Season of the Hyssop

Hieronymus didn’t understand why it snowed on scorching September days, but he and his tongue prized every crooked flake. They tasted like pollen and weren’t quite white, and they coated his chlorine-green hair as if his head were the core of a dandelion cloud.

The other 10-year olds in his neighborhood had grown so used to the color of his hair that they no longer made fun of it. He was simply Green. That’s what they called him.

By the time the first mothers in town began to get ill, Hieronymus and his friends had nearly completed their fort at the mouth of Deadman’s Tunnel. Hieronymus’ best friends Pizzle and Turq Mazursky and Fat Joey had helped him build the fort. It was a grand fort, erected with junk lumber tossed out by neighborhood dads who’d grown bored with summer renovations. Pine mixed with strips of maple was its walls. Solid oak was its floor. They had painted plywood and corkboard and nailed sheets of aluminum to this sturdy ceiling in the hopes of collecting sun beams in winter to keep them warm while their G.I. Joes pillaged beer carton villages peopled with Barbie dolls they had stolen from their sisters.

The day before Turq’s mother died, Hieronymus was in her bedroom, sitting on her bed next to his friend. Little flecks of dust whirled in the light around his green hair as Turq talked a lot and very quickly. Hieronymus had never seen Turq so talkative. Normally a quiet boy, Turq explained how his mother was strong and how she had been sick before and how this time she’d come out of it like the last time and the time before that. But the mothers of three other kids in the neighborhood had died in the last few weeks. Nobody knew why and everyone was afraid. They didn’t talk about it around the kids and the kids went about their business, torturing crayfish in the creek and ravaging spider webs beneath bridges.

The fort was where they met when their parents seemed dark and distracted with matters of death and fear. Deep within the woods, a river flowing beneath its raised floor into the mouth of Deadman’s Tunnel, the fort was where no business of darkness endured for very long. Even Turq brightened when in or near the fort, although after his mother died, he disappeared for many days, a required passenger on the train of his family’s mourning.

Summer was drawing to a close, the days hot and dewy, even when it snowed. Hieronymus had become a bit of a general among his friends. A couple of years earlier, his adoptive parents had told him how his birth parents died. He hadn’t known how to be sad about perfect strangers, so he spun a tale lousy with spies and fast cars and then raced to the woods to share that version of the story with his friends. Since then, the other boys, those who had lost their moms recently and those whose mothers had fallen ill, looked up to him the way boot-camp cadets look to the veteran of wars for signs of certainty. He didn’t mind. He didn’t have anything to offer them other than clever campaigns in the rocky hills above Deadman’s Tunnel, assaults and sieges with plastic rifles, die-cast pistols, and swords made from whatever lumber they hadn’t used building the fort.

Turq returned to them in the woods one day. Hieronymus held up his trash-can-lid shield and let out a well-practiced cease-fire cry. Pizzle and the other boys poured out of their hiding places, panting, stumbling over each other to greet their friend. Turq had been away for only a week, but they’d felt his absence as if from across years. He looked okay, normal. His hair was a mess, as usual. The rolled cuffs of his overlong jeans were uneven, as usual. He may have been paler than usual, but it was hard to say in the broken light through wind-blown trees. He may have been … smaller.

“Take up new arms, Turq,” Hieronymus said, extending a small dagger made of carefully chipped limestone he had tempered in a decoupage dip. Turq looked at this proud weapon, one of Hieronymus’ most closely held treasures. He seemed confused at first, but Hieronymus extended the blade, its duct-tape handle pointing in his friend’s direction. “Take it, Turq. Name it.”

The other boys watched in silence as Turq stepped forward and gently wrapped his small hand around the handle. Their lips were parted in a mixture of wonder and jealousy, for each of them had coveted the little blade Hieronymus had spent so many hours honing in the fort’s upper deck.

“What are you going to call it, Turq?” That was Pizzle, dancing back and forth from the left foot to the right. “Stormchaser!” he cried, pumping his fist at the air. “That’s what I’d call it.” “Blackstone,” another boy suggested.

