to scare it, to rule its emotions. He knows that dog is real, he just knows it! But deeper in its heart, the doggy wants for it to be real, needs for it to be real. Because if it isn’t real, then he’s just a stupid, mangy, little dog barking at a fake dog, a straw dog.”

Realization began to creep into Peter’s face. Priscilla continued, driving the point home.

“And if he realizes that he’s just a dumb, dirty dog giving something with no power control over his actions, his life, well then what’s the sense in that. His world begins to collapse. He possesses no control over anything; no direction at all.”

“That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? That’s what I’m doing with these Sooth Jewels… allowing them to control my actions, my direction.”

“And you are losing control.”

“Oh breck! I am such an idiot!”

“No, no,” Priscilla moved forward, leaned in, and hugged her brother soft at first, then fiercely. They pulled apart just enough so that they could see each other’s face. Peter’s eyes brimmed with tears. Priscilla realized hers were full, too. “You are my brother, Peter, and I love you. We will get through this together. And together we will solve this.”

They separated without those tears spilling over. Priscilla dabbed her eyes and Peter looked up into the sky, allowing them to flow back into his lids or evaporate into the cool evening air. A few moments passed silently. The faint sound of kitchen utensils, pots, and Mandarin exchanges issued from behind Ming’s back alley kitchen door. The smell of Chinese food was intoxicating and both the twin’s stomachs grumbled in concert. Neither had eaten much of anything today. Peter shook the craving out of his mind. There was no time for that. They needed to tighten their belts and press on.

“Okay, I get it. But we are no closer to where we want to be than when we were back at Dooley Downs. So what is your second point?”

Priscilla pointed down at the Sooth Jewels floating on the water.

“I don’t get it. What about them?”

“Look where they are pointing.”

“Away from Red’s, so?”

“Exactly along the path from Kramer’s, I’m sure of it.”

“So? So?”

“Think about Kramer’s map. What was in a direct line beyond Red’s Recovery Room?”

Peter thought for a moment, staring at the metallic arrow floating in… on the puddle.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Mirror Falls?”

“Yep, where Mom died.”

“But wait, I thought you just said these things are like that straw dog over there…”

“Yes, they are.” She bent down and spun the arrow in the water. It came to a stop in the same position. She looked up at Peter. “But we are not.”

“But…”

“We have no other place to go, Peter, except back to Red’s. You didn’t have another plan, did you?” She said it as more of a statement than a question.

“No. I just knew the answer wasn’t there. I just wanted to go. I want to find Dad.”

“Me, too.”

“Should we risk it?”

“Is there a choice? If nothing else, we will be away from town; away from those trying to get us. We can think more clearly there. We can think about Mom. We can think of what Mom would do.”

“Mirror Falls it is then,” Peter confirmed.

™ Ÿ ˜

Max peered down the darkening alley at the soft overhead glow that etched illumination and shadow upon his prey, the Dooley twins. But it wasn’t really the Dooley brats that concerned him. It was what they possessed, or what he believed that Peter possessed. Peter claimed the leader position among the pleebs he called friends. Peter carried the book bag with his infernal cat as the guardian. There was more in that bag; his hand had brushed against something cold and metallic back in the bathroom of Fast Eddie’s Last Gas. He wondered how that blasted cat managed to lay against an object so cold. That must be the Sooth Jewels that Ms. Laskey told him to retrieve from the Dooleys.

A dog barked incessantly down the alley, but it resided outside of his view. Max decided to exercise caution. The twins stood near the back alley kitchen door to Ming’s Chinese Restaurant. There existed the distinct possibility that the barking dog could draw unwanted attention from the restaurant or somewhere else. The twins just stood there looking down the other side of the alley, apparently at the unseen dog. Max thought that maybe they were trying to remain still, trying not to provoke it. He relished the idea that fear filled their hearts from all angles, but especially from his own angle. Max rubbed at his crotch absently with his un-bandaged hand.

