A long, warm, furry paw lay across Nathan's face, and he whimpered and peed his pants, something he hadn't done in more than a year. A sharp claw scratched him, quickly, in the face, and he screamed, shrieking horribly.
"Kid could drive Christ off the cross," a low voice muttered nearby, the sound of thunder rumbling.
But Nathan wasn't listening. Nathan was screaming. He opened his eyes, breath coming in hitching gasps, as the wheelbarrow was lifted again and started to move.
"Boo!" Bob Longtooth roared, and Nathan's shrieking ratcheted up another notch. "Real enough for ya, brat?"
Then both of them were laughing again, and Nathan continued to scream, turning in the wheelbarrow to face away from Bob Longtooth. He could see Cragskull now, an inhumanly broad-shouldered, ugly man, shorter than Nathan's mother. His beard and hair long and dirty, his head split above the left eye and a foul-smelling steam coming from within.
Cragskull was always mean in the books, but he was stupid too. Stupid made him funny. But Nathan didn't think he was funny anymore. The boy whimpered, tears streamed down his face, and he kept moving around in the wheelbarrow until his feet were down the end near where Bob Longtooth was pushing. He sat up a bit, and his eyes darted around, taking in everything he saw.
It was Strangewood, all right. But it wasn't the Strangewood from his Daddy's books. Nathan thought they were on the Winding Way, a magical road that twisted all through the landscape of Strangewood. And it might have been . . . should have been . . . the Big Old Orchard, where huge apples trees grew, every one of them good for climbing and swinging. The giant apples were redder than licorice and juicier than any other apple ever dreamed of being. Something to brag about, in a world where apples probably did dream.
But it wasn't the Big Old Orchard. Not really. It looked like it might have been, a long time ago. But not anymore. The trees were twisted and dark, too scary to climb. Dangerous, even. And there were no more apples except for withered things all over the ground on either side of the Winding Way.
Nathan was just a boy, but he knew the smell of rotting fruit. And of shit. He could smell both from where he sat, though there was only a light breeze, and he tried hard not to breathe through his nose.
He wiped the tears from his eyes, still whimpering low in his chest without even realizing he was doing it. But Longtooth and Cragskull didn't seem like they were going to hurt him, as long as he kept his mouth shut. Not that it mattered; he was too scared to say anything else. Too scared to do anything except look around, in terror and in sadness.
It was like Strangewood was dead. As though somebody had killed it. If they kept going along the Winding Way, they would eventually come to the Land of Bells and Whistles, and then the Up-River, and Nathan didn't want to even think what might have happened to all the people who lived in those places.
Unless — well, there was always the possibility that he'd find someone who could save him from Bob and Cragskull. He looked around hopefully, scanning the ruined orchard for some sign that help might be coming.
"Don't even think about it, sssssson," Bob Longtooth hissed. "You belong to usssss, now. The bosssss has plansssss for you."
Nathan ignored the saber-toothed man as best he could . . . which wasn't all that well considering how frightened of Bob he was. He scanned the woods, listened to the orange-starred night, hoping for some sign that help was on the way.
That was when the screams started. There was a horrible, keening wail off to the right, deep in the deadwood of the Big Old Orchard. And Nathan smelled the sharp tangy scent of fresh oranges.
"Oh . . .” he said. "Oh . . . no, please . . ."
Cragskull clamped a hand hard on Nathan's mouth and held a knife to his throat. When he spoke, his gruff voice was a whisper so low Nathan could barely make out the words.
"They're not on our side," Cragskull whispered, and Nathan wanted to scream even more then. The creatures screaming in the forest might actually be able to help him, to save him from these others.
"They're not on your sssside either, brat," Longtooth added quietly, then they were all silent until the scent of oranges had gone away.
"The Orange Pealers aren't on anybody's side in this," Cragskull agreed. "They're just vicious little savages who smell good."
After a moment, Bob Longtooth picked up the wheelbarrow and started off once more. He and Cragskull were trying to be very quiet, and Nathan had the urge to shout again, but didn't. He wasn't even six years old, but he knew enough to be afraid of anything that the monsters themselves were afraid of.
They stared at him from time to time, and Nathan would only look away. He didn't like to look at them, didn't want to think about where they were or what had happened to this place. He was big enough to know that Strangewood wasn't real. At least, that's what his Daddy told him and his Daddy never lied. But maybe, he thought, just maybe Daddy didn't really know.
Nathan started to cry again at that thought; that and the smell of his pee soaking his pants, already starting to dry. If Daddy didn't know, then Daddy wouldn't be able to come and find him. Not ever.
And if Daddy couldn't find him in Strangewood, then nobody could.
"What the hell is he crying for, Bob?" Cragskull sneered. "I'd just started to like this quiet, and the kid's got to go and ruin it. I'm gonna crack his head like a walnut and suck his brains out like I'm at a cauliflower pie-eating contest."
"Bossss wouldn't like it, Crag," Longtooth grumbled. "You'd better not."
"You're really no fun," Cragskull said, but then didn't say anything else about eating Nathan's brain, or vegetable pies.
They talked about him like he wasn't there, which was okay with Nathan. He didn't want to be there and kept closing his eyes hoping he'd wake up at home, or teleport himself from here to someplace else, like he'd seen on just about every cartoon he'd ever watched, except maybe Scooby Doo.
There was another turn in the Winding Way, and suddenly, the sky brightened. He had a moment to hope the sun might come out, but then he heard the crackling. Smelled the heavy smoke. A fire was burning, and it was a big one.
Quickly, he reversed his position in the wheelbarrow again, and his belly felt sick when he saw the flames, roaring above a tiny village that once was round and brightly colored. The fire was all colors, too, the colors of the homes and shops and people . . . even the Melody Mill was burning, its balconies and ornate iron and woodwork blazing.
It was the Land of Bells and Whistles, and except for the roar of the fire, it was completely silent.
"Wow!" Longtooth whispered, stroking his whiskers and licking his long tusks.
"Ain't that a hoot!" Cragskull whooped with delight.
Heart drumming in his chest, Nathan realized the two creatures weren't paying attention to him for the moment. He had to go, and so he rolled on his side right out of the wheelbarrow.
"Hey!" Cragskull shouted angrily, his voice rising to a growl of fury.
But Nathan was already running as fast as his little boy legs could carry him, back down the Winding Way in the direction they'd come from. He didn't even remember what was back there, except maybe for Fiddlestick's cave, Grumbler's cottage, and the homes of some of the others. But it was enough that it was the opposite direction than Longtooth and Cragskull wanted him to go in.
"I've got him!" Longtooth snarled, and Nathan felt a tug on the back of his pajamas.
He kept running, heard Bob Longtooth curse behind him. His feetie pajamas slapped hard dirt and the tears kept rolling, but he wasn't going to stop. Nathan screamed loud and long, as if it would protect him somehow
"Brat!" Longtooth screamed.
"I'll kill you for making this such a pain in the ass!" Cragskull added, and Nathan almost slowed down when he heard that terrible, rumbling laugh. It took his strength away for a second.
But he didn't stop. He ran on. Rounded a corner and prayed that he would be able to find someone. He kept screaming for help, screaming for his father who would never find him here, and if his father couldn’t then nobody ever would.
He felt the hot breath of the saber-toothed man behind him, and then he heard Bob Longtooth roar and felt claws rip into his back and Nathan Randall nearly passed out from the pain and the shock.
Nathan lay on his belly in the dirt, praying to God that his mommy and daddy would come now. Come and take him home. Home wasn't really there anymore, not one home for all of them, but his room was still there. His room, where he was safe.
"I . . . want . . . my . . . Mom!" he huffed hysterically through pained sobs.
"Awwww," Cragskull said throatily behind him, above where Longtooth had pinned Nathan to the dirt, the dirt he could taste in his mouth. "Poor baby, wants his mommy! Come on, Bob, let him up."
Bob Longtooth whipped Nathan up quickly, claws on the boy's scalp and cheek, and shoved his face at Cragskull's horrible stinking, smoking head. Cragskull moved so that his crooked and rotting nose was close enough to Nathan that he could have . . . could have licked it, and Cragskull laughed again.
"We want your mommy, too, brat," Cragskull said. "If we can get our hands on that bitch, something that ain't as easy as it sounds, well, we'll just rip her fucking heart out and eat it, if it's all the same to you. This shit is almost as much her fault as it is anyone's."
That did it, pushed Nathan past the edge of hysteria so that he wasn't thinking anymore. Was barely breathing. The tears were gone, now, leaving only the screaming and the feeling that he was going to throw up if he didn't stop — and he couldn't stop.
And now he smelled oranges.
"Put the child down," said a wet and sticky voice that sounded close by his ear. "Put Nathan down and move away, you rogues. That's an order."
Longtooth dropped him to the dirt, and he and Cragskull stared up the hill behind Nathan. Painfully, his back still bleeding, Nathan rolled over and looked up the dirt path, the Winding Way, to see the horrible, melting form, the crumbling features and smoldering cinder eyes of the Peanut Butter General.
The General looked just like an old-time soldier in uniform, only covered in peanut butter and bees. When he opened his mouth, there were strings of peanut butter spun like spiderwebs from lip to lip.
Around his feet, chittering away, were four or five of the Orange Pealers, vicious little monsters like oranges with legs and huge needle-fanged mouths. The mouths opened, and the Pealers started to scream.
"We . . . we got him . . . fair an' square," Cragskull shouted bravely.
The Pealers screamed louder and started down the hill.
"The boy . . .” said the sticky voice of the General, ". . . is mine."
* * * * *
"Oh, God," Thomas said, staring down at the prone form of his only child on the hospital bed, machines beeping nearby telling him his boy was still alive.
The hospital staff had wheeled him into the room on a gurney, and his arms and legs had been splayed about as though there weren't a spark of life in him. The nurse had stripped Nathan, then put him in hospital pajamas. She'd had a bit of trouble tying the top behind his back, but eventually managed. Emily and Thomas had offered to help, but everything seemed to be happening around them, as though they were an obstacle, rather than the parents of the limp, lifeless little boy lying in that bed.
"Nathan," Thomas whispered.
Emily had been called out of the room. Apparently, she had a phone call. He could only assume it was the new boyfriend, whose name she hadn't even had the courtesy to tell him.
She should be here, he thought angrily. The rest of the world could wait. He didn't want to begrudge her a new life, but her real life, her child, needed her now. Her love life shouldn't even be on the priority list.
Something . . . odd, in the air. Something . . . a smell.
He smelled oranges.
The scent grew and grew until it permeated the whole room. Eventually, it had grown so strong that he couldn't help but be distracted by it. He moved about the room, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from, where it was the strongest. It baffled him, and finally, he gave up and moved back toward Nathan.
That's when he realized that the scent was coming from his son. Nathan smelled powerfully of oranges. Thomas was taken aback, deeply troubled by this peculiar phenomenon. He reached over the bed to press the button that would call the nurse.
There was a scritch-scratch at the window. Thomas spun, mind racing, and saw a flash of green and orange outside. But they were five stories up! Who could be . . . a pigeon or something, right? Then he heard flapping. Didn't he? Didn't he hear flapping, like a pigeon would make flying away?
And then music. Wind chimes. And the sound of someone playing a violin. A fiddle.
Or maybe just the music of a little dragon's wings.
A long sigh escaped Emily Randall's lips. She had stopped crying, but the wet tracks of tears remained on her cheeks, the slight tang of salt in the air. With all her might, she held on to Joe Hayes, closed her eyes, and savored the feeling of his strong arms around her. No matter how hard she tried, Emily couldn't draw him close enough.
Her heart was pushing him away.
Emily opened her eyes, looked up into Joe's. "You shouldn't be here," she said.
"I had to come, Em," he said, and looked at her with such concern and barely disguised pity that she immediately felt both grateful to know a man of such goodness and caring, and distrustful of such emotion from any man.
It didn't matter. He didn't belong. She had called him, just to tell him what was going on, to hear his voice, and frankly, because that was what one did. He was in her life. She loved him, at least a little. So she had called to tell him what had happened, told him she'd see him the next day, or evening.
But she hadn't expected him to come to the hospital. Joe had asked one of the nurses to tell her that she had a phone call, and when she left Nathan's room and went to the nurses' station, Joe had been there. She'd smiled and wept and held him and spoken with him in soft tones. But throughout their conversation, she felt a chill seep deeper and deeper into her flesh and muscle and bone.