Turq muttered something, his eyes still cast down at the blade in his hand. When he looked up and realized that no one had heard what he’d said, he said it again, the name of his blade.

“Ellen.”

No one laughed. Too many mothers had died. The boys nodded sagely, as if they had heard the most powerful term one could attach to a weapon.

Over the next two weeks, Hieronymus heard little harmonies in the wind. Clustering clouds from the north brought word of cold weather just a few weeks off, while the still-warm winds from the south kept mosquitoes content in their shallow slice of life two thumb nails above the creek’s surface. Turq kept close to Hieronymus, always at his side, or slightly behind him, tracking protectively as they slipped through the woods in search of safe places far from the crying and mewling of mothers on the edge of death. Turq’s father had started to leave the house earlier in the morning and return later in the night than ever before. Turq told Hieronymus that his old man had met someone new, probably not so new, probably someone he’d known while Turq’s mom grew pale, and withered and fell out of fashion with August. It was a woman Turq didn’t like. He’d seen her angular face only through the curtains, as she got in her Plymouth and puttered away while his father stood under a street lamp and faded like a phantom in the poof of her exhaust.

Hieronymus and Turq, more than any of the boys, grew closer, and spent more time together in the woods than with the others. Pizzle’s mother had been flown to a faraway hospital. The train of her family — including Pizzle — shortly followed, and like that, Pizzle was a parcel of memory waiting to happen to the boys left in his wake, an indelible montage of pizza crusts, sword fights, Saturday sleepovers, and pouty disagreements.

The fathers stopped repairing their garages. They stopped washing and polishing their cars. The gutters on their motherless homes grew cramped with branches and weeds, and water gushed over their edges when late-summer squalls hustled through on carriages of lightning and wind.

The fortress, sheathed in a summer’s worth of sphagnum and decaying peat straw, was immune to the ravages of coming autumn. Hieronymus and Turq had spent a few days wordlessly gathering materials from the woods that would allow them to hole up against the world. Hieronymus knew that autumn this year would be grayer than usual. With fewer burnt colors, an absence of umber and orange, something more like the dingy ochre one sees in an old piece of cheddar cheese. He had thought to stockpile knives and toy guns, for protection, but people were disappearing. Neighbors moving away, mothers hospitalized, fathers growing thin and disinterested. Even when they were drunk, the fathers didn’t seem to care, and certainly seemed to pose no threat. The world was growing thin outside the woods.

Turq suggested that they seal themselves in the fort and never come out, but Hieronymus couldn’t stomach the idea of feeling winter without seeing it. Of living in an envelope of his own visible breath without the joy of watching it frost a sheet across the glass of his bedroom windows.

“No,” Hieronymus said, in response to Turq’s ascetic recommendation. “We should just stay happy.”

Turq laughed when Hieronymus said this. Staying happy was Hieronymus’ theme song, it seemed, and Turq laughed at its implications.

“But I’m not happy,” Turq said on a particularly warm Thursday afternoon. It was one of those between-season days that boasted the qualities of each, too much of both and not enough of either. Turq’s toes curled across the creek’s surface, sending eddies toward the chilly little crevasses where crayfish imitated the rocks to which they clung. Sweat covered his brow, even though he wore a tattered scarf to ward off the moist wind.

“Why not?” Hieronymus asked. He squatted on a rock, snagging water grass on the edge of a stick as it flowed out of Deadman’s Tunnel.

Turq stood and flicked the toes of his left foot at Hieronymus’ face. Hieronymus intercepted the water spray with the palm of his hand and whipped it back at Turq. Back and forth, droplets flew in a prismatic arc over the creek as the two of them dismissed a dull question and instead danced in water and light.

When a cloud passed and the chill fell and water games were no longer amusing, Turq fell to his haunches and turned “Ellen” in his hands.

Hieronymus watched as if he had never seen the blade he had created. It gleamed in the milky light. He almost didn’t hear Turq say, “Your knife makes me happy.”