She is soft and she smells good… kind of like mother but in a different way… an exciting way… like the women in the magazines hidden in father’s den. The way she moves, the way she speaks… she has this power… Ms. Laskey… different than the power mother or father has. Her power burns in my crotch and in my mouth and eyes… making me want to do things, I’m not even sure what, but I want to find out. I can’t stand it. Her tight gold dress, her red lips, her curvy body. I want to take down her long hair and pull it. I want to take her power and use it on her. She let me touch her, let me squeeze one. She promised me more; she promised me my reward if I can just get those damned Sooth Jewels from those little brats. I want more. I want the power she has over me. I want to explore her…

Now the dog in the alley suddenly stopped barking. Max wondered why; the twins hadn’t done anything but stand there and stare at it. It must’ve left, because Max now saw the Dooleys facing each other. They appeared to be arguing. Max felt uncomfortable with this turn of events. If they harbored anger, even at each other, then they could pose a more formidable threat to his mission. Then he saw Peter reach into his book bag and draw out something shiny, holding it out for Priscilla to see. It gave off a soft blue glimmer.

Is that it? Is it a gem of some kind? I can’t quite see from here. Oh shit! He dropped it in that puddle! Wait, why didn’t it splash? Gotta move in closer… they are still arguing, but this might be my chance to rush in and grab it at the right moment. Once I have it they won’t dare try to take it from me!

Max edged slowly along the right-hand brick wall of the alley, keeping his eyes on the Dooleys at all times. Very carefully, he reached around and removed his hand axe from his backpack, transferring it to his bandaged hand. It was difficult to wield, but he needed his good hand to snatch the object in the puddle. Besides, he only needed the weapon as an intimidation tool. Once he possessed the prize, victory would be complete. They would be powerless to stop him because they would be afraid.

As Max edged along closer, he caught snippets of their conversation, but his focus on the target and where they directed their attentions precluded his mind from making much sense out of it. He picked up “straw dog” and “Sooth Jewels” and something about “losing control.” Then they hugged and he chose that moment to close in. Not more than ten feet away and still partially in shadow the twins separated. Silence emerged. Max froze, gauging the situation carefully. He looked down towards the puddle. The object floated on the water, glowing blue, but he still could not discern its exact nature or shape.

Is that a diamond? A rectangle? Is it flat? That glow is beautiful!

The twins began talking again, more subdued. Apparently, they made up or something. He needed to make his move soon. His bones and muscles hummed with anticipation. Then Priscilla bent down and reached for the object. Max hesitated again, cursing silently a missed opportune moment. She was going to pick it up! Astonished, he saw here merely spin the glowing blue jewel as if it weighed nothing. Max became entranced with the object as it slowly spun on the glittering water. The twins continued talking softly. Then he heard Peter say “Mirror Falls,” and he snapped back to the matter at hand. The time was now while Priscilla knelt there and before she picked the jewel up.

™ Ÿ ˜

Somebody roared loudly from Peter’s left and before he could react he was thrown violently against the brick wall, causing him to reel and stumble off to one side. At the same time, a foot kicked Priscilla over backward and she landed painfully on her tailbone. Max cackled triumphantly as he reached down for the brilliant Sooth Jewel, drunk with the power of his victory and all it entailed. The fingers of his good hand enclosed over the metallic arrow and clutched it firmly. And that is when Max began to scream.

It wasn’t a scream like Peter or Priscilla knew a scream to sound like. It issued forth from Max’s suddenly upturned tortured mouth like a demonic gurgling howl. The thin, pointy object in his hand was the coldest thing he had ever touched. Nothing compared. It burned cold. It seared arctic bitterness through his flesh and into the marrow of the bones in his hand. Huffing and shrieking at the same time he popped his fingers open and felt flesh tear away as he did. He shook his hand violently, but the Sooth Jewel remained frozen to his palm. In desperation, Max smashed his open palm against the nearby brick wall and dragged it downward. The Sooth Jewel tore free and landed innocuously back into the puddle Peter had tossed it in.

Max’s face twisted and writhed in horror as he looked from the Sooth Jewel to his freshly mangled hand. Fresh rivulets of blood dripped from the fingers where his flesh tore opening his hand. In the center of his palm, an emblazoned black arrow marked where the jewel had been, now a frost bitten scar. Max rasped harshly, snapping his head to look at the jewel, then his hand, then Peter, then Priscilla, then the jewel, then back at his hand. He began rasping and shrieking at the same time, hot tears streaming down his cheeks in torrents as a visceral madness threatened to overtake his mind. It was the madness of powerlessness, of utter failure… of what he feared the most.

“WHAT… WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?!!”

