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Other People’s Kids

“The trouble with places like this,” said my sister Lenore, “is other people’s kids.”

Nick, Lenore’s third boyfriend ever and the coolest one yet, took a long sip of his coffee. “Other people’s kids?” he said mildly. “As opposed to your own?”

“I don’t have any kids right now, thank God.” Lenore sat down at the picnic table next to Nick. “But I had the worst time in the line. There were two little boys — must have been twins — who were playing this game of SCREAM, which is exactly what it sounds like. Their mom didn’t even notice.” She set down her cinnamon pretzel and jammed a straw into the top of her diet root beer. “On my way back, I saw a kid running around with his poopy diaper. I know it was a ‘he’ because he was holding the diaper over his head and yelling, ‘LOOKIT MY POOPY DIAPER!’”

“More SCREAM,” I said.

“With poop.” Nick smiled. He was so cool. “Kids are wacky,” he said.

Lenore shook her head. “Terrible. Look around! Other people’s kids are terrible!”

We looked around. The picnic common of Natch’s Highway Grill and Fun-Park was full of kids, other people’s kids, I guess, and yeah, they were all pretty terrible.

But why shouldn’t they be? Natch’s was located on the highway, exactly halfway between Carlingsburg and the Elbow Lakes tourist region, and today was exactly halfway through Labour Day Monday. So of course that meant that about a half of all the kids in Carlingsburg were on their way home from their family cottages. It was their last day of summer vacation, and each and every one of them knew that when they woke up in the morning they would be looking at just over three months before Christmas and their next scheduled good time. I myself had been facing this grim reality, along with the prospect of starting Grade Nine all but friendless in a high school whose main problem was too many cliques. So if these kids were a little hopped up on sugar and grouchy enough to fall down in the grass, kicking their legs in the air and screaming like the three-year-olds they were …

Hey, I could relate.

In fact, a couple of years ago I would have been one of those kids. We’d been stopping at Natch’s every summer since Lenore was a little kid and I was a baby. Dad used to joke that Oliver Natch’s old highway rest stop had grown up with me. When I was little, Natch’s was just a burger joint on the northbound side of the highway, nestled in a semi-circle of low rocky hills, and surrounded by a dark forest of big pine and cedar trees. I was too young to remember it like that, but one of our family pictures is of the four of us standing in front of the little restaurant — Dad with a big suntanned arm over Mom’s shoulder, Lenore holding me and giggling like an idiot while I grabbed her ear. I don’t know who took the picture — maybe Mr. Natch himself did it, because he probably spent more time there in those days.

These days, my Dad figured that Mr. Natch was too busy counting his money to spend much time at the Grill and Fun-Park. Over the years, he’d put in about fifty picnic tables, slapped up two separate dining buildings with their own washrooms, set up a lame amusement park with a little carousel and the CARLINGSBURG RAIL MUSEUM in an old train car. Sometime in the last ten years, he’d built a completely enclosed footbridge across four lanes of highway to a parking lot on the west side — so people coming south back to the city could stop at Natch’s too. Dad thought he must have bribed someone high up in the government to get permission to build the bridge across the highway like that. I didn’t know if he did or not but he certainly could afford to. The place was packed. It was so packed there were actually security guards, wearing blue shirts and carrying walkie-talkies and strange black wands, making sure nothing bad happened to Mr. Natch’s considerable investment.

“Okay,” said Nick. “I see what you mean.” He was looking at a table two over, where a four-year-old girl with pigtails had overturned her milkshake onto her brother’s french fries. Her dad, a big-bellied bald man in a Carlingsburg Panthers T-shirt, sipped at his own milkshake without seeming to notice. “If that were my kid, maybe I would want to strangle her.”

Lenore took a bite out of her pretzel. “Our kid,” she said, “would never do that.”

Lenore didn’t notice how Nick winced, but I sure did. Nick had been wincing a lot over the past two weeks he’d been at our cottage. He winced when she talked about how after graduation next year, the two of them would apply to the same college. He winced when she talked about how before college, the two of them could audition for spots on the Up With People tour and spend the whole summer criss-crossing the United States spreading cheerful songs and right-thinking values to those “less fortunate” than Lenore. And he particularly winced when she would go on and on and on about all the things they’d do together after college. I wasn’t surprised one bit when Nick offered to drive me back to the city along with Lenore, to give my parents some “alone time.” “Alone time” was something he and Lenore had altogether too much of over the past two weeks.

“Hey!” The boy across from us got up, one soggy vanilla-flavoured french fry in his hands. His sister stuck her tongue out at him. “You little rat!” he shouted.

“Don’t call your little sister names,” said their father as he sipped at his milkshake and looked off into the distance, and the little girl smiled. “Don’t call your little sister names,” she said in a sing-song voice that was designed to be irritating. Then she crossed her eyes and turned over to look at us.

“Fezkul,” she said.

I leaned forward, trying to figure out what she was trying to tell me. But she wasn’t trying to tell me anything. Someone answered from behind me:

“Good girl, Blair. You are a rocking kid.”

The voice sounded like a little boy — a little boy leaning right over my shoulder. I turned around, and for an instant, I saw him: a kid wearing low-slung jeans and a baseball cap, an oversized T-shirt and a big smile.

It was a smile with rows of saw-teeth. It made him look like a shark.

“Holy crap,” I said. But then I blinked, and he was gone. Or I’d dreamed it. Or he was just gone. I shook my head.

The little girl giggled and clapped: “Fezkul!” she said. Her dad set his cup down on the table and looked at his watch.

“We should get back on the road,” he said. “Your mother’ll have my neck.”

The girl stopped giggling and her face fell. “No!” she said. “Wanna go see Fezkul!”

She pointed across the picnic ground to the woods.

Her father made to protest, but she hollered back that “new daddy” would let her and just like that, he gave in.

“Weird kid,” said Nick.

My sister shook her head. “She’s not weird. She’s manipulative. Her poor dad’s probably just got them for the weekend, and she’s probably been holding that ‘new daddy’ line over his head the whole time.” She looked up into the clear blue sky overhead, as if asking God to back her up. “Divorce is so terrible. Let’s never get divorced, Nicky.”