Their last neighborhood friend moved away with his grandmother two weeks later. It had been a noisy affair, sometime in the middle of the night. Hieronymus had slept through it, but Turq recounted the whole thing as they tied coils to Hieronymus’ music player, now powered by the same aluminum solar panels that kept the fort toasty well into October.

“You didn’t hear it,” Turq said. “There were a bunch of old ladies in station wagons, and a police car, and a squawking voice inside it like the one that comes from your shortwave.”

Hieronymus wondered what frequency that voice came from, but he didn’t interrupt as Turq continued.

“Fat Joey got into the back of that car like he was a gangster criminal. His mother was in a wheelchair with a tube in her neck and her nose and another one in her leg, and she rolled down the driveway and yelled, you didn’t hear that?”

Hieronymus shook his head as he flipped the toggle that powered his new music player. From it blared a song his long-dead mother had loved. It was one of those old band songs with guys in suits who sat on a dais with their pencil moustaches and puffed their cheeks into French horns and clarinets while a handsome man with rubber moves waved his hands to keep them all in concert.

Since the start of summer, when the mothers started getting ill and later dying, or being taken away to die, Hieronymus paid less and less attention to the agony of grownups. He was now tone deaf to the sound of sobbing, sometimes unable to tell the difference between a heartbroken husband sputtering into his drenched fists and the rare burst of laughter that most often came from a TV. Up the hill, near the crown of the woods, where their refuge stopped and the streets and houses spilled across endless dunes of yellowing lawn, the air was different. The exchanges of grownups were muted by bedroom walls. Grim conversations behind the tinted windows of 4-by-4s and Ford Festivas were made into silent movies by idling engines. His own parents had made some decisions that involved him, but he wasn’t sure what they were, only that they meant his mother had loaded her luggage and moved far away while his father packed up the house. He, too, would be moving soon, somewhere far from the neighborhood where moms and their mothers died, far from the toxins in this community, the poisons that were spoken of in whispers, like unseemly gossip between cruel spinsters.

Now that Fat Joey was gone, he and Turq had only each other. Hieronymus missed Joey and Pizzle. He had known them since they were too young to remember each other. He would never forget them, no matter what. No matter how old and unhappy adulthood might make him.

Maybe he would see them one day in a great accident of timing and luck. The four of them, older even than high-school kids, riding their motorcycles along the beach, discovering each other’s tracks, converging at the foot of a great boulder shaped like a starship, its granite nose pointing at the sun. And they’d say to each other, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. It’s YOU!” And they’d laugh and pat each other on the back like older kids do, and wrestle mightily because they’d be so much bigger and stronger than they were now. All the years that had passed, all the memories of the dead ones in this toxic old neighborhood would have been laundered by time, as right as clean linens. Their friendships, like the unbreakable bonds of clansmen and kings, would be restored, and they would bolt from one adventure to the next, daring anyone to cross them. Even Mr. Combreath, the 3rd-grade teacher who had tortured them all, would fall before them. Snapping out of his daydream, he rummaged through a box in the fortress, the one where he kept discarded weapons. He was sure he had a sharp stick with Mr. Combreath’s name on it.

He slapped the stick against his open palm to remind himself of its sting. “Ow,” he cried, and Turq, who had been watching from his outpost on the observation deck, rolled onto his back in laughter.

“Who you going to hit with that thing?” Turq said.

But the pain had flushed Hieronymus’ momentary killing rage right out of him. He dropped the stick back into the weapons box.

“Dunno,” he said, and then smiled. “For a minute, I got mad.”

“No way,” Turq said. “YOU got mad? At who? Why? What for?”

“It was nothing,” Hieronymus said. “I think my dad is almost ready to leave.”

“So’s mine,” Turq said, slouching. He let his legs dangle over the deck’s edge. One of his oversized sneakers slipped off, but he didn’t seem to care. “Said something about leaving next week. Some guy came out to tell him nobody would buy the house, so my dad took a bunch of pills and drank a bunch of beer and slept for a couple of days.” He paused. “On my mom’s side of the bed.”