Priscilla scuttled backward on her hands and feet as fast as she could. She rolled behind a nearby metal garbage can, upsetting some empty stacked up cartons which fell over, providing an unexpected barricade between her and Max. Peter struggled to stand up, but he discovered that in his flailing his right foot had penetrated the wicker dog’s body and his right hand had punctured its head. Panicking, trying to recapture his bearings before Max recaptured his, he yanked his hand free from the straw dog’s head, scratching it slightly. He did not have the same luck with his foot, which remained stuck. He struggled to keep his balance.

Max’s chest heaved with fury and his eyes blazed darkly. He was hyperventilating, but didn’t seem to notice or care. He raised the axe in his bandaged hand above his head. He took a step towards Peter, then another. Peter fumbled with the flap of his book bag. Reaching inside, he grasped Kramer’s combat survival knife and brought it forth. A bizarre thought crossed his mind as he did so, crazily wondering if Kramer referred to it as a combat knife or a Kombat knife. He held it out towards Max at arm’s length, threatening any further approach on Max’s part with a hand shaking from fear and adrenaline.

Max stopped in his tracks. All color evaporated from his face as his furious expression melted into a fear of his own. He peered at the knife cautiously. His lower lip began to tremble as his eyes widened. Peter wasn’t sure what would happen next. He felt too shaky to wield the knife effectively and brought up his other hand to steady it, with little success. The muscles in his legs weakened and he thought he might collapse at any moment. His eyes winced in anticipation of Max’s impending assault. Max’s own eyes narrowed slightly, but his lower lip still trembled and his head shook with a sort of palsy. Suddenly, he pulled the hand axe behind his head and threw it at Peter.

Peter failed to react in time. Time passed so slowly that Peter thought he could easily dodge it, but with an escalating terror he realized that while his mind seemed to be functioning at normal speed, his body refused to move whatsoever. Except his eyelids; they were opening wider and wider. The axe’s blade struck his forehead directly. Darkness clouded his vision and the world spun away into a silent abyss. The last thing Peter heard was his sister screaming. The last thing he felt was a vague loss that expanded swiftly until he thought no more.

™ Ÿ ˜

“Hear yee all!” Peter proclaimed, raising high the two slats of wood nailed together that comprised his sword. He wore a dark grey, hooded zip front sweatshirt. The hood rested on his head while the rest cascaded loosely down his back, resembling a cloak of sorts. “I will be Saigon the Sly, Ranger-Thief of the Northern Wastes, come to rid Pax-Tharkas of its Orc infestation! Bug, you get to be Balgore, the Troll King leader of the mighty Orc army!”

“Why am I always the enemy?” Bug asked, slightly annoyed. “And why am I always a Troll?”

“It’s your hair, Bug,” Priscilla sighed heavily, rolling her eyes and folding her arms, “and your height.”

“Figures,” Bug resigned, shaking his head and sending his hair shifting in counterpoint.

“And Doodle gets to be Klag Skullcrusher, the Goblin Lord who has joined you in your campaign!” Peter appeared oblivious to his friends’ lack of enthusiasm in this game’s role-playing assignments.

“Short?” Doodle asked, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looking up at Priscilla. She looked back and nodded.

“Yes, because you are short.”

“Who do I get to be?” Leela asked, scooting closer to Peter and gazing at him dreamily.

They all sat on wooden stools around a log table, except for Peter and Leela who sat on a thick wooden beam that served as a bench. This was not necessarily by Peter’s choice, but more due to design and maneuvering on Leela’s part. The open fort that Tim Dooley had built his children rested high up in a giant willow tree where the branches split apart from the trunk. The tree stood in one corner of Dooley Down’s back yard and the long, cascading willow strands provided the perfect canopy and cover for the kids’ covert activities. A series of wood slats nailed up the length of the trunk served as a ladder.

“You get to be Kwairno, Mage Princess of the Eastern Realm, a mysterious and deadly companion to me on my quest to rid Pak-Tharkas of the Orc menace and retrieve the Cyclops Ember, a gem of fantastic wealth and riches!” Leela looked visibly thrilled, if not completely enamored.

“What a surprise,” Priscilla remarked flatly.

“And Pris will be…”

“Peter…”

“Sorry,” Peter apologized. “Priscilla will be Gailswan Brandywine, Warrior Princess of the Elven Woods, on a quest to free her people from the slave labor camps of King Balgore and Klag Skullcrusher!”