“Um,” said Nick.

“What’s with Fezkul?” I said.

They both turned to look at me. “Who?” said Lenore, and Nick said, with a certain amount of relief in his voice: “Fezkul. That’s what she said. I couldn’t make it out. You got a good ear, bro.”

“Fezkul,” said Lenore. “It’s probably some character off the Cartoon Network. Or out of one of your Dungeons and Dragons books.” Lenore was forever dissing my Dungeons and Dragons books. “Kids.”

“Sure.” I nodded like I agreed with her, but I didn’t buy it for a second. I couldn’t get the picture of that weird kid with the creepy smile out of my mind. That kid was no cartoon character.

“I got to go to the bathroom,” I said.

“All right,” said Lenore. “But don’t take too long. Tomorrow’s a school day.”

“Do what you got to do, bro,” said Nick as I got up and hurried off to the main building.

I didn’t have to do anything, at least not in the bathroom. But I did have to go. There was something about that kid Fezkul; something about his voice, those teeth. I figured it must have been an optical illusion, those rows of shark teeth, but still …

I was having what my dad called a curiosity attack. Ever since I was two, these attacks would come on with varying intensity and they would cause me to do all sorts of things which, looking back, seemed pretty stupid: climbing telephone poles; sticking my head through metal grating; one time, eating a bug. Dad told me that this curiosity disease would — how did he put it? — “Doom you to a life of journalism” (which is what he did before he quit the newspaper and went into web design) “if it doesn’t get you killed first.”

What can I say? It’s a sickness.

I started my search for Fezkul at the museum, and checked out the kids standing in line. There were only five of them, and twice as many parents. None of them looked like a Fezkul.

So I headed for one of the dining buildings. It was nice out, so there weren’t very many people inside, just a couple of clusters of senior citizens who looked at me nervously while they munched on Natchie Burgers. A teenager in a bright orange Natch uniform was busy mopping up an immense puddle of something in the middle of the floor. There were some old video games — which struck me as the kinds of things that might attract a kid like Fezkul — but no. I nodded at one old woman, who nodded back and looked away, and stepped around the puddle, and so it was that I left the dining hall. Rather than try the other one, I figured I’d head for the heart of Natch’s Highway Grill and Fun-Park — the place where it had all started: The grill house.

“Hey, Fezkul,” I said as I headed across the gravel to the old, glassed-in former donut shop where Mr. Natch worked his barbecue magic on squashed balls of ground beef and pepper. “Fezkul Fezkul Fezkul,” I whispered. “Fezkul.”

Now I remember some fairy tales where if you say the guy’s name five times, he shows up like magic. Rumplestiltskin comes to mind. Or the dude in that old Clive Barker movie, Candyman.

That is not exactly what happened when I said ‘Fezkul’ five times.

I was just about to step up to the door and worm my way inside, when I felt the hot, sweaty hand of authority on my shoulder.

“Where’s your parents, kid?”

I turned around and found myself looking into the glaring, stubble-covered face of — I glanced down at his nametag — Tom Wilkinson. His nametag was pinned on the left pocket of his blue security guard uniform. He did not look friendly, and he looked even less friendly when I answered: “I don’t have any.”

I know that’s not entirely true. I have two perfectly good parents and I love them to bits. But you have to understand: my parents weren’t here and I was with my sister and her boyfriend on the way back from the cottage to start school, and it was a lot easier to say I didn’t have any parents because that was partway true right at the moment and … and …

I panicked, all right? And it was a bad time to panic. I admit it.

Tom Wilkinson struck me as that kind of security guard who’d gotten into the business after giving a really good try at being a policeman and somehow not measuring up. Maybe he didn’t make the academy because he was too fat (which he was) or because he wasn’t bright enough (which from the look in his tiny squinty eyes suggested he might not have been) or because he was just too evil for police work and had flunked the evil detector test.

As he turned me around and held up the weird little wand that they all carried close to my face, I was pretty sure that the evil detector test was what had got him.

“You,” he said slowly, “are coming with me. Punk.”

I had to walk fast to keep up with Officer Tom as we made our way through the line and around the back of the grill house. There was an old, broken dumpster out back — the lid didn’t close properly, and the sides were kind of bent out. Beside it was a big metal door that said OFFICE on it, and I guessed correctly that that was where we were going. “Inside,” he said as he swung the door open.

“Look,” I said, “I was kidding about not having parents.”

We were not in an office, but a little hallway. Ahead was a pair of swinging doors that led to the grill — I could smell the seared meat and deep fryer from here. But there was another door, also marked OFFICE. This one was actually the top of a metal stairway that went down two flights. “Down,” said Officer Tom. I did as I was told, feeling terrible. At the bottom was another door, with OFFICE written on it. I was beginning to feel like the whole OFFICE thing was an elaborate joke. But this time, when we went through, there was an office. The room was walled in painted cinderblock, like a school hallway but without any lockers. In the middle was a lime green desk with a laptop computer plugged into a power bar big as a two-by-four. Seated behind it was a skinny man, who was sipping from a big bottle of water. He peered over it, first at me, then at Officer Tom.

“Yes?” he said.

“Mister Natch,” said Officer Tom, “this kid knows Fezkul.”

So this was Mister Oliver Natch. I thought back to when I was a kid — a real kid — to see if I remembered him. With his high forehead, curly blond hair and wide, expressionless eyes, you’d think I would have. But he didn’t register. Mr. Natch nodded quickly and set his water down by the computer. And he knew about Fezkul.

“Does he?” he said, then turned his gaze on me. “You’re one of Fezkul’s? You seem old.”

“I’m fourteen,” I said.

“Hmm. That is old.” He looked back at Officer Tom. “That is old, Wilkinson. Why are you wasting my time?”

Officer Tom’s mouth opened and closed, and he blinked. I thought that Natch might be doing something to Officer Tom’s airway, like Darth Vader did in that old Star Wars movie. He looked like the sort of guy who would do that.

“He-he was saying his name,” said Officer Tom. “A bunch of times. I thought — ”

“Yes.” Mr. Natch looked at him like he was stupid, which was a good way to look at Officer Tom. “You should be back on patrol,” said Natch. “You know what day it is.”