“Oh,” Hieronymus said. After a minute or two, he added, “I’m not sure what will happen to my house. I mean, my bedroom and everything. It’s just about empty. Just my bed and some clothes. All my posters are in a tube. My sketches, too. Took me a whole day just to wrap my Starship Enterprise and my Battlestar Galactica and my Imperial Star Destroyer so they wouldn’t break when the people come to put it on a truck. Can’t find my comics. They’re buried under boxes of kitchen stuff. And I have no idea where my Xbox is, although I found one of the controllers packed with my socks. I guess they’ll be together again one day.”

Turq nodded. “You know,” he said. “We don’t have to go.”

Hieronymus grabbed one of the rungs that hung from the observation deck and hauled himself up. He plopped down beside his friend and crossed his legs, Indian style. So did Turq. When their knees touched, everything seemed okay.

“What do you mean?” Hieronymus asked. “They’re going to take all our stuff to some place new? You’re going one direction. I’m going another. We won’t meet again until we get to the starship boulder on the beach.”

“The what?”

Hieronymus giggled. “Never mind.”

“No secrets!” Turq said, seeming hurt.

“I saw the future, that’s all. Like Phantom Lass.”

“You mean Dream Girl.”

“Right.”

Turq stared at him as if he had a bug on his forehead. “Nobody can do that.”

“Do what?”

“See the future.”

“How do you know?”

“Because if they could, they would have told us about our moms.”

“Maybe the people who can see the future can’t see EVERYTHING about the future. Just some things. Maybe just good things. That’s what I saw. You, me, Pizz, and Joey. We were much, much taller and we had beards and wrinkles on our face. We were probably 18 or 19 years old. We had Kawasaki bikes and our weapons could do real damage, not like those dumb sticks in the box.”

Turq seemed unimpressed.

“Maybe,” Hieronymus continued, “bad things are hidden from people who can see the future. Maybe places like this, like our neighborhood, make them blind.”

Turq finally nodded. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

He stood up abruptly. “I’m not leaving.”

Hieronymus looked up at Turq, who suddenly seemed old and gigantic. He didn’t have a beard, and he didn’t have wrinkles, but from Hieronymus’ view point on the floor, Turq could have easily mounted a Kawasaki.

“Okay!” Hieronymus said, standing and crossing his arms. “I’m not leaving, either.”

It made perfect sense, really. They had been born here. Not in the fortress, but across the creek and up the hill, beyond the great wall of bush bordering the woods that, over the years, had belonged eventually to them. Not to their parents, or their teachers, or their sisters. Not even to the men beyond Deadman’s Tunnel who owned the creaky old factory where most of their dads worked.

The scheme seemed rather simple to Hieronymus. They needed to get some of the boxes from their house and bring them to the fortress. Oh, and the tubes with the posters in them. And his Starship Enterprise. Turq would probably want his hand-painted soldiers and the fold-up battlefield they normally stood on. And some of his mom Ellen’s stuff. Maybe her hairbrush, or one of her cookbooks. Something mom-ish.

They disbanded for the day, each with a mission. When they met again, they compared lists. Hieronymus was stunned to learn that Turq didn’t want to keep his soldiers, although he refused to part with the G.I. Joes. He was also planning to keep his revered beetle collection. Hieronymus didn’t know where they were going to hang the thing. Or how they were going to move a case so heavy down the hill and across the creek without creating a temporary bridge. Or maybe a raft. He was equally stunned to learn that Turq was keeping nothing that had belonged to his mother.

“I have Ellen right here,” he told Hieronymus, patting his hip where the limestone knife hung in a sheath made from the forefinger of a catcher’s mitt.

Hieronymus’ list was much longer, consisting largely of everything he owned. Turq helped him whack the list down to survivalist essentials, critical doodads no man or boy should be without when going it alone in the woods. These included all model spaceships, his airbrush and paint kit, all issues of The Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Action Comics, and his signed copy of Detective Comics #256. Nothing requiring an electrical outlet made the cut, so he sadly put pencil to the list and drew lines through Xbox, all five of his rechargeable race cars, and the classic Gameboy with the cracked screen that his father had bought for him at a flea market in Missoula.