“Do Trolls even get along with Goblins,” Bug inquired, “or Even Orcs, for that matter?”

“They do in Peter’s world,” Priscilla observed, clearly bored. “C’mon, P, let’s do something else than play Dungeons and Dragons. We’ve been playing it all week!”

It was mid-August, three years after Sarah Dooley fell to her death at Mirror Falls. There had been a dark period in the Dooleys’ lives after that fateful night, but at least for Peter and Priscilla things had begun to slowly resume a semblance of normalcy, relatively speaking. Their friends were glad. The twin’s closeness brought an equal awkwardness in the aftermath of their mother’s passing. Time never healed all wounds, especially of the heart, but the scars gradually faded somewhat as the years transpired.

This past summer had been a blast for them all. They found themselves growing together, relying on each other and bonding. Leela started discovering strange and wonderful feelings for Peter, Peter discovered role-playing games that engaged them all, and Bug and Doodle finally gained acceptance and a consistent place to escape from their troubled home lives. Peter also emerged as the leader of their confederation. He possessed the drive and imagination they all admired and wanted to be a part of. And this is why he took Priscilla’s dissention on this day very hard.

“What?”

“You heard me, Peter. This is fun and all, but it’s time to switch gears. Let’s go play hide and seek or something.”

“Sounds good to me,” Bug agreed. “I’m kinda tired of playing a Troll.”

“I like playing this, Peter,” Leela commiserated with her new summer crush. Peter ignored it, not to be mean, but because he felt a betrayal that he didn’t like. And he felt embarrassed for feeling it, as well. This caused him anger and when Peter got angry, as rare a case as that was, he usually bottled it up and it took awhile to get over.

“You, too, Doodle?” Peter asked pointedly, staring down his shy and diminutive friend. Doodle looked away.

“Sorry,” he squeaked.

“It doesn’t have to be a big deal, Peter,” Priscilla tried to console, realizing by the turn in Peter’s demeanor that little chance existed of changing the events set in motion. “C’mon, we can pick this up again next week before school starts.”

“I wish I knew sooner that you all didn’t like playing this game,” Peter spoke glumly. He stood up.

“Peter?” Leela’s face worried up as she tried to think of something to say that would diffuse Peter’s darkening mood.

“I’m going to hang out in my room… alone.” Peter flipped his sweatshirt cape off with his hand and let it fall to the floor of the fort. He walked unhesitatingly to the slat wood ladder.

“Hey, Peter, I changed my mind,” Bug implored, “come back. I want to play.”

“Peter, please…” Priscilla trailed off. But it was too late. Peter began silently and determinedly descending the ladder. Priscilla jumped to her feet and looked down upon him from the floor doorway.

“PETER!” she screamed, but not because he was leaving them. The fourth slat twisted as Peter placed his foot and his weight too far on its edge, causing his lower body to slip free. He clenched both hands on the upper slat to catch himself, but his weight and the motion of his lower body pulled the nails holding the slat to the tree trunk free. He tumbled end over end, the back of his head hitting one of the lower ladder slat corners before his body crumpled upon the ground.

With total lack of regard for her own safety, Priscilla swung down the remaining slat ladder like a monkey and landed unhurt beside her brother. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks when she saw all the bright red blood painting the back of Peter’s dusty corn colored hair. Her friends were calling frantically from the opening in the fort above her, but all she could hear was the word “Dad” being screamed over and over from her own voice. She held Peter tightly, feeling half of her soul ripping away. Tim Dooley arrived within seconds, but for Priscilla it seemed like eternity. Without Peter, she was a shell, a hollow child. The oblivion of the rest of her life without her brother smeared the black starburst landscape behind her eyelids.

™ Ÿ ˜

Crawling out from behind the garbage cans and boxes, Priscilla’s mind and emotions returned to that horrible day and guilt riddled her heart. Despite the superficiality of Peter’s wound and his temporary unconsciousness, Priscilla still felt responsible for hurting his feelings and causing him to leave the fort. Dad had tried to console her with his usually consolable wisdom: “Head wounds bleed the most but are usually superficial.” But she never escaped the sudden feeling of tragedy and loss, as unfounded as it ended up being.