Officer Tom nodded. “You want me to find this kid’s parents?”

“Back,” said Natch, “on patrol. I’ll talk with the boy a moment.”

Officer Tom left, muttering under his breath: “Patrol. Like I ever see anything on patrol.” Although I never would have thought it, I was sad to see him go. Mr. Natch tapped quickly on his computer keyboard, squinted at the screen, and looked at me, hard.

Fezkul,” he said finally, then said it again, more slowly. “What’s a boy like you, doing saying Fezkul on a fine Labour Day Monday like today?”

It was time to start telling the truth. “I heard a little girl say it,” I said. “And then I saw another kid.”

Natch nodded.

“Another kid. With sharp short teeth in his mouth and in his eye a mischievous glint? A glint that sometimes glows with inner hellfire?”

Something in Mr. Natch’s own eye told me that my telling-the-truth idea was not a good one to stick to.

“I dunno,” I said.

Mr. Natch looked very serious and he leaned forward. “I don’t think that’s true, now,” he said. “Do you? What did you say your name was?”

I don’t know why, but I thought then about movies and books where you told someone your name and it turned out they were a wizard and they had power over you. So I said “Stan,” not Sam.

“Well, Stan,” said Mr. Natch. “Are you enjoying your day here? At the fun park?”

“We’re just stopped here for a bite,” I said.

“Hungry work,” agreed Mr. Natch, “driving south.”

I shrugged —

“And you saw Fezkul.”

— and shrugged.

Mr. Natch’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t buying it, I could tell. But I wasn’t ready to ’fess to anything either.

“Come around here, erm, Stan. I have something I want you to see.”

I went around the desk and looked at the computer screen. There were pictures on it — pictures that looked like they were from security cameras, maybe during a big riot. Except the rioters weren’t guys in bandannas; they were little kids. There was one where it looked like a dozen kids were crawling all over an SUV. One of them was bending its antenna at almost a right angle, and another one was standing on top of the cab, holding what looked like a torn-off side view mirror over her head like it was a bowling tournament trophy. There was another one where three kids were hefting one of the RAIL MUSEUM’s signal posts between them while a bunch of others watched on. Another showed five kids at a dumpster behind the grill house, lifting what looked like a barbecue propane tank into it. One of the kids had a long barbecue lighter and was flicking it.

“Well?” said Mr. Natch. “Recognize anybody?”

I shook my head.

“Those pictures,” said Mr. Natch, “are from one year ago today.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Yes. Wow.” He put his hand on my shoulder. It felt like a tree branch. “And it’s nothing, I fear, compared to what’s in store this year. Now, Stan. Look more closely.” And with that, he pushed me closer to the computer screen. “Recognize anybody?”

“I am not comfortable with you touching me, Mister Natch,” I said. This is what I had been told to say if anyone touched me in a way I didn’t like, and it had the effect I was looking for. Mr. Natch took his hand off my shoulder and apologized with a grunt.

But I barely heard him.

Because I did recognize somebody in the picture. Not any of the five kids — they could have been anybody. But standing just in the background was a boy, wearing oversized jeans and a baseball cap.

And he was moving.

I leaned closer. The kid was far enough back that he was just a collection of pixels — I couldn’t make out his face or even what was written on his baseball cap. I certainly couldn’t see his teeth. But I could see that he was sort of moving from side to side, like he was walking. He was also getting bigger.

“You do recognize someone,” said Mr. Natch. “You can identify him.”

The kid walked past the kid with the lighter, patted him on the shoulder, and came up right to the camera. He smiled — right at me — with those shark teeth in his mouth that looked just so cool on Mr. Natch’s laptop screen — and he opened his mouth, and whispered, like it was right in my ear:

Dude. Use the water.”

“Which one,” said Mr. Natch. “Which one is Fezkul?”

On the power bar.”

Those teeth … They were so cool.

“Him?” said Mr. Natch.

It will totally rock.”

That was when things got kind of foggy. I remember grabbing the water bottle, which was about half full, and sort of pouring it — yeah, probably on the power bar that was right beside the laptop. There were some sparks, and some yelling, and the air smelled sharp. I remember being under the desk for a second, then opening a door, then running up stairs. I might have been in a kitchen for a second and I might not have. The next thing I knew for sure, I was leaning against the dumpster out back of the grill house. I was laughing and grinning and I don’t think I’d ever felt better. It was like I was a little kid again, with the summer holidays and Christmas and Halloween — especially Halloween — all spread out before me.

“You rock, kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” I said and looked up.

The kid with the shark teeth was looking back at me. He was standing not two feet off, hands in his pocket and hat cocked high on his forehead. He was grinning.


“Maybe not,” he said. “Maybe sure. Whoever I am, one thing I know: you want to get out of here. Soon as old Natch finishes up with his fire extinguisher, he’s going to be after you.”

I pushed myself off the dumpster and it made a bong and a rattling sound.

“That dumpster hasn’t been right for a good year,” said Fezkul appreciatively. “A propane explosion can do a lot of damage.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “C’mon, kid. I like your style.”

And then he took off for the trees. Without even thinking about it, I followed him. Sure — part of me was worried about leaving my sister and her boyfriend without saying anything. About following this shark-toothed kid who’d talked to me from a JPEG on a computer screen. But you know what? That wasn’t the part of me that was in the driver’s seat. It was the part that was responsible for my curiosity attacks.

He was hard to keep up with. He scrambled up a tumble of bedrock like he was a mountain goat, then took off through some low ferns at just about a sprint. The woods got dark quickly beyond the Fun-Park, and the closeness of the trees made it very quiet. Soon we were running over bare earth, with just a couple of rocks here and there to trip me up. Fezkul finally stopped, in a little circle of trees. I pulled up, gasping for breath.

“I like your style,” he said again, nodding as he spoke. “You’re big … big for a kid.”

That, I have to admit, got me going. He was starting to sound like my sister Lenore, who wouldn’t tell me about The Sopranos or let me ride in the front seat. I glared at him. After all, Oliver Natch had just got finished strongly implying I was too old. “Don’t call me a kid. I’m going to be in Grade Nine tomorrow.”