Over the next few days, as their fathers trudged through the duties of hiring moving trucks and slowly shoving furniture into their cavernous backs, Hieronymus and Turq secretly pillaged boxes for the things they needed.

“We forgot pots and pans,” Hieronymus said, as they stood in the fortress, dusty and panting, and reviewed their haul from the last two days.

“Yeah, for sure,” Turq said. “But we’ve got my dad’s camping burner.”

Hieronymus didn’t have to ask about propane. Everyone knew about the vast field of discarded tanks that lay beyond Deadman’s Tunnel. Any kid who’d played in these woods knew that those tanks weren’t all empty. They’d shot BB guns at enough of them to know that more than a few were loaded. All you had to do was wade through the oily muck on the grim end of the tunnel, avoid getting sliced by the husks of rusting trucks, and manage to pry one loose from its prison of moss and fallen trees. Easy as pie.

There were three small grocery stores in the neighborhood. They had been recently closed and their refrigerated goods were long gone. But there were aisles of potato chips, canned chili, canned tuna, and canned fruit cocktail. It was a banquet that would never leave them wanting for more.

Hieronymus was pleased with their progress, but he felt a little lonely, even with his good friend at his side. Turq wasn’t his best best friend; that had been Pizzle’s pleasure. But with Pizzle gone, Hieronymus had gladly watched his other friend fill the vacancy. Even with their newfound closeness, Hieronymus felt that something wasn’t quite right about the way this was all working out.

The world around them had gone opaque with uncertainty, punctuated with screaming in the night and the continuing dismantling of life as he’d known it. Nearly every house in their neighborhood was abandoned. Mr. Myers’ huge pool was half full, its surface mucky with decomposing maple leaves. The soft slopes in the front yard of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s fine house were spoiled now with thorny weeds and dog poop. Only half the street lamps flickered on when it started to get dark. You never heard cars drive by, you never heard a honking horn or the bell of a bicycle. The school was closed, the stores were closed. Even the great factory that swallowed dads in the morning and discharged them at night no longer flung its great columns of fire-rich smoke into the sky.

With Turq at his side, he felt lonely. It wasn’t that he missed his mom now that she had fled. It wasn’t even that he missed other people. Instead, he missed … certainty. The certainty of leaving school, its yards jammed with yelling kids, and riding his bike along a route he could ride with his eyes closed. The sure grip of summer vacation, its duration, its freedom, and the nervous urgency of a new school year once summer’s end neared. The giddy tinkling of creek water, here on the clean side of Deadman’s Tunnel, where his little kingdom and its citadel had arisen only from throwaway timber.

He stood outside the fortress now and stared up at it. Beyond it, he could see blue sky for the first time in weeks. It was jarring. The factory used to make clouds and those clouds had always created a soothing sort of sooty shade. That shade made his slightly green hair seem almost ordinary.

Turq showed up at the fortress that afternoon with a bruise on his neck. He wore a collared shirt as if to hide it, but Hieronymus couldn’t help but peer at the yellow edges of that purple patch.

“I brought you something,” Turq said, settling into one of the bean bags that had made their survival list. He opened a brown paper bag, crumpled and soiled as if it had been dragged by string across town. From it, he pulled two black ropes of licorice.

“Wow,” Hieronymus said. Licorice wasn’t terribly special by itself, but these two strands were like county-fair contestants that had marched off the stage with a ribbon. They were about two feet long, as wide around as a thumb, and the etching in their twine could have come only from the tool of a master licorice smith. “Where’d you get those?”

“From the store. The one over on Main Street. Somebody broke the front window so I just went in and found these.”

“You stole them?”

“They were in a box that said ‘Hyssop Licks.’ Ever heard of that?”

Hieronymus moved in for a closer inspection. “Did you steal them?”

Turq stood up and tossed the candy ropes on the bean bag. “No, I didn’t steal them. I left some money on the counter. Nobody works there, Green. Nobody cares.”

Hyssop Licks. “Nope,” Hieronymus said. “Never heard of it. Can I have one?”

Turq looked like he was having trouble with gravity. He bent to scoop up the sticks and then proffered them in his open palms. “You can have both of them.”

“Aw, that’s great. I’ll share. You can have one, too. You bought them.”

“It’s a thank you gift, Green.”

“Thanks for what?”

Hieronymus took the beautiful black candy ropes, handling them as if they might evaporate.

“For this.” Turq pointed at the knife Hieronymus had given him. It was in its small catcher’s mitt sheath, tied with shipper’s twine to his belt. “For Ellen.”

“Ah, that was nothing,” Hieronymus said, stuffing the pointy end of one of the Hyssop Licks into his mouth and chomping down so hard he almost bit his tongue. It wasn’t like any licorice he’d ever tasted. It was sharper, fancier, like it might have come from across the ocean, from the palace of a prince who practiced candy magic with his third eye.

“This is awesome,” Hieronymus said. “Is there more? We should get more. It’s going to be a tough winter, you know.”

“Thank you, Green,” Turq said.

Hieronymus stopped chewing.

He studied his new best friend’s face and wondered about that little loneliness that had plagued him for days. Turq was there, before him, looking tired and slightly dim, as usual. But he seemed small again, not the large Turq Hieronymus was to ride with years from now when they convened with Pizzle and Fat Joey at the foot of the starship boulder, ready to rocket through the sun.

Turq rubbed his bruised neck and headed toward the fortress’ front door.

“Where you going?” Hieronymus asked, his fists full of black licorice.

“I’ll be back,” Turq said.

“Okay, when?” Hieronymus quickly replied.

When Turq turned wordlessly and walked out, Hieronymus saw the tip of the finger from the catcher’s mitt that held his best friend’s blade. Something dark dripped from it, leaving an oily splat on the rough wood floor that could have been any shade of rust.

“Okay,” Hieronymus said again. He heard Turq splash across the creek and race up the hill, back toward their dead neighborhood. He probably had another box to grab from his house. Perhaps he wanted those perfectly painted soldiers, after all. Maybe he wanted to say goodbye to his dad.

“Turq?” Hieronymus said quietly. To no one in the room.

He sat. And thought. And wondered what to do next. Just months ago, a happy fugue would have come upon him. The refracted brightness of the sun would have spilled through his green-tinted bangs and he would have pretended to be the king of grass, the lord of lawns. Pizzle and Fat Joey would have been arguing about whether Wonder Woman could defeat Superman if she dipped her lasso in Kryptonite juice. Turq would have been Turq, kicking over rocks at the creek’s edge, looking for earthworms to tease with one of the sticks from the weapons box.

As the afternoon wore on and the woods cast shadows on itself, the clean water that flowed from this end of Deadman’s Tunnel grew hushed and flat and all the things that lived in it hid. The sun’s last warmth slipped away in the branches high over the fortress’ roof. The cricket conductor stepped into his pit and drew about him his orchestra. October was cold. Hieronymus hated it.

“Hieronymus? Hieronymus, wake up.”

It was his dad. Standing over him with a flashlight. He was still in the fortress. He knew it because of the smell, a smell he owned.

“Dad,” he said, swiping his eyes. He was shivering. His music player was powerless beside him.

“Are you okay, son? Were you hurt?” His father had always been a calm man. His voice now was a bad mask for the terror parents must feel when they’ve been told their kids have been killed. It was just this sort of voice, the deferral of ugliness, to which Hieronymus had spent his summer growing deaf.

“I’m okay. Where’s Turq?” Hieronymus asked.

“He’s gone, Hi. We were hoping you knew where he was. There’s been an accident.”

“An accident?”

His father placed his hands on Hieronymus’ shoulders. He said, “Mr. Mazursky has been badly hurt. We’re really worried because Turq seems to have disappeared.”