It all came back this night. From behind the vantage point and protection of the garbage cans and overturned boxes, she witnessed the standoff between her brother and Max. She saw the axe blade strike Peter square in the forehead. She saw Max turn and run off. Now Priscilla approached her brother with great trepidation, fearful of the blood, fearful of the impending pain and loss. Dad wasn’t there to console her this time, not that it made much difference the first time. But at least he had been there. Peter’s words repeated in Priscilla’s mind: “We are fools… and we are alone.” She felt more alone than ever right now.

Priscilla knelt down beside her brother.

“Oh Peter, Peter, Peter,” she cooed, as she knelt down and cradled her twin brother like she did a few years ago. There was no Dad to call upon now… they were alone. The reality of the world crashed down upon her, resulting in convulsive sobs. The tears, she had cried so many this day, fell thick, hot and heavy. Everything had gone horribly wrong. In a short span of time she lost Dad and she lost Peter. What had she done to deserve this? What had any of them done?

Priscilla dared to look down at her brother.

A large bump and even larger bruise stood out on his forehead.

What is this?

She drew her hand away from his hair… no blood.

His chest moved regularly. He breathed!

Priscilla lightly shook her brother. He moaned!

She saw the axe by his side. Grasping the handle it felt solid enough, but light and unbalanced. She touched the blade. It wasn’t cold metal… it was wood. The axe blade was chrome painted wood. Max’s axe was a fake! She failed to reason why. The fact simply existed as a wonder in her mind. She stroked Peter’s head, mindful of the superficial wound. He began to come around. She shook him lightly.

“Peter. Peter!”

“H-h-huh? What’s happening?” Peter moved slowly from a deep fog, and then sat up suddenly, wide-eyed with terror. “Max!”

“Shh, shh, he’s gone, Peter. He ran off. After he threw his axe at you, he ran off.”

Peter touched the bump on his forehead.

“How is it?” Priscilla asked, continuing to stroke Peter’s hair and shoulders. Inside she bubbled with joy that Peter was alive.

“I… I think I’m fine. My head is all breck, though. Brear, P! Why isn’t my skull cleaved in two?”

Priscilla reached for Max’s axe and handed it to Peter. Peter grasped it gently with both hands, carefully studying it.

“It’s a fake,” he marveled.

“Yes. The blade is chrome painted wood. But why? Why carry around a fake axe? He can easily afford a real one!”

“Because,” Peter realized, remembering that day long ago in the cafeteria when he confronted Max. He turned the fake axe over and over in his hands, gazing at it. “Max lives off of power, intimidation. Oh, sure, he can bully with force if he needs to, but it is the threat of force that floats his boat. If he gets caught with a fake axe, he can claim that it’s an art project or some other lousy claim. With a real axe, there is little explanation. But a fake axe that looks real… well, with that a jerk like him has options.”

Priscilla raised her eyebrows and nodded in agreement. Peter’s reasoning made sense. Her eyes caught the glint of something shiny near Peter’s leg: Kramer’s combat survival knife. She picked it up and handed it carefully, pommel first, to her brother. He tossed the fake axe into the alley and took it, studying it like he did the axe for a moment before stowing it quickly back in his book bag. A fierce determination settled in his mouth and brow.

“I was ready to use it.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

“Me, too.”

“What now?”

“Now we go on with our plan. We go to Mirror Falls and sort things out, commune with Mom…” He stood up suddenly and walked over to the Sooth Jewels. They looked like glorified paperclips. He wished they had never come into their lives, but he also was also happy they did. He thought of Dad and Mom. He thought of how love and loss seemed tied together, each one making the other stronger, feeding off each other. It made him mad, but he could not imagine things being any other way and still bearing meaning. He reached down and picked them up. They felt cool in his hand; nothing special. Glorified paperclips… only he knew that was a lie.

Don’t, Peter. Don’t fall into that again. “He knows that dog is real, he just knows it! But deeper in its heart, the doggy wants for it to be real, needs for it to be real. Because if it isn’t real, then he’s just a stupid, mangy, little dog barking at a fake dog, a straw dog.”

“We made that happen,” Peter whispered, gazing into the Sooth Jewels.

“What?” Priscilla was distracted by a rhythmic clacking sound echoing through the alley. It had seemed distant at first, but drew closer with each passing moment. It approached quickly, footsteps.

