Dooley Downs

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VI Swenson Park

VI Swenson Park

The world was dark.

Peter flew through the air.

Actually, he spun around the fulcrum of his outstretched arms about five feet off the ground. The centrifugal force kept his torso and legs at a vertical angle. Round and round and round. The sensation filled his heart with warmth and his mind with joy, the kind that seems to last forever… and then eventually really does, at least for as long as one lives. He couldn’t help but wear a giant grin from ear to ear.

Though the world was dark, he heard the discordant melody of the rustling leaves, the steady breeze trying to take them while the steadfast trees tried to keep them. Peter loved the wind, whether strong or soft. The wind was freedom incarnate. It went where it wanted and took what could not hold. Right now Peter held on. But secretly, he hoped someday the wind would take him when it came for his time to leave the world, to die. Then he would be free to fly everywhere.

Though the world was dark, he heard laughter. He heard his sister giggling uncontrollably. She called for Peter to fly higher, higher, even though Peter knew he had attained maximum elevation. Every time she let loose a high-pitched giggle, he laughed wildly along with her. Other people laughed and yelled joyfully all around, some very far away, some closer by. A very deep chuckle rumbled in front of him, between his outstretched arms.

Though the world was dark, Peter felt the warm sun glowing on his face. He felt large, powerful hands engulfing his forearms with just enough pressure to keep him from flying away. His own small hands open and closed, gripping nothing. His whole life, all of his trust, lay within the ability of those capable hands that now kept him aloft to keep him afloat through life. Peter knew they wouldn’t fail him, which is why he urged them to spin him around faster.

“Faster, Daddy, faster!”

Peter opened his eyes and saw Dad’s smiling face turning with him as the world spun around them. Dad’s deep laughter tickled Peter’s ears. The air blurred shades of green, blue, yellow, brown, and red. With each revolution he caught a glimpse of Priscilla and Mom, one a small pink and blonde smudge, the other a tall purple and blonde smear; mother and daughter enjoying the play between father and son. The spinning slowed and his elevation dropped. Objects and people started to come in to focus.

“Okay, okay, there you go, son! That’s enough for your old man. Dad’s not as young as he used to be!” Dad brought Peter gently to a standing position with a grunt. Just as the world was coming back into focus, it began to spin again as soon as Peter touched ground and tried to balance on his own. He felt a slight wave of nausea and then fell back onto his butt. His family laughed along with him.

“The world’s not always a steady place, Peter.” Dad extended Peter a hand. Peter took it. “Especially after you’ve been flying.”

“Someone needs to watch how often he lets him fly,” Mom warned as she reached an arm around Dad’s waste and patted the paunch of his stomach. “You’re no spring chicken, Dad!”

“Nope. Now I’m just the Rooster… and you’re my Henny Penny!” Dad turned around, grabbed Mom in his arms, and gave her a big snog on her neck. She pushed back with faux protest, throwing her head back and laughing. Dad lifted his face to the sky and made crowing noises like a rooster, then proceeded to snog his wife’s neck again.

“Oh?” Mom questioned. “And since when did I ever warn you that the sky was falling?”

Dad suddenly stopped and pulled back a little, gazing seriously into Mom’s eyes. The smile faltered from her face as she returned the gaze.

“I warn myself of that very possibility every time we are apart.”

“Me, too,” Mom whispered. They touched lips together sweetly, then pressed harder and embraced strongly. Peter looked at Priscilla and she rolled her eyes at the whole thing. Peter giggled.

“Is that close enough for government work, Dad?” Peter called out. Dad and Mom parted lips, but not each other. Dad turned to Peter and winked.

“It’s close enough for love, Peter. Government’s got nothing to do with it!” Mom and Dad each opened up an arm, inviting their kids. Peter and Priscilla rushed in and they all joined in with a big group hug and a couple peckish snogs. And all the other visitors of the park went about their business of enjoyment, some running, some sunning, some walking, some jogging, some sitting talking, some throwing Frisbees while their dogs attempted to catch them, some spread out on a blanket having a picnic, and some even enjoying a snog or two under the warm afternoon sun while bugs and birds danced in the fickle breeze.

