"Why do you think he never wrote anything else?"
As she had expected, it was this last thought that made Joe's brow crease with denial. It was impossible, that's what he'd say. But it was true that TJ Randall had never published anything but Strangewood in the entirety of his career as a writer.
Joe shivered a little, and Emily didn't think he even noticed it. Then he stood up from the chair, reached for her hands, and pulled her near to him. Near enough that she could smell his cologne, a sweet manly scent.
And she thought of that other odor, the wild smell of . . . of the wood.
"Writers create out of their dreams all the time, Emily," Joe said. "At seven, in a coma, who's to say what Thomas's mind whipped up to entertain him. But what you're implying . . ."
"I'm not implying anything."
Joe glanced over at Thomas, and a new understanding began to dawn on his face. "Wait," he said. "Are you saying you think that right now, he and Nathan . . ."
"Of course not," Emily snapped, and Joe's shoulders sagged with relief at the certainty in her voice. "I'm freaking out, Joe, but I'm not nuts. I'm a rational woman. All I'm saying is, you can understand how I would find all of this really, really difficult to deal with."
Joe nodded. "Absolutely. God, what a horrible story."
"Yeah. But it made him rich."
They both laughed at her irreverence, which was Emily's intention. She moved into Joe's arms and relaxed there.
"I just need you here with me, to talk to me and tell me I'm not going nuts, okay?"
"I'm not going anywhere," Joe confirmed.
But his face was lined with thought, a question forming within him.
"What?" she asked.
"I was just curious what happened to the general. Thomas's father?" Joe said, the story obviously still haunting him.
Emily felt a chill run through her. She gnawed her lip a moment and looked over at Thomas again, wishing for nothing more than to hear his voice and Nathan's voice again.
"Sean came into Thomas's room in uniform one night. The story goes that he hadn’t waited long enough for Thomas to come around. Convinced that he'd killed his only child, the General shot himself in the head. The doctors found his corpse lying across Thomas's comatose body, blood and everything else sprayed all over the place.
"An hour later," Emily added grimly, "Thomas woke up from his coma."
* * * * *
On the banks of the Up-River: the burble of the rushing water, the contented growl of a dancing bear, the rhythmless bonging of a living bell, and the wild music of a dragon's wings all joined together to create an extraordinary orchestra of love and anxiety and companionship. It should have been a horrible cacophony. Instead, it was music.
Brownie and Fiddlestick and Mr. Tinklebum kept to themselves near the river's edge, though each with an eye out for the return of the sand crabs. They did not feel it appropriate to interrupt, or even overhear, the conversation their other companions were having several yards away, nearer to the trees. Nearer to the wood.
Thomas Randall and the Peanut Butter General embraced tightly. Though Thomas wept openly, the General did not. Perhaps he could not.
After a time, during which the General told him over and over that all would be well, Thomas spoke haltingly.
"I'm . . . I'm sorry that you're here," he confessed, his anguish plain. "I'm sorry I put you here."
Quite firmly, the General replied, "I'm not."
He placed a peanut butter encrusted hand on the shoulder of Our Boy, "We're together, TJ. That's all that matters."
This use of his hated nickname didn't rouse any objection from Thomas. It seemed perfectly natural to him. He nodded, pulled himself away from the General, the peanut butter leaving an oily film behind, and looked up toward the Bald Mountains.
"You're right," Thomas said. "Let's go get my son."
Together, they set off toward the west, along the Up-River, headed for the fortress of the Jackal Lantern.
On Monday morning, Emily sat in her car in the parking lot of Sentinel Software for nearly fifteen minutes before she managed to get out of the car and walk inside. More than anything, she needed some stability in her life at the moment. The only way she could think of to get that was to go back to work, albeit part time.
She hadn't called first, so when she walked into the warmly decorated reception area, Bedelia, behind the desk, was wide-eyed. Then her demeanor changed to such an odd combination of sympathy and genuine pleasure at her return that Emily could not help but be soothed. She was also relieved to learn that Arthur Hobbs, Sentinel's CEO, was in the office that day.