Fezkul grinned, put his fists on his hips. “‘I’m going to be in Grade Nine tomorrow,’” he mimicked, making his voice all high. “Maybe tomorrow you will. But today — ” he smirked at me “ — today you’re here. You heard me, and you saw me. So live in the moment, Sammy: you’re a kid. Yet — ” and here, his grin got wider, “you’re big. Big as I got, today.”

He started walking around me, nodding and nodding, and I kept glaring at him until he got behind me and I couldn’t see him. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re big.”

“All right,” I said. “so I’m a big kid. Who are you? What’s with the teeth?”

I waited for him to come around in front of me. “What’s with the teeth?” I looked over my shoulder. Fezkul wasn’t there. I looked around in front of me again, in case he’d hurried there, then back again.

“Fezkul?” I hissed. “Kid? Whoever you are? Where are you?”

There was nobody. He’d taken off. Where, though? My curiosity was getting seriously cranked. The trees here were huge. I counted, and saw that five of them made a circle around this space that would have been a clearing if it weren’t for the long branches of those five trees. They made kind of a dome in here.

“So the thing you got to wonder,” said Fezkul, who suddenly appeared at my elbow, “is what can you do before you stop being a kid?”

“How did you do that?”

Fezkul wiggled his fingers in the air and said, “‘What’s with the teeth?’” in that high voice of his. Then he laughed. “So you’re big — you’re also bright enough to ask me questions. This I like. See most of these kids — you show them the way, they just get all giggly and stupid. Do what they’re told. Cut loose.”

“You tell those kids to cut loose. You take me to this place. What are you — ” I looked around, putting it together “ — some kind of a forest spirit?”

Fezkul snorted. “You watched Lord of the Rings one time too many, kid.”

“Well — ” I motioned at his freaky teeth, waved at the canopy “ — come on! Look around you.”

Fezkul put his hands in his pockets and sneered. “‘Some kind of forest spirit.’ How imaginative. Ummmm — no. Look. Let’s cut to the chase. You’re big. You’re smart. You were good in there with the water and the power bar and you’re pretty fast on the run. I repeat my question: what can you do before you stop being a kid?”

It’s funny. The first time he asked me that, I just let it roll off me. The second time, though, got into me:

What was I going to do?

Tomorrow, I’d start Grade Nine, which was at the end, really, of my kid-ness. The teachers in Grade Eight at William Howard Taft Elementary School were forever reminding us of this: You get to Grade Nine, boys and girls, it’s a whole different world. You’re going to be expected to start acting like young men and women. You’re going to have more homework and you’ll be studying for exams, and the things that you do will have consequences that will carry on for the rest of your lives.

Consequences. The rest of your lives.

They didn’t even get to the whole question of cliques, and already most of us were pissing ourselves with fear.

And for all that, they never asked us the basic question:

What will you do with the rest of your childhood?

And when you’re done with it, what will you be left with? A world like Lenore’s? All your days spent tense and fretful, thinking about getting married and having kids, believing Up With People is cool, finding the trouble with everything?

“Makes you dizzy, doesn’t it?” said Fezkul. “It’s like a — what would we call it? A tween-life crisis. But it’s not like middle age. You can’t exactly buy yourself a sports car and get yourself a mistress, can you?” I swore at him, and he said, “Oh, very adult, in an NC-17 way. That won’t cut it, but this might.”

“What might?”

Fezkul leaned forward, took a breath and opened his hands.

“Set fire to the grill.” Fezkul grinned wider. “Don’t let anyone escape.” His eyes took a fire to them — that mischievous fire that Mr. Natch had seemed so interested in.

“Kill Natch,” he said. “Kill him dead.”

“What?” I took a step back. Those teeth were so sharp, and they seemed like they were getting sharper. “No way.”

Fezkul shrugged and laughed. “Just kidding, kiddo.”

But I could tell that he wasn’t. And looking at me, I think he could tell I could tell that he wasn’t kidding, because his smile went away and he got a strange, desperate look in his eye that put out the fire like a splash of cold water.

“Really, dude,” he pleaded. “Big joke. No one’s going to burn down — hey!”

I was already running. I’m curious, sure — but curiosity has its limits. One of those limits was meeting a strange kid with pointed teeth who tried to talk me into burning down a crowded restaurant and killing the man who built it.

So I ran. I took off through the trees in the direction I thought I’d come. At that point, I figured there was nothing better than for me to get back with my sister and Nick, get into Nick’s car and get back home in time for school. I’d deal with the cliques and the consequences and the possible loss of my precious childhood — which I was getting pretty tired of anyway, truth be told.

I was also scared. This forest was pretty thick, and if Fezkul was some kind of forest spirit he could probably get me turned around so I’d be running in circles around the same tree until I fell down and died. But as I went further I could see that big highway overpass through the trees, and I realized: getting me lost wasn’t Fezkul’s game. Fezkul wasn’t the kind of forest spirit that got you lost in the magic wood.

Fezkul was the kind of forest spirit that made you do bad. Sort of like a gangsta-rap Pied Piper. He’d almost gotten me — no, scratch that: he had gotten me, for a minute there when I spilled the water on Oliver Natch’s power bar, then ran out of the door.

He’d gotten me, and I’d gotten away.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I ran through the woods, towards what I hoped was the noise of Natch’s Grill and Fun-Park, and not some evil forest trap for boys who didn’t like Fezkul’s tune.

It was some noise. There was a sound of shouting and screaming and laughing — a lot of laughing. It sounded like a lynch mob on a sugar high. There was a loud cracking sound, like timber snapping — then silence, and a big giggly cheer, followed by an even louder crash.

With that, I stopped running and started sneaking. The cheers following crash number two had a sound to them that I didn’t like — they were high and hysterical and maybe just a little bit crazy. It was the kind of cheer that could take pleasure in anything — even burning down the grill house and murdering Oliver Natch.