™ Ÿ ˜

That was a long time ago, Peter thought, as they huddled to one side of the entrance to Prudence. Swenson Park held a lot of warm memories. While family days were relegated to the past, he and his friends still gathered there frequently to run around or shoot the breeze. Many of the townspeople did, as well. Swenson Park was the town’s hub, the common area for all. It was the focal point of the main entrance, a giant manicured field, nearly a quarter the size of the town, bordered by cottonwood poplars and sprinkled throughout its interior with old growth oaks. It contained no permanent structures or walkways, but people brought in whatever portable equipment the needed to serve their purposes. People trucked in collapsible backstops, goals, and bleachers to hold baseball and soccer games. Powdered chalk was used to draw temporary boundaries for whatever purpose. Even during political rallies and parades wheeled podiums were rolled in and out for the Mayor and other VIPs.

Now Swenson Park lay before them as a nefarious gauntlet to their destination. There seemed easily just as much chance of being spotted in its vast openness as being shrouded amongst its numerous afternoon visitors and sporadically placed oak trees. They would be entering on the far edge where it bordered Main Street. They could weave through the long line of cottonwood poplars that lined its exterior, but that may expose them to a prowling car on the lookout for them. Or they could lose themselves among the meandering visitors and hope nobody was on foot in there looking for them. It constituted a gamble, a crapshoot.

A small blue car drove by, exiting the gate that never closed and heading towards Fast Eddie’s Last Gas and beyond, possibly. They plastered themselves to the brick base support of the black wrought iron spears that comprised the wall-fence that surrounded the town. Whether the maneuver aided their cover or not was uncertain since the car continued unhesitatingly onward. Being that they were out in the open against the town’s exterior fence with bikes and other riding instruments, it hardly seemed any clandestine activity on their part could go undetected. Still, their reaction to hide was understandable given the circumstances.

Priscilla sat forward and looked at each of them. Everyone looked nervous, frazzled. In the short time since enlisting their friends’ aid, barely an hour ago, the stress was already showing. Max undoubtedly served as the catalyst for most of the wear and tear on their nerves, but now they stood upon the edge of their destination, the final stretch. Priscilla briefly pondered what the near future held in store for them, but trying to fathom the unknown proved difficult at best and she decided to concentrate on more immediate concerns. She wondered if, collectively, the possessed anything resembling a plan.

“So, do we have anything resembling a plan?” she asked out loud.

They all took turns looking at each other, hoping one of them conjured up an answer they could all digest. All eyes quickly settled on Peter. He looked behind him to see if anyone stood there, hoping someone did, but he knew he was just prolonging the inevitable. In some respects, it annoyed him that they all depended on his guidance. He wondered what Dad would say about the matter, but he already knew the answer. Dad would smile and tell him that “the trust of a friend should never be squandered.” Bucking up, he put an air of concern and confidence on his face, belying the turmoil and uncertainty that gnawed within.

“The hardest part of a journey is the final few steps,” he imparted to them.

“Huh?” Bug warped his face into a question mark.

Doodle just looked at Peter and blinked a few times.

“That sounds neat,” Leela remarked supportively. “What’s it mean?”

“Um, it is always darkest just before dawn,” Peter tried again.

Everyone looked totally lost.

Peter opened his mouth to explain, but Priscilla interjected: “It’s one of the many particles of wisdom Dad used to say to us when we felt unsure of things. Not all of them were entirely understandable, I have to admit, but I’m pretty sure I understand this one. You know when you are going somewhere and you know that you are getting close or that you can see it up ahead?”

They all nodded with the agreement of knowing that experience.

“Well, whatever you feel about your destination really comes alive in you right when you are getting close… excitement, dread, whatever. If it’s excitement, then you get anxious, like you can’t get there fast enough.”

“Yeah!” The light bulb of understanding appeared above Bug’s head. “Like, when my last skateboard broke in half and it seemed like it took forever to scrape up enough dough to get a new one. But once I had the money, the walk to the sport’s shop had me all gurped up! I kept wondering if I had enough bread to cover the taxes or if I would get there and the price for the board I wanted would be all jacked up! I mean, I was really excited, but I was also all nervous and messed up inside. The walk there took forever! I almost turned around and went home!’

“Yeah, something like that,” Priscilla confirmed. “And if it is dread, you might think about it on your way there, you know, let it tumble in your guts a little. But once you approach your destination, that’s when the fear really gets you.”

“Like when you get a bad grade on your report card and you carry it all day thinking what your parents are going to say and you think you’ve figured out a good story, but it all goes out of your head when you approach the house and you really just want to turn around but you know you can’t.” Leela took a in a big breath and then let it out.

“Oh, right,” Bug rolled his eyes, “like you ever had bad grades!”

Leela put her hands on her hips. “I got a ‘C+’ once… I was really scared!”

Bug twirled a finger in the air and whistled. Leela pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him. Bug pointed his hand at her like a gun, cocked his thumb, and then let the imaginary hammer down as he clicked his tongue inside his cheek. Leela shouldered an imaginary bazooka, peered down the sight at Bug, and jolted herself with the presumed recoil as she voiced a “ka-boom.” Bug grabbed his heart and fell over face first on the grass, twitching spasmodically. Leela and Doodle put their hands to their mouths in a poor attempt to stifle their giggles. Priscilla folded her arms and sighed heavily.

“Okay, c’mon now,” Peter said impatiently. “Let’s get back on track. Dad is at the forefront of my mind and, just like you all astutely demonstrated, I’m feeling pretty nervous about crossing the park and what we will find at Red’s.”

“But we have to go,” Priscilla said.

“I know, sis. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Yeah, I feel it, too.” Priscilla hung her head.

“So what’s the plan, man?” Bug had pulled himself up and sat facing them, Indian-style.

“Well, as I see it, we can either stick to the relative cover of the trees that line the park or we can just wander through the center, try to blend in, you know.”

“Wow,” Bug admired sarcastically, “should we flip a coin?”

Just then a long, gleaming black limousine with polished chrome accents and tinted windows rolled almost noiselessly through the open gate of Prudence, exiting the town. All of their eyes were as large as saucers as they watched it steadily glide away in the direction of Fast Eddie’s Last Gas. The question of whether it would stop there or not was mute. There was only one limousine in town… the Mayor’s. Peter looked at Max’s mountain bike. The stakes were rising like a thermometer in the height of summer.

“I think the coin just flipped, Bug,” Peter said with almost a whisper.” That car will be coming back this way, with Max on board. We need to move now. Anything next to the road will be foolish. We go straight through the middle.”

™ Ÿ ˜

The remaining burnt yellow leaves of the cottonwood poplars bordering Swenson Park brushed the gathering wind with a soft clatter as others swirled about freely in the air, eventually alighting on the park grass or piling up in the gutters. With the sun angling lower in the autumn afternoon sky and a strong breeze picking up, a chill permeated the Town of Prudence. It cascaded over the vacant Dooley Downs, bustled through the birch peppered hills above Kramer’s Kompound, creaked the twisted oaks lining Shady Lane, stirred up dust devils upon Beer Can Flats, mourned longingly through the Wooded Fields, banged a few loose sections of aluminum siding at Fast Eddie’s Last Gas, and scoured the dust along Main Street as it coolly caressed the neck and shoulders of the five anxious children standing poised at the gates of town, watching for who may be watching them.

“Let’s ditch Max’s bike,” Peter recommended, scanning the cars prowling up and down Main Street and its cross roads and observing the various townspeople, young and old alike, walking in and out of the park.

“Uh, you sure that’s wise, Kemo Sabe?” Bugs hair took on a new life of its own in the wind, shifting this way and that and refusing to blow in just one direction. Doodle watched it, both amused and amazed. He would reach up a finger to touch it, apparently unsure if it really was attached to Bugs head or was just a wig, but then withdrew as the mop changed direction.

“It’ll just call attention to us. I mean, look at it. It looks expensive. Max is the only kid in town with a bike like this. If we run across someone we know, they’re gonna have some questions.”

“But if you leave it here,” Priscilla joined in, “Max is going to come back in that limo and see it.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Peter countered. “He’ll have his bike back and won’t be able to claim that we stole it. No harm, no foul.”

“You know better than that, Peter. He’ll get his bike back and come chasing after us anyhow. We have a better chance if Max is on foot.” Priscilla looked at Peter intently with her eyebrows raised.

“I could use the thing Kramer gave us, you know?”

“What is the thing?” Bug asked. Doodle’s finger penetrated the mop of his hair and poked Bug’s scalp. Bug twitched and flinched, brushing Doodle’s finger away. “Quit it, you nob! What’s wrong with you? Leave my dome and wig alone!”

“Wig,” Doodle giggled.

“Wig yourself, you little spazoid.” Bug rubbed his head where Doodle poked him, even though it didn’t hurt.

“He has a point,” Leela observed.

“What are you babbling about? Why is my hair so interesting to you guys?”

“Nothing,” Leela giggled. She lightly elbowed Doodle, who returned the acknowledgement.

“Never mind,” Priscilla diverted. “Look, Peter, let’s just do this the easy way. That way, Max can’t claim vandalism. It may not buy us as much time, but it will help considerably.” She moved over to Max’s mountain bike and began unscrewing the rear wheel air valve cap. Peter caught on, kneeling down and removing the front one. They each pushed the pin in on the air valves and the tires deflated quickly.

“One more thing,” Peter said with a nod and a quirky grin. He loosened the screws on the brake lines and scrambled the gear controls. “There. That should keep him busy for a bit.”

“What about our other rides, Peter?” asked Leela.

“Just walk them. Let’s all just act natural, like everything’s fine and nobody is after us. Bug, tell us a joke or story that we haven’t heard before so we have something to laugh and pay attention to. Everyone else, keep your eyes peeled to what is going on around us, who might be looking around for us… but please, don’t look obvious. We need to blend in.”

“Like ninjas,” Bug added.

“Ninjas!” Doodle exclaimed, taking a crouching stance with arms and hands positioned to deliver crushing Kung Fu blows, or some other form of martial art.

Priscilla put a hand on his shoulder. “Ninjas who are trying to blend in, Doodle, not attack.”

“Right,” he said standing up straight and adjusting his derby. He saluted her.

They proceeded through the open gates, crossed the street, and entered the park as the cool wind tugged and pulled at their clothing and hair.

™ Ÿ ˜

The number of people in the park was less than Peter had hoped. Originally, he wanted his gang of misfits to breeze through Swenson Park before school got out and parents moved in to scoop up their kids. As they got closer to the park, he became relieved that their timing coincided with the park’s weekday patronage. Kids running around, playing ball and chasing after each other; parents walking hand in hand pushing strollers… a large park crowd appealed to a sense of cover. Now his mind doubted the fortune of their timing. His eyes saw six or eight adults and thirteen to fifteen kids at different distances engaged in various activities.

“Oh, blarg,” Bug moaned, reading Peter’s mind. “This is breck.”

“This is it, guys. We have no choice. We need to play this cool and stick to the plan. Everyone just act natural. Walk normally, with a bounce in your step. We’re all just visiting the park, enjoying the afternoon, glad to be out of school, and looking forward to Halloween next week. C’mon, Bug, start telling us a story or some jokes, something to get us laughing and talking while we keep a lookout.”

“Like what? I’m freaking out here!”

“You’ve always got a joke or something; you’re always clowning around!” Leela consulted before Peter could say anything.

“Alright, alright, let me think.”

“No time to think, Bug… time to do,” Priscilla advised. They all continued on through the park, passing one of the first of the old gnarled oaks sprinkled throughout the interior.

“Okay, I got one! Here we go,” Bug started to animate himself, gearing up his body to gesticulate the points of his impending discourse. “I don’t think you’ve heard this one before, boys and girls. It is the story of ‘Nate the Snake’.”

“’Nate the Snake’, sensational,” Peter observed absently as he scanned the park’s distances.

“Sounds lame,” Leela commented.

“Can it, Peela,” Priscilla scolded mildly, “let him continue.” Leela winced at her friend’s reprimand, but more out of displeasure with herself than anything else. She had only wanted to cut the tension, lessen the stress.