First thing, she stopped by Art's office and requested a meeting later in the day. He had a late morning opening, and she gladly took it.
When she walked into HR, Lorena was ecstatic.
"Oh my God!" the diminutive dyed redhead screeched, rushing up to hug Emily. "What are you doing here?"
Emily grinned, unable to help herself. "I work here, remember?"
Lorena clapped her hands together like a little girl. "Oh, I'm so glad to have you back," she said in a rush. Then, with a crease in her brow, she added, "Wait, are you back?"
"I have a meeting with Art at eleven-thirty," Emily confirmed. "I'm hoping I can do two or three days at first, split my time between here and the hospital. I'm not doing anyone any good over there, and I'd like to get back into the swing of things."
A little human contact couldn't hurt, either, Emily thought. And already, that feeling was paying off. Lorena's welcome had solidified her feeling that this was a good idea indeed. Just what she needed. People to talk to, to make her feel useful again. It had only been ten days or so since she'd last been in the office — they probably hadn't even missed her that much — but the tragedies of the past week had made her feel aimless, useless. And recently, she had begun to feel vulnerable.
Emily didn't want that. Her mother didn't raise her to be a victim.
"Can we have lunch?" Lorena asked excitedly. "I know Sandra and Allis will be thrilled you're back as well."
"Is it okay if we wait until Friday? I'd just like to sit at my desk for a bit, go through some paperwork, and get reacclimated. That sort of thing."
Lorena smiled. "You got it." Then she kissed Emily's cheek and went back to her desk, leaving her boss to get on with the process of jump-starting her life outside of the hospital.
With a smile of her own, Emily went into her office and immediately was comforted by the overpowering familiarity of the place. There was the jar of Jolly Rancher candies she always kept on her desk. The floral calendar she ordered once a year from an Italian import company in Boston. The huge spider plant that Lorena had — quite obviously — been watering during her absence.
After several moments of appreciating the space, she slid into the leather chair behind her desk. For more than an hour, she sorted paperwork, read over résumés, and returned phone calls that Lorena had been unable to deal with. It was after ten thirty when she leaned back in her chair, swiveled slightly, and glanced out the window to enjoy the view of the forest beyond.
Then she screamed.
Outside her office, she heard Lorena shout, and the sound of a phone clattering onto the top of a desk or chair. Emily was staring out the window in horror when Lorena ran into her office.
"Emily, my God, what . . ."
"Out the window. At the edge of the lot, by the trees . . . do you see him?" Emily muttered and felt like she was babbling.
Lorena came over to the window next to her and peered out. Emily's heart beat wildly in her chest. She was afraid, for just a moment, that she was imagining it. That Lorena would see nothing.
Then the other woman said, "Jesus, who the fuck is that?"
She'd seen him, all right.
And somehow, that was worse.
Under the canopy of trees, Laughing Boy stood and stared up at the window of Emily Randall's office. His eyes were excellent, and he had circled the building searching the windows until he spotted her, about twenty minutes after she had first entered the building.
And now she had spotted him.
He began to giggle madly. He couldn't help it, really. Laughing Boy was a hyena after all, or part of him was. It wasn't even really a laugh, so much as a nervous, guttural response he could not control. And he was certainly nervous. He had been ever since he had first left Strangewood, first walked the Scratchy Path out to the world that Our Boy had come from. They had given him a job he didn't know how to perform. They wanted him to talk to her, to make her believe. Laughing Boy wasn't even really sure he knew why it was important, only that Fiddlestick and the others had said it was.
For the little one, Nathan, to come back, and for Our Boy to prevail, she was supposed to believe.
But Laughing Boy had screwed up. He'd frightened her at first, and how could they have thought she wouldn't be frightened? They ought to have sent little Tinklebum, or Fiddlestick ought to have come himself. But the bell-bottom was not stable, the dragon had said. And Brownie and Fiddlestick were needed in Strangewood.
It had to be Laughing Boy.
But he'd scared her. And she'd screamed at him and hit him and he'd cut himself crashing out her window.
Now he'd scared her again. Even now she was looking down at him from her office window. He'd been careless, come too far out of the trees, and now there were two women up there.
With a cackle of guttural laughter, he drew back into the trees and began to wind his way back through the forest. He would return to her town. To her home — or perhaps the hospital. He would simply wait until he could get close to her again, and then he would grab her, and tell her. Explain. He would make her believe.
A chill ran through him.
Laughing Boy wasn't just nervous anymore. He was a little scared. Time was passing too quickly, now. They'd told him to be quick about it, and already it had been days. He'd begun to realize that whatever it took, he was going to have to get close enough to her to make her listen. He might be a bit “tetched,” as Brownie always said, but Laughing Boy was no fool. He knew the woman was not going to listen by choice.
He would have to make her.
* * * * *
"That's extraordinary," the Peanut Butter General said, sticky-webbed eyes wide.
He stood next to Thomas, with Fiddlestick resting on his shoulder once more. Brownie and Tinklebum stumbled up behind them, the bell-bottom ringing loudly. The General wondered if they couldn't do something about that without killing the poor little fellow. He also wondered if Tinklebum wasn't going to turn out to be a liability in other ways. It was obvious, at least to the General, that the bell-bottom wasn't at all sane. He'd seen it before, the horror in the eyes of a soldier who'd seen too much.
They snapped so easily.
This was war. They couldn't afford to have Tinklebum announcing their arrival, or going completely over the edge at the wrong moment. It was one of many things he and Thomas would have to discuss before the attack. But for now, the sun would be down soon, and the attack would have to wait until the morning. They still had a ways to go before they would be in the foothills of the Bald Mountains. That was where they would make camp for the night.
Still, he could not have passed by this sight without pausing, at least momentarily, to appreciate it.
"It was here before I first visited," Thomas told him.
"It's . . .” the General searched for the word, a word he hadn't used in such a long time. Then he found it. "It's beautiful," he said.
And it was. A huge fountain of water pluming up into the air above a small lake, it was the source of the Up-River. From there, the water flowed uphill in a circle all around Strangewood, until it cut across the western edge of the wood and was forced up a water rise, and then on up into the mountains, where it finally tumbled off into the Misty Nothing.
"I believe the water goes into the Nothing and then pops up here again," Thomas explained. "Just part of the cycle."
"Indeed," the General said, studying the hundred-foot fountain. "And if that wasn't the explanation before your first visit, it became so when you started writing about it."
Thomas winced as if he'd been slapped. He looked penitent, an expression the General remembered well from his son's childhood.
"Is that how it works?" Thomas asked.
"You tell me," the General said and smiled amiably. He reached out and ruffled his son's hair. "You're the one who put me here, remember?"
That didn't help, though. It only made Thomas more sullen.
"Dad, I told you, I . . ."
"That's not what I meant, TJ," said the General. "Believe me, I never believed in anything . . . after. I wasn't much for religion, as I'm sure you remember. When you first came here . . .” and now it was the General's turn to grow somber, for he could not help but recall the circumstances of Thomas's accident.
He let his eyes drift back to the fountain. The others stood several yards away, so only Fiddlestick was privy to this conversation. And the dragon seemed to be doing his best not to pay attention. The General glanced at him, reached up, and stroked his leathery green wings with sticky fingers. Fiddlestick nodded once.
"When you first came here," he began again, "the doctors were sure you were going to die. I guess I always figured that somehow, Strangewood patched you up the same way this ridiculous peanut butter takes care of my injuries.
"From then on, it was a part of you in a way that made it impossible for your fates not to be intertwined. And then, when you started writing about it, well, that just changed everything."
Thomas glanced around, catching Brownie's eye. Tinklebum wasn't looking at anyone, but his eyes darted round and he seemed to be mumbling to himself. The General was growing even more worried about him.
"I'm glad I'm here, Thomas," the General said at length. "You saved me, in a way. Though I know you had no real reason to. I wasn't much of a father."
Though a part of him wanted desperately for Thomas to disagree, he didn't really expect it. And he didn't get it. Thomas remained silent, staring at the water spout. He was no fool. He knew there was love between himself and his son. But love didn't mean Thomas was going to lie just to assuage his guilt.