I was coming up to the ferns through which I’d chased Fezkul then, and crouched down behind a big boulder all covered in lichen. There was more noise coming closer. I could hear cheering and shouting — most of it high-pitched — but one voice that was a little lower. It sounded like this:

“Help! Toddlers! Ravening horde! Gah!”

Like that.

And then, crashing through the ferns like a rogue elephant, came the person I was least hoping to see (next to Fezkul and Oliver Natch):

Officer Tom Wilkinson.

He was a bit of a mess now. His shirt, which had been a perfect black, was now slick with different kinds of stains and colours: ketchup, mustard, what looked like chocolate milkshake. It would have been funny looking at the mess on him, but that wasn’t all of it. He was holding a cloth to the side of his head, and the cloth was soaking through red, and he was stumbling.

I stuck my head up. I could hear his pursuers, but I couldn’t see them yet. I thought about it for just a second, before I waved at him and said: “Hey. Over here.”

He stopped at that, then his eyes narrowed as he saw me and figured out who I was.

“You,” he mumbled. “You are in a world of trou — ”

He never got the “ble” out. Because having stopped, he got really unsteady on his feet. Then he fell over into the ferns.

Even if you’re big for your age, like I am, let me tell you this: it’s not easy pulling a 200-pound-plus security guard through ferns and in behind a set of boulders, particularly when there’s a ravening horde of toddlers on his tail. You can do it. But easily? Ha. I laugh. We’d barely made it into the rock’s shadow before the ferns started to shake and quiver and the horde came through.

From where we were crouched, you couldn’t see more than the tops of their tyke-y heads, and the two-by-fours and golf clubs and baby canoe paddles that they were waving around like banners. With their little legs they were slow — which explained how Officer Tom had gotten away from them, injured as he was — and being pre-schoolers, they weren’t particularly thorough. A couple of years older and another foot higher, and one of them might have spotted the trail of broken ferns I’d left dragging Officer Tom to the boulder. As it was, they made their way past us and into the deeper woods chortling and gurgling and swinging their sticks in the air.

When they were gone, I leaned over Officer Tom Wilkinson. He was blinking groggily, his hand back over the little cut in his cheek.

“You,” he said.

“Me,” I agreed.

“Mister Natch,” he said, “told us to shoot you on sight.”

“Shoot me?”

Even for Oliver Natch, that seemed extreme, and Officer Tom confirmed it: “Figure of speech. We don’t get guns. Just these — ” he slapped at his belt “ — stun wands.”

I looked at his belt. There, in the loop, was a gleaming black wand, about a foot long.

“It’s got a battery,” he explained, “and it gives you a little electric shock — well, a pretty big electric shock. Completely non-lethal, but it stops you dead. Well, not dead. But you know what I mean.”

I looked at the wand and the wound on his head. “So why didn’t you use it to protect yourself?”

Officer Tom gave me a pained look. “I know,” he said. “But what was I going to do? They were little kids!”

I shook my head. Pathetic, I thought, and he nodded. “This was not my first career choice, you know.”

“Didn’t make it into the police academy?”

Officer Tom snorted. “You think that was it? Of course you do. Fat loser security guard working Labour Day at the Fun-Park. Must be a frustrated police academy wannabe because who else would be enough of a loser to get a job like this.”

“No no,” I started, but I must have sounded as insincere as I felt, because he said:

“It’s okay. I get it a lot.” He sat up and leaned against the rock.

“So what did you want to be?” I asked.

“You’ll laugh,” he said, and when I promised I wouldn’t, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. It had a picture of a dragon, and an email address, and the title: TOM WILKINSON: GAME CONSULTANT. I raised an eyebrow, and he nodded.

“A game designer.”

“What — like Monopoly?”

“No.” He looked at me solemnly. “You ever play Dungeons and Dragons?”

I grinned. The dragon on the business card made sense, and all of a sudden I liked Officer Tom a whole lot better. “I, ah, have some friends who do.”

In fact, what few friends I had played Dungeons and Dragons and so did I. That year, I had a 10th-level paladin named Honorius Pyurhart who in June had single-handedly mopped the floor with the green dragon guarding the time portal at the bottom of the Labyrinth of Flies. I hadn’t played since my family had headed off to the cottage, and I despaired of ever running old Honorius again: the dungeon master, Neil Hinkley, was going into Grade Seven and so wouldn’t be joining me at high school for another year. “Are you a gamer?”

Officer Tom nodded miserably. “Yeah,” he said. “I was voted best dungeon master two years in a row at GenCon.”

“Cool,” I said. The weekend convention at GenCon was the Las Vegas for Dungeons and Dragons. One day, one day …

“I even got one of the game designers at Wizards of the Coast to look at my dungeon,” he said. “But they said it was too — what was the word? Avant garde. That was it. Avant garde. Can you believe it?”

“Shocking,” I said.

“So I work security. The only magic wand I got — ” he slapped his belt “ — is this one.”

“That sucks,” I said.

“And how.”

We sat quietly for a moment, him pushing his handkerchief against his cheek, me leaning against the rock.

“What’s going on out there?” I finally asked. “In the Fun-Park?”

“Pandemonium. That’s what. The kids are everywhere. About a dozen of them managed to push over a swing set. They’re shouting and swearing and knocking over garbage cans, and just like always, their parents don’t do a thing. I tried to stop them, and they just formed into a posse.” He lifted one foot and pointed at it. The boot, I saw, was undone, and one side of the lace had a broken bow on it. “Two of them tied my bootlaces together. I fell over and that’s when I hit my head.”

“And their parents didn’t do a thing.” I thought about little Blair, who poured a milkshake on her brother’s fries and her father, who wouldn’t do anything about it. I thought about the photographs that Mr. Natch had on his computer, of kids blowing up garbage cans and knocking over signs and vandalizing cars. There weren’t any parents in those photographs.

“That,” I said, figuring it out, “is the other part of Fezkul’s powers. The kids — what they do — they’re, like, invisible to parents.”

“Maybe to their parents. But not to me,” said Tom, fingering the wound in his head. “That’s one of the reasons Mr. Natch keeps me on — I can sort of see when kids are getting ready to misbehave here. Most people can’t. Even if they’re not parents. Not on Labour Day.”