“Sorry, I was just joking,” Leela offered. Priscilla put her arm around hers and they smiled together.

“Nate!” Doodle piped.

“Right, as I was saying. This is the story of Nate the Snake. Okay, there was this truck driver heading west across the Arizona desert…”

“This takes place in Arizona?” Priscilla asked. Leela shot a look at her and disengaged her arm. Priscilla shrugged sheepishly. Leela rolled her eyes and they engaged arms again.

“Well, yes, it starts there,” Bug said, taken off guard. “Hey, listen now!”

“Continue,” Priscilla smiled, bowing to him slightly together with Leela. The two girls snickered.

“Right, so this truck driver, he’s been driving all night and as the sun starts to rise he feels the need to commune with nature…”

“Commune with nature?” Peter asked.

“Drain the lizard,” Bug explained, throwing his open palms up and down as if it helped elucidate the cryptic term.

“What’s this about a lizard, Bug? I thought it was about a snake!” Priscilla couldn’t help the tease and felt kind of bad for shutting Leela down a moment ago.

“It is about a snake! I’m getting to that! The truck driver had to take a piss, okay?” Bug sounded exasperated.

“Sounds more like it’s about a truck driver with bladder control problems,” Leela said, smiling.

“Peter!”

“Get on with it, Bug. They’re just acting natural. Go with it.”

“Huh. So, this truck driver pulls over to take a piss and walks into the sagebrush for some measure of privacy. As he’s standing there, looking at the beauty of the morning and waiting for it to happen, he notices there’s this lever sticking out of the ground nearby. So he finishes his business, zips up, and walks over to inspect it. Unable to contain his curiosity, he reaches out to pull it. Just as he does, he hears a voice say: ‘Don’t touch that lever’.”

A red Frisbee flew by in front of them and they all jumped slightly. A younger kid ran by laughing and apologizing. They all looked around furtively, then composed themselves in unison and continued on. Bug ran his hands through his bounty of rusty hair, which bounced back into place as they exited, and shook them out at his sides. He let out a whoosh of a sigh.

“So the driver jumps about two feet off the ground,” Bug continued, “and as he comes down, he looks all around. But he doesn’t see anything, so he thinks it’s his imagination or conscience or something along those lines. He reaches out again to pull the lever, and again the voice says: ‘Don’t touch that lever’.”

They were all startled by a loud whistle as some man shouted, “HEY! GET OVER HERE!” They stopped in their tracks and looked over towards the sound. It was just some parent scolding a little child that had wandered away to far. He caught up to the child, grabbed her by the arm, nearly lifting her off the ground, and swatted her behind. This sent the child into a tailspin of wailing and crying. Peter felt bad for the kid, who was probably overtaken by the park’s activity, but was glad for a noise diversion away from their vicinity.

“So, being more prepared this time, the driver…”

“Name?” Doodle asked.

“Huh?”

“His name, Bug,” explained Leela, “what was the driver’s name?”

“Who cares?”

“Well, the snake has a name… what’s his?”

“I don’t know… how about ‘Mack’?”

“Is that his real name?” Priscilla joined in on the interrogation, relishing how easily they could fluster Bug. It was all in fun and really, their nerves needed it.

“Well, sure it is. Quit your jibber jabber and listen up, folks. The driver, Mack, figures out the location of the voice and looks down under a nearby sage bush. There he sees a small snake (yes, it’s Nate… just hold your britches). So the… so Mack is all astonished and such and he asks the snake if he was the one that spoke and the snake says: ‘Yes, my name is Nate the Snake and I have to keep people from pulling that lever. If the lever is moved, it will be the end of the world!’”

“Who’s stupid enough to put a lever that destroys the world right out in the middle of the desert?” Leela asked, rolling her eyes.

“Well it’s better than putting a lever that destroys the world right in the middle of a city street,” Bug countered. Leela had to admit there was some logic to it. The others seemed satisfied with the explanation, as well, and continued to listen as they observed the people in the park.