“We made that…” Peter spoke louder, turning around. But he couldn’t finish his thought, because he froze speechless. So did Priscilla. The clacking footsteps had arrived and stopped not fifteen feet away. Before them stood a lady in a short, low cut, gold lamay one piece dress. A string of pearls adorned her neck and she bore a bracelet of the same on each wrist. Gold hoops hung from her ears below a pulled up auburn hairdo. The clacking had emanated from six inch gold fabric shoed heels. This was the lawyer lady that Red described!

Peter stood struck by the woman’s beauty, though later in life he would learn to differentiate beauty from sexiness. The woman who towered in the alley was far from beautiful, but she was extremely sexy. Her figure bulged and curved in all the right places. Her painted face emulated beauty, but could never compare to the natural beauty of a naked face, wrinkles, imperfections and all. Malice and manufactured lust scratched her expression and scorched her body in a way many adults would consider ugly, despite the dark shaded eyes and ruby painted lips. But many more adults craved the woman’s look, and that aspect tugged at Peter’s puberty.

“Congratulations,” she spoke. “You little bastards have had me going. But it’s over now. Hand over the Sooth Jewels… NOW!” She put one hand on her hip and cocked her figure. The other hand stretched out, palm up.

Revulsion washed over Peter and Priscilla in a huge wave, more so for Peter who had felt the spark of lust. The woman standing before them was none other than Aunt Gretchen, dolled up to the nines. Peter felt weak and sick to his stomach, not just because she had finally caught up to them, but because she had fueled a sudden urge in his loins. Priscilla, on the other hand, fell sick with fear and disgust. To her, Aunt Gretchen appeared as a cheap whore and she couldn’t understand why she felt jealous about that. To her, Aunt Gretchen exuded power and confidence, something she struggled with at her young age.

“What are you talking about?” Peter managed, trying to slyly place the Sooth Jewels back into his book bag unnoticed.

“Cut the crap, Peter. Your Dad told me about them. He told me after the trial that you kids were ‘set up for life’ and mentioned the ‘Sooth Jewels.’ You have them, I know. Give me that book bag.”

“No,” Peter declared, surprised at his own defiance. His hand fumbled around in the book bag.

“This could’ve been easy,” Aunt Gretchen whispered sweetly, batting her eyelashes behind her horn-rimmed spectacles and smiling saccharin. “You could’ve just come along with me. I would’ve taken care of you. There is still a chance. Come here; give your auntie a hug…” She took a step forward towards Peter.

“Wait a second,” Peter said hurriedly. He held out one arm for Aunt Gretchen to stop while he rummaged in his book bag with the other. “I have them right here.”

Aunt Gretchen glared at him carefully, but she stopped advancing. Peter glanced over at Priscilla and she got up and slowly moved over to where he stood. Peter maneuvered two of Sid’s smoke bombs into position in his palm so that he could pull the fuses out with his fingers. He felt like he might be able to do it.

It has to work.

He brought his hand out of his book bag, careful not to let Aunt Gretchen get a good look at what it contained. The smoke bombs were large enough so that he couldn’t completely conceal them and their color shone through between his fingers. He held them out palm down to provide maximum obscurement while giving his thumb and fingers the leverage they needed to pull out the fuses.

Aunt Gretchen’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Her crimson painted mouth turned downward. But she couldn’t help herself. She saw Peter’s free arm shoved inside his jeans’ pocket. No threat there. His other arm extended straight out to her. The barely visible yellow and red colors peeking out between her nephew’s fingers looked enticing in the muted lamp glow of the alley. She stepped forward and reached out, palm up and cupped, ready to claim the priceless heirlooms.

With one deft move that surprised Peter with the ease of it, he plucked out the fuses on the smoke bombs simultaneously and tossed them into Aunt Gretchen’s face. The bombs immediately hissed out billowing clouds of red and yellow smoke, creating a third color in the process: orange. Aunt Gretchen couldn’t help but take a huge lungful of the sulphurous smoke in surprise of the unexpected move. She doubled over, coughing, choking, gasping, and retching.

It was Peter’s turn to grab hold of his sister’s hand and force her to run down the alley they had entered from. She offered no resistance and as soon as the exited the alley, they turned left along New Goat Road and sprinted at full bore towards the north town gate.

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