“What’s so special about Labour Day?”

Tom sighed. “It’s the day that everything goes crazy here,” he said. “For the past five years. Ever since Mr. Natch put up that walkway over the highway. I only came on last year, but I hear it’s been getting worse every year. Last year, some kids blew up the garbage dumpster. And this guy — Fezkul — is behind it all. God knows what he’s got planned this year.”

I thought about my conversation with Fezkul just a few minutes earlier: Burn down the grill, he’d said. Kill Natch.

“Something pretty serious,” I said. “Do you have any idea why he’s doing it?”

“According to Natch,” said Officer Tom, “he just hates people with the gumption to succeed. He just hates America.”

“So, no idea.”

Officer Tom smiled. “No idea.”

“Why doesn’t Natch just shut down? It’s just for one day. He could open up again on Tuesday.”

“You met him,” said Officer Tom. “You think Oliver Natch is the kind of guy to back down? He just hires more security every year. It’s like a holy war for him.”

“That’s just whacked.”

“Tell me about it.”

We sat there quiet again. Officer Tom peeled some lichen off the rock and sniffed it. “So you really don’t have any parents, Stan?”

“Sam — that’s my real name. Not Stan. And I do have parents. I’m just not here with them. I’m here with my sister and — ”

I stopped.

I was here with my sister Lenore and her boyfriend Nick. They were waiting at the picnic table for me to come back from the washroom.

And they had been waiting a very long time, and I’d barely spared them a thought since I got hauled into Mr. Natch’s basement office, and with everything that was going on at the Fun-Park, who knew what kind of trouble they were in.

“Crap!” I said. “I completely forgot about them!” I turned to Officer Tom, desperate. “Are they okay?”

He dabbed at his cheek. “Should have told me about them. Should have told me your real name. I could have saved you a whole lot of trouble.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just after I left Mr. Natch’s office, this girl stopped me. She was pretty, yay high, kind of light brown hair down to here, wearing low-slung jeans and an Up With People T-shirt. Sound familiar?”

“Yeah, that’s Lenore. You nailed everything but pretty.”

“Well,” said Officer Tom, “she was looking for a kid called Sam. Not Stan. When I told her I’d picked up a kid called Stan she just threw up her hands and ran off.”

I slumped against the rock, feeling like a first-class jerk. Who knew what kind of trouble she was in?

“We have to find her,” I said. “And Nick. Come on.”

Officer Tom held up his hands. “No way. I got an injury.” He tapped his cheek. “And there’s no way I’m going back there. We should stay here. Wait for things to settle down.”

I looked at him. “You know,” I said, “Sam and Stan sound alike. You could have figured out that a missing kid you thought was Stan could have been called Sam. Then you could have told my sister what happened, and I’d be safe with her.”

He glared at me. “You saying that this is my fault?”

It was some glare Officer Tom could muster. But I wasn’t about to back down.

“It sure is your fault,” I said, “if you just sit here staunching your wound when there’s trouble that you could have prevented.” He didn’t say anything, so I went on: “A real gamer wouldn’t spend the whole adventure hiding behind a rock. That wound’s not more than one hit point’s worth if that — ”

Officer Tom held up his hands one more time. “All right,” he said. “Don’t pull that Lawful Good guilt trip on me. I get. I get.” He sighed, and cautiously stuck his head up over the edge of the boulder. “Okay, hero boy. Looks clear. Let’s go.”

It wasn’t much farther to Natch’s. But it seemed like we’d travelled to another country when we got there: the Sovereign Nation of Junior Kindergarten.

The place was a sea of little kids … if that sea were being kicked up by a monster big hurricane — the kind of hurricane that knocked over garbage cans and turned big picnic tables on their sides. The little kids ran this way and that, they screamed in high-pitched voices, and they tore at each other and property like wild beasts.

But inside that country, there was another nation that the hurricane didn’t touch. A proud, oblivious nation: the Country of Parents. They sat around what tables hadn’t been overturned, drinking their lattes and munching on their curly fries, talking to each other about the things that parents talked to each other about: getting back to work on Tuesday and the start of school and do you remember last summer when there was too much rain or it was so hot or as bad as this one, and hopefully winter wouldn’t be too long this year so they could get going on another summer soon …

We were crouched low on the top of the rise, and had a pretty good view of it all. But it wasn’t good enough to spot Nick or Lenore. It didn’t seem as though they were in either country.

“They wouldn’t leave, would they?”

“Your sister?” Officer Tom shook his head. “She seemed very responsible.”

Responsible.” I huffed. “That’s my sister all right.”

“Don’t give her a hard time,” said Officer Tom.

You just think she’s pre-tty.”

“Shut up,” he snapped.

I swallowed and looked around. “That,” I said, “wasn’t me.” Officer Tom looked at me, then drew a breath and put a hand on his stun wand. “Where?” he whispered.

“I don’t know where,” I said, “but I think I know who.” That sing-song, high-pitched taunt was unmistakable.

“Fezkul,” I said. “Quit dicking around.”

“Who’s dicking around?” Some ferns rustled about a dozen feet away. “I’m just saying. Officer Tom there just thinks she’s pretty. It’s all pretty pervy, you ask me.”

“Hey!” said Tom, aghast. “I didn’t — ”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said to him, still looking for Fezkul. “Where are you?”

“Where am I? Why, right in front of you, Poindexter.” There was a chuckle at my ear. “Whatsamatter? Can’t see me?”

I squinted. Nothing. I couldn’t see him — no matter how much I wanted to, there was nothing.

Then he laughed. “Of course you can’t see me. You’re losing it — growing up. Becoming dull. Right before my eyes. Already, you can’t see me any better than Officer Tom here. Soon as you give up Dungeons and Dragons for bridge or canasta or something, you won’t be able to hear me either. Oh, I’m tearing up at the thought of it.” Somewhere, Fezkul sniffed loudly. “You had such potential, kid. Such potential.”

“Where — ” I said, but he went on:

“Ah well. Maybe you can go on that Up With People tour with your loser sister. Know any good show tunes, Sammy?”

As he spoke, I thought I could see a shimmering, on top of a boulder that was shaped like a curled-over rabbit. I started toward it.