“So the… so Mack asks Nate if he will go with him and talk on TV, thinking about all the money he could make with a talking snake, but Nate declines, insisting that he must stay to guard the lever. Thinking about this, Mack asks Nate if he would talk to the world if got the networks to send the camera crews out here in the desert. He added that Nate could then tell everyone about the dangers of the lever. Nate thought the idea over and being that there was a lot of sense to the idea, he agreed. The driver got in his rig…”

“The driver?” Leela asked. She snorted.

“Oh, you know who I mean!” Bug shot her a hard look and shook his fist in front of his face. Leela merely smirked and showed him her tongue.

Peter slowed down and the rest of his friends followed suit without really noticing. They were entranced with Bug’s story and also determined to trip him up. It was a common activity they engaged in and Bug usually won, to the delight of everyone. Nobody really wanted to trip Bug up; they wanted to hear the end of his jokes and stories. It just raised the entertainment value when he got agitated. They were now acting very natural, like Peter wanted; unfortunately they weren’t keeping a very sharp lookout. Across the remaining half of the park, something caught Peter’s eye.

“So Max… oops! Sorry. I mean Mack, heh heh, comes back to where Nate is guarding the lever a few weeks later with a number of television crews. They put on broadcasts in which Nate warns the entire world of the dangers of moving the lever. Then they all depart, leaving Nate to guard the lever in peace.”

“Guys…” Peter had stopped and everyone else stopped, as well, but they still listed to Bug and Bug continued on with his story.

“A few weeks later another truck driver drives through the area…”

Leela and Priscilla both opened their mouths at the same time to say something.

“…and his name is Bubba!”

Leela went first: “What kind of goofball name is that?”

“Sounds like the name of an idiot,” Priscilla whispered to Leela, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“You know, I hear it takes a village to raise one,” Leela confided to Priscilla, with an elevated whisper. Smiling, Bug ignored them and went on. He was nearing the finish line.

“Bubba’s following this tanker of oil and suddenly it springs a leak!”

Leela and Priscilla bent forward slightly with their legs together, eyes wide open, and their hands over their mouths. Doodle chuckled at their ‘Oh No!’ stance.

“Hey, guys…” Peter said with some urgency. He reached behind him without averting his gaze, reaching for one of them, but they had stopped a few steps back.

“Bubba can’t avoid the oil spill,” Bug gestured wildly, grabbing an invisible truck steering wheel and jerking it round and round as he spun his body in a circle. “He spins out of control and sees that he is headed straight for the lever! He remembers it from the TV broadcasts of Nate’s warning! He knows if he hits it then it will be the end of the world! He wrestles with the steering wheel and just barely manages to avoid the lever… but Nate is not so lucky… Bubba’s truck squishes him FLAT!”

“Leela! LEELA SPARKS!” A new voice intruded angrily across the park, getting swiftly closer. The voice was very familiar. Everyone froze.

“Oh shit,” Peter muttered. He suddenly realized that their plan was finite. It began at the open gates of the town’s entrance and it ended at Red’s Recovery Room. The middle consisted of walking through the park acting naturally, looking out for anyone looking out for them. Nowhere did they decide what to do if they got caught, which was why nobody was doing anything but standing frozen, still wondering what to do.

Marching towards them at an exaggerated pace, arms locked at an angle and swinging side to side, came the Principal of Prudence Middle School, Mr. Harding. Usually dressed in lightly colored turtleneck shirts, charcoal slacks, polished brown leather shoes, and a grey tweed jacket, Principal Harding carried a reputation as a strict, though rather inept, disciplinarian. In other words, he packed a mean bark but rarely followed through with a bite of equal intensity. He would threaten expulsion then give out detention, for example. However, for many young kids, the intensity of his bark served the purpose of behavior reform fairly effectively. Kids that knew better referenced their own name for him within inner circles, such as Mr. Hard-nose, Mr. Hard-ball, and the ever popular Principal Hard-ass.

Principal Harding was definitely worked up. He leaned forward, pumping his legs and arms, his face red and beaded with sweat. His stature was similar to Bug’s: tall and lanky. But it ended without the hair, as in Mr. Harding possessed little of, and the way he greased and combed what little he possessed over his scalp revealed his desperation in the matter. His current blood elevated status had decoupled a lengthy stuck together strand that dangled crazily in front of his nose. In between grunts and shouts he let out puffs of breath in a feeble attempt to flip the unruly hair strand back to its proper place on top of his head. It merely served to fog up his small rectangle glasses. As he approached closer, Peter noticed an odd bright mark on the man’s forehead just where the thinning hairline ended.

Everyone was measurably stunned when Principal Harding barged over to Leela and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her close to his side. He leaned in and spat at her sharply as he eyed the others. “Did you know your parents have been looking for you?! They are worried sick!”

“Hey,” Bug interjected, getting angry himself, “you let her go!”

“Skeeter Mcfly, you goddamned delinquent!” Principal Harding pushed a finger in front of Bug’s face, taking the steam out of him. “You shouldn’t even be my problem. How are you going to explain yourself to the other kids if you ever make it into High School?”

Scared, but not without the wit that generally found its way under the skin of most adults, Bug quipped: “I’ll tell them it took me that long to figure out that your name isn’t Principal Hard-ass.”

Mr. Harding’s eyes exploded open.

“You-you-you,” he stammered. Then like a viper his eyes narrowed in on Bug’s. “You may never get the chance if I have anything to do with the matter.”

Bug visibly withdrew, noticeably stung.

“All of you were truant today,” Mr. Harding hissed, passing his long finger back and forth over them as he gripped Leela’s arm, almost pushing her behind him. “I want a note from each of your parents on my desk tomorrow morning or I will personally call them and tell them you ditched school. Peter and Priscilla! I am surprised at you! What are you doing hanging around with no good hooligans like Mr. Mcfly and… and…”

“Doodle,” Doodle said.

“Doodle. Doodle?”

“Doodle,” the boy confirmed.

“Are you in my Middle School?”

“No.”

“You go to Prudence Elementary?”

“No.”

“Well, you can’t be in Prudence High!”

“No.”

“Don’t play games with me, boy! Doodle isn’t any kind of name, either! Are you visiting from out of town?”

“Leave him alone,” Priscilla interrupted as respectfully as she could manage, “please.”

This seemed to divert Mr. Harding’s attention back to the Dooleys. “Did you know that your Aunt Gretchen is looking for you? She said she has some information about your father and that she should be looking after you at this moment!”

“She lies,” the twins said in unison. This startled Mr. Harding, but he clearly softened to them. They were not known as problem students.

“Now you listen here. You two are in trouble for not being at school today. Now, I don’t know what the reason is, but you get with your sweet Aunt Gretchen right now and I’ll overlook the matter this time. She was the one who told me about Leela skipping school here.”

Leela groaned. Her cover had been blown. Her parents would be furious. Would she ever see her friends again? She felt weak in the knees and began to sob.

“You should be ashamed, young lady,” Mr. Harding addressed her. “How long have you been breaking the school’s trust? Your mother is meeting me here at the park to go look for you. It’s a good thing I saw you first! How could you do this to your parents?”

“Peter, we have to do something!” Priscilla whispered into her brother’s ear. This knocked Peter out of his thoughts. He had been studying the strangely shaped crimson mark just below Principal Harding’s diminishing hairline. It seemed so familiar, but he couldn’t quite pin it down. Tuning in to his sister, he realized their options were limited. He shrugged to her weakly. The desperation on her face melted into hopelessness.

“Come on, Leela,” Mr. Harding’s tone changed to stern consolation. “Let’s go meet your mother. This is for the best. The rest of you go home and stay out of any more trouble than you are currently in. Remember, notes from your parents on my desk tomorrow morning.”

With a final scowl of disapproval, he dragged a defeated Leela away with him across the green park. The afternoon sun cast steep shadows away from their receding footfalls. There was nothing that any of them could do without further jeopardizing their position. And Leela looked like she had resigned to her fate. They lost one of their own and the shock among them was palpable.

“Let’s go,” Peter urged sadly. They reluctantly moved on towards their destination, now only a few minutes away.

The mark on Principal Harding’s head suddenly clarified itself in Peter’s mind. It was lipstick… from a kiss.

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