Turq’s dad hurt? Hieronymus let his eyes drift to the drying spot of rust on the floor near the door, where it had fallen from the sheath carrying the knife called Ellen.

Hieronymus looked around at the shadows his father’s flashlight spawned on the fortress’ walls. It was not a light he’d have admitted, given the choice. In that awful light that only grown-ups can make, the place looked like a slum, filled with half open boxes and knocked-over tins of fruit cocktail. A disaster, its sanctity blown to bits by a battery-operated torch.

“But we’re supposed to stay,” Hieronymus said, still half asleep. “We were going to make it through the winter on tuna and candy.”

His father didn’t seem to understand. Hieronymus slumped in his father’s arms and let himself be hoisted over the man’s shoulder. Like a broken doll, his head bobbed gently as they left the fortress in darkness and made their way across the creek and up the hill. As they reached the summit, bushes flashed red and blue with the lights of police cars on the road at the top. Hieronymus watched all this sideways. For the first time in many days, he heard the sound of a car engine; an ambulance drove from the bottom of his vision to the top, as if taking off toward some hospital in the clouds.

He sat on a box in the living room of his house and answered many questions, but he didn’t really understand what they wanted. Even if he had known where Turq was, he wouldn’t have told them. There were many places a boy could hide in those woods. Out beyond Deadman’s Tunnel, in the scrap swamps that flowed from the factory’s cave-like ducts. Deep within the blackened branches of the weeping willows that whistled at night like ghosts. In the stone gorge where they’d found wolf bones, or behind the waterfall where they’d created a small temple for communicating telepathically with Aquaman.

Hieronymus knew that Turq would never leave this place. Not even Mr. Mazursky could prevent that. Maybe he’d tried.

He wondered what would happen when the tuna and potato chips ran out. And worried that Turq would not know how to operate the solar battery. In becoming the sole master of those woods, Turq would become the weapons master, turning the toy guns and sticks in that box on the fortress’ lower deck into the very means he’d use to savagely defend his domain.

He and his father left town the next day. Neither of them talked for the first several miles of that interminable drive to meet up with mom. The few hours that separated right now from last night when Turq walked out seemed like weeks.

“I’m gonna sit in the back, okay, dad?”

Before his father could reply, he had scrambled over the Plymouth’s banquette front seat and plopped into the vast expanse of the banquette behind it. He pulled a notepad out of his backpack and started writing letters. He wrote one to Pizzle. He wrote one to Fat Joey. He wrote one to Turq. Each letter contained directions to the beach where they were supposed to meet when they were old and wrinkled. He drew a small map in each letter, squiggled a rough shape to denote the starship boulder, and circled it three times like a bull’s-eye. He told his friends to be happy. He signed each letter, “Green.”

Eventually, he’d get his dad to figure out where Pizzle and Joey had gone and he’d mail those letters to his once and future friends. But no postman delivered to the woods they were leaving behind. He didn’t know how Turq would ever find them. Perhaps his friend would one day figure out how to see the future as he had. The good things, not the bad ones. And the starship boulder would resolve in Turq’s mind like a beacon through the fog.

Hieronymus pulled the two Hyssop Licks from his bag, one half eaten. He finished that one off, marveling at the bitter minty flavor. The other he coiled tightly and wrapped inside the letter to Turq. He’d save that one for the day they met again. When they’d laugh on the beach and remember dumb things and smell hints of hyssop on each other’s breath.


H. Andrew Lynch’s stories have appeared in several periodicals and anthologies, including Year’s Best Horror Stories. He’s published two novels, The Superhero’s Closet, and the children’s mystery, The Adventures of Darwin & Dr Watson: The Beagle Knows. His surrealist short fiction — inspired by the prose poetry of Charles Baudelaire — is currently collected in the illustrated anthology, A Flower Fell. He’s currently working on a tale of racism and magic, about a boy who can disappear while on the pitcher’s mound. Andrew lives in New Zealand with his Beagle, Woody.