“Or should I say, Samuel. That sounds — so much more — adult. Samuel.”

“I’m not Samuel,” I said, and as I did, the shimmering started to resolve itself, and I felt another kind of shimmering in my belly. It was the feeling I got the first time I went to the end of the dock at the cottage, looked into the cold water that was deep over my head and thought: There is no way I can jump into that; younger, when my mom told me it was time to unplug the night light; and today, when I thought about the prospect of going into Grade Nine, friendless but for Neil and the rest of the William Howard Taft Elementary School Dungeons and Dragons gang who wouldn’t be in high school for one more year …

“I’m Sammy.”

And with the words, the shimmering came into focus: on the top of the rock, into the form of a kid: first, wearing something right out of a Dungeons and Dragons game — what looked like a doublet and hose, and for a second, with wings coming out of his back, and then in the baggy jeans, baseball cap and shark-teeth of Fezkul.

Fezkul clapped twice and grinned, teeth fanning out like a deck of cards.

It was not one of my proudest moments. I leaned over to Officer Tom and whispered: “I think I see him,” and I put out my hand and whispered: “Give me the wand. I’ll zap him,” and Officer Tom fell for it. Why wouldn’t he? After all, I’d just saved his life from the crew of psycho toddlers. And hadn’t we just bonded over our mutual love of Dungeons and Dragons?

So he was completely surprised when I flipped the switch and jammed it into his thigh. With barely a qualm at having tricked poor old Officer Tom, I switched the wand off, stuffed it in my back pocket and said to Fezkul: “I am ready, oh master.”

Or at least I think that’s what I said. I felt like I’d just eaten a whole birthday cake: the kind that little kids get, with the white sugar icing that’s about two inches thick and the soft sugary cake underneath. All my nerves were humming; the world seemed to be vibrating; I felt like I had to pee except that I didn’t have to pee at all. So it is possible that what I said was “Glar worngo. Foo.” However it came out, Fezkul seemed pleased. He held up his hands, shook them in the air and laughed like a midget mountain man.

Okay — it wasn’t just “not one of my proudest moments.” It was, up until that point in my life, the hands-down worst moment yet. I’d just betrayed my new friend Officer Tom’s trust. I’d pocketed a weapon that was, if not illegal, then certainly restricted. And I’d thrown in with Fezkul, the demon-child who had told me to set fire to a restaurant and murder its owner.

And that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was how good I felt about it all. Really good. The idea of arson and killing didn’t strike me as anything more than a lot of fun. I tumbled down the slope to the Fun-Park, an overgrown maniacal toddler with mayhem on his mind.

The little kids gathered around me almost as soon as I’d stepped onto the grass. This, I remember thinking, must have been what Honorius felt like when he made his Leadership roll and convinced those elves to follow him into the troll cave — like one bad-ass paladin, that’s what.

Oh, what to do? There were a few things that came to mind. If we could find more propane, we could just set it off in the grill’s kitchen. Although I wasn’t sure how to make it blow up without making me blow up too. We could fill a paper cup with root beer, put a lid on, then toss it into the deep fryer. The cold liquid in the hot oil would certainly be catastrophic — but would it go off, or just send hot oil everywhere? Dave Rigby had once tried to convince our dungeon master Neil that if you threw a sack of flour into a room, tossed in a torch after it and shut the door, everything would go up in a colossal flour explosion that could clear a whole dungeon level. Neil had said no way that would work, but who knew? It wasn’t like we’d gone down to his condo’s parking garage and tried it or anything …

“You’re thinking too much,” said the little pigtailed girl Blair. She pushed her way through the crowd and handed me a long barbecue lighter. “Fezkul said give it to you.” Her brother, whose french fries she’d ruined just a little while ago, nodded encouragingly from behind her as I flicked the lighter and looked at the little flame that popped out of the end. It was a happy flame and it filled me with gratitude that she would bestow such a gift on me. Having nothing else to give in return, I handed Blair the stun wand. She flicked it on. Her brother lurched and fell, and she squealed appreciatively.

And we were off.

At first, we moved like a well-coordinated Marine unit — or a company of elvish archers led by one totally wicked champion of good, maybe — wending through the tables and the still-oblivious parents toward the prize of the Grill. A bunch of older kids broke off to go play video games, but when I told them to stick to the plan, they came back like I was a drill sergeant, or Honorius the Paladin. Soon, we had the Grill House surrounded.

We were met by four security guards, who waved their arms and threatened to call our parents, but like Officer Tom, they didn’t have the stomach for a fight and they soon succumbed to Blair’s stun wand. We tied their shoelaces together, and then headed inside. In my head, I could hear Fezkul’s voice but I couldn’t understand the words anymore. Just the encouraging tone.

So in we went.

We tore through the washrooms, stuffing the toilets with all the tissue we could find and turning over the garbage cans; we pulled down fire extinguishers and turned the no-slip rugs upside down; we tried to break the fluorescent lights up above but even I was too short for that. Finally, we came out in the front, where there was a counter and a soft-drink dispenser and some grills.

It was magnificent. I could, I think, have taken it all the way. I could have found a sack of flour, burst it open, tossed a Jumbo-Sized root beer into the deep fryer, set off a tank of propane with the barbecue lighter.

God knows the kids were waiting for me to do it; in the back of my head, Fezkul was telling me, in a language that I was beginning now to understand, to do just that: “Blow it up. Destroy the old wizard. Kill him. Kill his minions. Blow it up, boy! You are the champion! Get it! Blow it up!” Something like sugar was itching through my veins and I was ready for anything.

Anything but what I saw, coming around the cash register with Blair at my side.

“It’s for the best,” said Nick. He was sitting on one of the little plastic chairs next to the window. Lenore was sitting opposite him, her hands in her lap. Her eyes were blank.

“I can’t believe it,” she mumbled.

Nick looked down and then up at her again. “You can’t say you didn’t see this coming.”

I moved closer. Lenore and Nick were as oblivious as any of the other adults — and as much a target. Blair raised the stun wand, aiming for Lenore’s belt-line. I put a hand on her arm, and she frowned at me but held off. I looked at my sister. Her eyes were blank, but I could see her mouth twitching, as she tried to think of some answer.

“What are they doing?” said Blair beside me.

“They’re breaking up,” I said. “Oh man.”

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Lenore. Her voice was low, a monotone. I’d never seen her like this. “Particularly not now — when we can’t even find my brother.”

Nick shrugged. “I know. It’s not the best timing. But Lenore — we’re just different people, you know? We want different things. And hey — your brother’ll turn up. He’s just goofing, I bet.”

Lenore nodded, not looking at him. She crossed her arms, covering the Up With People logo on her shirt and hunching her back like an old woman’s.

Nick leaned back and put his fingers in his front pockets and looked out the window. His head bobbed up and down, like he was listening to some tune inside his head. It was like Lenore wasn’t even in the room. It struck me then: Nick may have been Lenore’s coolest boyfriend yet, but that wasn’t the same thing as saying he was cool. He was lame. Totally, completely lame.

And Lenore was alone. She may have been a real dork in a lot of ways, but she was my sister, and she was alone, and she didn’t deserve that.

“I’m bored,” said Blair and she sulked. “You said we could start a fire.”


“I’m gonna,” said Blair, and at that, I turned to her. She was such a little brat. She raised the wand at me, and I looked her in the eye.

“Stop!” I shouted it, and she stepped back, like I’d slapped her. At the same time, the rest of the kids looked at me.

“Stop,” I said again. “Just stop.”

I stepped over to Lenore and put my hand on her shoulder, and she jumped, then looked at me. She smiled, in a happy-sad way that broke my heart. “Sammy,” she said. Her voice was broken. Nick blinked and looked over. “Whoa!” he said. “There you are. We been looking for you all over, bro.”

“Don’t call me that,” I said flatly, and Nick held up his hands.

“Whatever,” he said.

“You guys should get out of here,” I said to Lenore.

She blinked. “Why?”

I was about to say: look around! But as I looked around, I saw that wouldn’t do anything to motivate her. The place, as far as I could tell, was completely empty. There was just us, and a girl behind the counter in one of the orange uniforms who looked like she was swatting at bugs or something.

I didn’t see the little kids; they weren’t a part of this awful, adult world I’d stepped into. And I didn’t want to see the kids; I didn’t want to go back to that other world.

There were more important things here.

I gave Lenore a squeeze. “Let’s just go,” I said.

We met Oliver Natch in the middle of the bridge. He was leaning against the handrail, looking over the slowing traffic heading south to Carlingsburg. He didn’t look as sad or as terrible as he might have before. He looked up as we came and gave me a little smile.

“Come again soon,” he whispered as I passed near, and I said: “Not likely,” and he just shrugged.

“I can’t blame you, Stanley,” he said.

“Sam,” I said and he nodded.

Lenore stopped beside me. Nick had kept walking, and stood at the far end of the bridge, waiting for us. Clearly, he wanted to get the rest of the drive over as soon as possible. You couldn’t blame him — but of course we did.

Natch looked at Lenore. “Your sister?”

Lenore introduced herself.

“Lenore.” Mr. Natch gave a little bow — a courtly bow, as if from another age. “Oliver Natch. I am charmed.” And with that, he gave me a little wink. “Unlike your brother, I think.”

Lenore gave a puzzled frown.

“What are you doing up here?” I asked.

“What? I am doing what I do every year this day and time when I fail to convince Fezkul’s little champion to spill the beans. Waiting — waiting for the storm to pass.” He reached into his pocket, and pulled out an old-fashioned pocket watch. “Which, I think, should be nearly finished.” He craned his neck over my shoulder, and nodded. “Yes.”

At the base of the stairs, the door to the Grill and Fun-Park opened, and conversation wafted up: “Come on, honey, up the stairs — ” “ — museum was cool!” “ — how much longer to home?”

“So everything’s okay?”

Mr. Natch shrugged. “Reasonably,” he said. “There will be some cleaning to do. Perhaps a repair or two.” Then he looked at me levelly. “It might have been worse, if little Stanley had chosen differently.”

“Sam,” I said, and he said: “Sam.”

And at that moment, I felt a huge sadness, as I thought about everything I’d done — everything I’d taken part in. What I’d done to poor Tom Wilkinson.

“I didn’t,” I said. “He wanted me to ki — ”

Mr. Natch put up his hand and stopped me.

“You chose,” he said. “In the end, it is the choice that all the children make, when they sit at the cusp. They cannot go back — only forward.” And then, Mr. Natch smiled in a way that made me look away. “Oh! How it confounds him.”

Lenore looked at him and looked at me, then grabbed my shoulder and leaned close. “Come on,” she whispered. “This guy is creepy. And I just want to get home.”

“Yes,” said Natch, “you shouldn’t tarry. Tomorrow, after all, is a school day.”

We did tarry, just a bit. Lenore was in a whole lot less of a hurry for all of us to get in the car with Nick when we caught up so she put her hand on my shoulder and leaned close. “Wait outside a minute while I settle some things?” she asked and I said, “Sure.”

I sat down on the rear bumper and watched the door to the bridge. It was flapping open and closed as kids and their parents came through it, heading back to their own cars and minivans and SUVs, escaping the broken spell of Fezkul, and as they went I wondered: How long will that bridge stay up? How soon will it be before some kid takes Fezkul’s advice all the way?

And also:

How will I survive Grade Nine with all the cliques?

And then this lone guy came down the stairs from the bridge. I squinted to make sure it was who I thought it was. “Ha,” I said, and I pushed myself up and headed over.

Tom Wilkinson blinked at me as he pushed the door open and limped out onto the gravel parking lot.

“You find your sister?” he asked. I nodded and he said, “Good.” Then I extended my hand. He looked at it, shrugged, and took it in his own.

In the awful world of adults, some things are definitely harder. But some things are easier too, and this thing was one of those. So we just shook each other’s hands like a couple of grown-up gentlemen and I said, “All right then?” and he said “All right then,” and then I headed back to Nick’s car to finish the trip home.

Night of the Tar Baby | Monstrous Affections | The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions