Excerpt for Sorenson's Gift by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

SORENSON’S GIFT

by

Robin Roberts

© 2017

Published by Ex-L-Ence Publishing at Smashwords.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. All the names characters, incidents, dialogue, events portrayed and opinions expressed in it are either purely the product of the author’s imagination or they are used entirely fictitiously and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. Nothing is intended or should be interpreted as representing or expressing the views and policies of any department or agency of any government or other body.

All trademarks used are the property of their respective owners. All trademarks are recognised.

The right of Robin Roberts to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Illustrations © 2017 Sue Cockrell.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Contents

Dedication

1 - Maybe today

2 - Will you be here tomorrow?

3 - The storyman

4 - The cabin in the woods

5 - The bishop of the western provinces

6 - A big, furry, orange thing

7 - Alone in the woods

8 - Robin hood

9 - Not where, when

10 - I’m not wearing a dress!

11 - It came from the box

12 - Not a prison

13 - That’s not conspicuous?

14 - Unusual footwear

15 - Flesh like this

16 - Something hauntingly familiar

17 - Her simplistic view of the world

18 - Keep it small

19 - Excuse me, brother

20 - A dead ringer for Aureliana

21 - The world she was in now

22 - The pretty ones in the front

23 - The hand of god

24 - A knife in the back

25 - Identical twins

26 - The workings of the gods

27 - More valuable than we know

28 - He thinks I’m Stewart’s sister

29 - Oakhurst

30 - See that you do

31 - A distinctly masculine air

32 - A tiny house on wheels

33 - First, we have to find Stevie

34 - What happened to your hair?

35 - There’s a stair here

36 - Take me home, Billy

37 - King’s orders

38 - A warm, cozy nest

39 - A gown for the cotillion

40 - Where you go, I go

41 - Where was the professor?

42 - Right before their eyes

43 - Like a knight or something

44 - Then they’d hang them both

45 - Wisdom of a girl

46 - What has he done?

47 - It’s not Cimmy

48 - The hurrying stranger

49 - Not one shall escape my wrath!

50 - One of the short ones

51 - Is he dead?

52 - The gathering of the tribes

53 - All the greater his treachery

54 - Is there enough for a third?

55 - But where will I go?

56 - Growing waves of righteousness

57 - One of those times

58 - Then, you are here because of me

59 - I don’t believe in voodoo, Quinn

60 - Take him away!

61 - Sorenson’s gift

And Now

Dedication

For Claire: Who introduced me to fantasy when I was still young and impressionable.

1 - Maybe today

Ryan stood at the window naked to the waist, his gaze on the spreading elm across the street and the park beyond. It was where they would go today. It was where they went every day. The heat of the rising sun on his exposed skin distracted him, seduced him away from any other thoughts with a promise of warmth and nurture, the haven of a mother’s arms he would never feel again, and he turned to face it. Slowly his arms came up, like solar wings unfolding like mortal heat sinks, drawing from a most immortal source. Without his commanding them to, his palms aligned with his face, perpendicular to the sun, so that every possible millimeter of skin could bask in the penetrating warmth.

An average thirteen year old, neither tall nor short, fat nor skinny, he langoured in the sun’s soothing warmth. Barely over the horizon, and already the healing rays penetrated deep into his bones. Beside him, shirtless as well, Stevie mimicked his pose, checking to make sure she was holding her arms exactly the same as her big brother. At eight years old, with identical blonde hair and fair complexion, were she wearing jeans instead of overalls she would have been an exact, but diminutive, clone of Ryan.

“Squint your eyes up,” Ryan cautioned, he knew better than to even try and suggest she keep them closed. He was sure he’d told her a hundred times, but dad would still blame him if anything happened to her. Not openly, of course, but in his heart he would. And he’d be right. “And don’t look right at it.”

Eyes closed, her world a cocoon of vibrant heat, Stevie smiled at the sound of Ryan’s voice. The words didn’t matter. Oh sometimes they did but usually…. He’d always talked to her, for as far back as she could remember. She’d come to identify his voice long before she could recognize his face. Stories sometimes, casual observations of the world around him. Sometimes she wondered if perhaps he liked the sound of his voice as much as she did. “It’s warm, huh?” she said, squinting as instructed.

“Yeah,” Ryan answered, recalling the cool mornings of the northwest, his mother’s smile. Even when the sun shone like it did this morning there was a crispness, a bite to the air. “It’s not like home,” he said, and dropped his arms as the realization bore into him. No, it wasn’t. In so many ways.

“No,” Stevie mimicked, dropping hers to match.

Ryan turned just in time to see her arms fall. “Cut it out,” he warned, attempting to glower at her. Sometimes she was so… exasperating would be his mother’s word. He wasn’t sure why her mimicking bothered him sometimes. Maybe because it was a constant reminder that she was his responsibility. No. That wasn’t it. It was that it was a constant reminder that he was all she had, now, and he was afraid he couldn’t live up to her expectations.

“What?” Stevie asked, as if she had no idea what he was talking about.

“Just quit it,” he warned, shrugging into a tee shirt. “It’s kid stuff.”

“I am a kid,” she reminded him with a grin as a cheerful shout from the park across the street announced the arrival of the day’s first visitors. Stevie turned to watch the two boys talking animatedly as they headed across the thick, brilliant grass toward the swings. She wished she had someone to talk to like that, somebody other than Ryan. “Nobody likes us, Ry,” she said, her voice heavy with disappointment.

They might like me, Ryan thought, if I could ever get a chance to meet them without you tagging along, and was immediately contrite. What right did he have to pity himself? How much harder it must be for her to make new friends. Their mother’s death had hit her hardest. “It’ll happen,” he promised, ruffling her golden hair. It felt strange now that it was short.

Stevie looked up at him, hope rekindled in her eyes like a cupped match in a hurricane. “When?”

“Soon,” he said, his eyes on the two boys now swinging gracefully back and forth. “Maybe today.”

The tiny flame shuddered and went out. “You say that every day,” she said, shrugging off his hand.

“Well, maybe today,” Ryan insisted. “Maybe today really is the day.”

* * *

Dave Wheeler sat at the kitchen table, a fan of papers splayed out around his plate. He had gulped down a quick breakfast of eggs and toast, careful not to get any on his shirt or tie and now sipped from his second cup of coffee.

“Hi dad,” Ryan greeted him as he descended the stairs.

“Hi dad,” Stevie mimicked, her tone and cadence identical to Ryan’s, who frowned at her over his shoulder. She grinned back innocently.

Though he spared a brief glance in his children’s direction, Dave’s attention remained on the scattered documents spread out before him. “Ryan… Stevie,” he greeted them half-distractedly. “What are you two up to today?”

“Going to the park,” Ryan answered, the same answer he’d given every day for the last two weeks. Just for a moment he had considered saying, Back to Tacoma, to see if his father was actually listening, but then thought better of it. Wishing would not make it so, nor would it bring his mother back.

“What? Oh, good,” his father responded without even looking up from his papers. “Going to meet your friends, huh?”

Ryan and Stevie shared a look as they recalled their two meetings with friends.

* * *

Directly across Parkside Lane from their house on the edge of the park was a giant elm whose leafy, cool shade had drawn Ryan and Stevie the first day. The park rolled down a gentle slope from the lane to the river and their newly adopted tree provided the perfect vantage point from which to view it.

They had been standing there on the second morning when three boys approached. They were led by a dark-haired youth several inches taller than Ryan and broader at the shoulder. Ryan watched them come across the lawn, leaning forward as they climbed the slight hill, their arms swinging freely, open hostility on their faces. The dark-haired boy stopped right in front of Ryan, his hands at his sides, loose, but ready.

“What’s your name, new kid?” the stranger asked, as the other two spread out beside him, like kittens surrounding an alligator lizard, curious, but cautious.

Ryan kept his expression neutral as he assessed his inquisitors. Though obviously the town toughs, these three were nothing like the thugs and hoodlums that stalked the streets of Tacoma. It was unlikely any of them carried a knife or gun and from their strutting and posturing he was sure the confrontation was mostly show. An exercise in power intended to let him and Stevie know just who ran things around here. Still, he decided to keep a careful eye on Stevie just the same.

“Ryan Wheeler,” he answered, “and this is Stevie.”

“Where you from, Ryan Wheeler?” the boy on the left asked. He had blond hair and a jagged scar on his chin that he bragged was from a knife fight but had actually come from a clumsy encounter with a garbage can. He had sidled so far around to the left, Ryan had to take his eyes off his sister when he turned to answer him.

“Tacoma.”

“Where’s that?” This from the dark-haired boy again.

“In Washington.”

“Where the president is?” the boy asked.

“The state,” scarface answered, “out west.”

While the first two interrogated Ryan, the third stared hard at Stevie, who cringed under the scrutiny but returned a steady gaze of her own.

“What you starin’ at, kid?” he demanded.

“Nuthin’,” Stevie answered, suddenly not so sure of herself.

“You callin’ me nuthin’?” the boy challenged, balling his fists up like he meant to use them and taking a menacing step forward.

“Don’t do that,” Ryan said, turning to step between them, as Stevie, like a frightened puppy ducking behind her mother for protection, slipped behind him. There was warning in Ryan’s tone, despite the odds. “He’s just a kid,” he said.

The boy was about Ryan’s size and alone would not have dared to threaten him. “You gonna do somethin’ about it?” he challenged, though his furtive glances at the dark-haired boy verified he was not prepared to escalate the confrontation all by himself.

Ryan eyed the three boys spread in a semicircle around them. “We don’t want any trouble,” he said, his eyes shifting from one to the next.

The dark-haired boy glared at Ryan for a long moment, then smiled a humorless smile. ”Skip it, Eddie,” he said, turning to leave. “Let’s go.”

“You’re a long ways from Washington,” Eddie cautioned Ryan and Stevie as he turned and followed the other two back down the hill.

Then yesterday they had been on the swings, just the two of them. They swung and talked and were enjoying the morning when Eddie and his friends had shown up again. Stevie dug her feet into the soft sand under the swing as Eddie moved to block her path. “We want to swing now,” he informed her.

“There are swings over there,” she said, pointing at another row of swings only a few yards away.

“We want to swing here,” Eddie said.

“Yeah,” the dark-haired boy chimed in, “we want to swing here.”

“We have to go, anyway,” Ryan said slipping off the swing. “We told dad we’d be home now.”

Stevie was about to say they hadn’t said any such thing to their father that morning when she grasped the subtle undertone of her brother’s remark. “Yeah. We have to go now, anyway,” she piped up, jumping from her swing.

* * *

Stevie folded her arms across her chest, now decently covered by a white T-shirt, and stuck out her chin. “We don’t have any friends,” she informed her father. “Nobody likes us.”

His daughter’s plaintive statement finally penetrated Dave’s preoccupation with his work and he set down the page he’d been reviewing and looked at her. She looked so forlorn, so desperate. He thought back on his own childhood, growing up in a small coastal town in California. He’d had the same friends from infancy until they each went away to college. He could not even imagine how difficult it must be for her and Ryan. God knew it was difficult for him. But he couldn’t stay in Tacoma anymore. Every street, every store, every person he met reminded him of Ruth. “They will, Stevie,” he reassured her, “give them time. We’ve only been here two weeks. I hardly know anyone in the office and I talk with them every day.” He turned to Ryan with a questioning frown. “Have you tried to make friends with anybody?” he asked.

Ryan shrugged. He obviously hadn’t included Stevie in the question. “Maybe today,” he offered.

Dave suddenly turned back to stare at Stevie’s shorn locks. “Where’s all your beautiful hair?”

“Mrs. Patterson cut it off before we moved,” Ryan answered finally after a long silence from Stevie.

“Why?” Dave asked. He had loved Stevie’s hair. It was yellow gold with shades of the most incredible tan and had splashed off her shoulders like a sunrise, just like Ruth’s. Now, it barely reached the neck of her T-shirt.

“Stevie asked her to,” he answered, seeing the obvious disappointment in his father’s expression.

Turning back to Stevie, Dave raised a curious eyebrow. “Why?” he asked, his disapproval clear in his tone. Stevie hung her head sheepishly, but offered no excuse.

“She…,” Ryan started to speak but a covert glare from Stevie shut his mouth.

“She what?” Dave demanded, suddenly recalling an incident several years previous when Ryan had stuck gum in Stevie’s hair and Ruth had been forced to cut it out with a scissors. She’d been able to mask the damage with only a bit of trimming that time.

Ryan looked at him for a moment and then down at his shoes.

“She what, Ryan?” he repeated, clearly on the verge of anger now.

“I like it short,” Stevie answered, unsure how to explain to him the real reason.

“You two,” Dave said, looking from one of them to the other. Finally he shook his head. “I guess it is cooler during the summer. When did you do that?”

“Two weeks ago,” Ryan said. “Before we moved.”

Dave’s attention was diverted by the chiming of the mantle clock. “Oh no! Seven-thirty already.” He rose to his feet and began gathering the scattered papers into a rough pile. “Yes, well, it’s very pretty, sweetie,” he said to Stevie as he scooped them into his briefcase. “And if you like it, that’s all that matters. But I’ve got to go.” He gulped down the last of his coffee and headed for the door. At the last minute he stopped and stared once again at Stevie’s cropped tresses. “How long has it been like that?” he asked again.

“Two weeks,” she answered.

Two weeks? And he was just noticing now? Had he really paid so little attention to them? “Look,” he said, finally. “If I don’t have to bring any work home tonight, let’s go to the park together or something tomorrow, okay?”

Ryan and Stevie looked at the bulging briefcase in his hand. “That would be great, Dad,” Ryan answered, unable to mask his disbelief in his father’s offer.

“Good. Okay, tomorrow then,” his father said as he hurried out the door.

“I told you he would notice,” Ryan said as their father closed the door behind him.

“Two weeks later,” Stevie pouted.

“I still don’t see what the big deal is about being a boy.”

She had tried to explain it to him when the idea had first come to her but she had lacked the words. How could she tell him what it was like? When her mother died it had taken her weeks to accept that she was really gone. Weeks spent standing at the foot of their bed listening to her father’s solitary breathing, waiting for her mother to waken and beckon her up between them. Weeks spent wandering into her bathroom and waiting patiently for her smile as she neatly applied her daily makeup. Weeks spent sitting all alone at the kitchen table waiting for her to come and offer her cookies and milk while they chatted casually of childish things, talking squirrels and fairy wings. Yet, even then, even after she had accepted that her mother was gone and would not be back, she had not understood, not really.

Her father had very carefully, and tearfully, explained that God had taken her up to heaven and that, right then, she was watching over them, all of them. But something had been lost. Something Dad and Ryan could not comprehend, could not imagine. She had always been her mother’s little girl, her little darling as she called her. It defined her place not just in the family, but in the world that she knew. There was a balance to them, a yin and yang, though she did not know those words -- she and mom, Ryan and dad. Now that balance was skewed. Without her mother beside her, she could not be that little girl. She could not be a girl at all. “Boys have more fun,” she had told Ryan, instead. “They get to do more stuff.”
You’re not going to tell, are you?” she asked. “You promised.”

“I won’t tell. Let’s go.”

* * *

Sutter’s Park was laid out by the city’s forefathers with broad expanses of lawn sporting tall, graceful stands of poplar and thick groves of maple and fir, pleasantly sculpted along the Boulder River. Overall, the park provided the ambiance of quiet and solitude its citizens sought there. For the children, though, Sutter’s Park presented a far more profound environment. To them, being in the park with its thick stands of trees interspersed with lush, open meadows was like being deep in the wilds that had once comprised most of the current farmland surrounding the town. Not surprisingly, it was a popular place during the long, idle summer days.

The giant elm that Ryan and Stevie had come to favor was near the edge of the park, only a few hundred feet in, but it provided a view of the open meadow between them and the river and the woods on both sides. Today, Eddie and the dark-haired boy and a half-a-dozen other boys ran whooping and yelling through the woods to the right. Whatever world their imaginations had taken them to, it was a boisterous one, as Ryan caught occasional glimpses of them as they ran through the trees, laughing and grabbing at each other. Ryan smiled forlornly as he watched, wishing he could be out there with them. They had shown no further hostility since their first two confrontations but neither had they made any overtures of friendship, they had simply ignored him. He was sure it was at least in part because of Stevie. Even if he could get them to include him in their play, they certainly wouldn’t want her tagging along whether they believed she was a boy or not. She was just too young.

In the meadow three girls gathered daisies and knotted them together with some mysterious female magic. “Look,” he said, pointing, “they’re making daisy chains.”

If Stevie understood the subtle hint, she ignored it. “That’s girly stuff,” she said.

“Well you are a girl, Stevie,” he said, more sharply than he had intended.

Stevie looked up at him, the hurt plainly visible in her face. “You said you wouldn’t tell.”

“I know,” he answered, immediately penitent for having taken his frustration out on her. He didn’t understand her obsession with being a boy but he knew it was somehow connected with their mother’s loss. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Stevie answered, immediately consoled. She slipped her hand in his. It was small and warm.

Down on the beach, a handful of kids played at the river’s edge splashing and laughing. Others were scattered about the park and the playground at its edge in small groups.

“Hi,” a melodic voice said, startling them both back to their immediate surroundings.

“What?” Ryan squeaked, his manners forgotten. Right in front of him stood the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. She had reddish brown hair highlighted with wisps of bright red and pale gold, eyes as clear and blue as the summer sky above them, and freckles, lots and lots of freckles. He had seen her at the park, before. Like he and Stevie, she had always been alone.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her gaze studying him as if he were a prized dress in a department store window.

“He… hello.” he croaked, barely mastering the faculty of speech. He stood mesmerized, staring into those cerulean eyes. She returned his gaze with one of amusement and also something else, something he couldn’t quite grasp.

“Where’re they going?” Stevie’s sudden inquiry interrupted an intimacy neither of them had anticipated. Stevie was pointing toward the open area before them.

No longer were there any children on the swings, or sitting under the trees, or playing ball. Even the boys in the woods were no longer running and laughing. As if drawn by some powerful child magnet, all of them were moving deliberately toward a single spot at the edge of the woods.

“It’s the storyman,” the girl explained.

“Who?” Ryan asked, his eyes searching the spot the kids seemed to be converging on for some focus of the attraction.

“The storyman,” the girl repeated, as if the name, itself, should conjure up the explanation. “He tells stories.”

“He tells stories?” Stevie asked in wonder. She thought of her mother, her warm body tight up against her as she sat on the edge of the bed, a book open in her lap, her voice soft, soothing, hypnotic, and now silent forever. “Like the three bears?”

“Sort of,” the girl answered, giving Stevie a quizzical look, as if she hadn’t considered his stories in quite that way. “He comes every year on the last day of school. He walks around and tells us stories of the valley and everything. Sometimes he finds… things and he tells us about them.”

“How does he know when it’s the last day of school?” Stevie wanted to know.

“How should I know?” the girl snapped. She obviously had not dealt much with the insatiable curiosity of an eight year old. “He just does.”

“So he tells stories,” Ryan said, as the other children in the park began to converge into a large group. “What’s the big deal about that?”

“He doesn’t just tell stories,” the girl explained. “You have to see. He’s old and bent. Barely taller'n me, he’s so bent.” She held her hand out to indicate his height. It wavered just above her flaming curls. “And skinny. His arms and legs are like, I don’t know, twigs almost, sticking out of his clothes. And he’s wild looking. Not wild dangerous, wild like ridin’ your bike down Quinn Hill no hands, the wind tearing your face, the front wheel shaking like that reducing belt fat ladies wear.”

Her hands flew around like angry bees while she talked, and when she mentioned the reducing machine she shook her rear violently back and forth. Ryan stared open-mouthed. He’d never heard a girl talk like that before. So… wild, so… reckless.

“You know,” she went on, “scary and exhilarating at the same time? That kind of wild. His hair kind of explodes out of his head and his face is all hairy and kind of squirms like when he talks. And he always wears the same raggedy old jeans and a faded brown shirt, some kinda western thing.” Ryan and Stevie both struggled to conjure up an image of the storyman. “At first I thought he was all old, you know, withered, used up, but he isn’t. You can see it in his eyes, and his step sometimes, like when he finds something cool to show us. His eyes are a piercing blue, so blue it hurts to look right into them, and they drink up the world around him in huge gulps.” She was staring down at the gathering now. When she spoke her voice was lower, as much to herself as them. “He can drink you up, too, with those eyes.”

Stevie gulped. “I don’t want to be drank up,” she sniffled.

“She didn’t mean it like that,” Ryan soothed, with a hard glare at the girl, who immediately dropped to one knee in front of Stevie.

“Yeah, I didn’t mean it like that,” she explained, combing reassuring fingers through Stevie’s hair. “It’s just an expression.”

“Really?” Stevie asked.

“Yeah,” the girl assured her. “Come on, come see for yourself.”

Stevie looked pleadingly at Ryan. “Yeah let’s go,” he said, taking Stevie’s upraised hand and waiting for their new friend to lead the way. Maybe today.

2 - Will you be here tomorrow?

The knot of kids gathered by the river was moving now. Still centered about some unseen comet, they bulged and trailed, a human corona. As they neared the group, Ryan and Stevie caught their first glimpse of the storyman, and with it, the first clear tones of his voice. A small, gray-haired man, he shuffled across the oak and sage dotted park on bowed legs, a pied piper, his voice the pipe he played, his music fantasy and adventure like none of them had ever known, while the children followed, eager, expectant mice. He was headed toward the river. It was called Boulder River but it was little more than a creek there. Downstream, down past Potter’s Mill, it looked more like a real river, wide and deep.

He found it right away. It was almost as if he was looking for it, hobbling along the water's edge, those eyes sweeping the ground in front of him like a hawk at sunset, seeing everything, not missing a single pebble or stick. When he suddenly stopped the children stopped, too. Staring into the water, he nodded like he was real satisfied about something. He had long fingers, all knuckles and gnarls, constantly opening and closing in an intricate dance to unheard melodies when he talked. He reached down with both hands and his bony fingers twisted around a large rock. It was wet and slippery and obviously heavy, as he struggled to raise it up where they could see it more clearly. About the size of a football, he held it up in front of him, squinted at it in the bright sun.

The storyman turned slowly around, his prized discovery offered for their inspection. “This is real old," he began, as the younger ones pushed to the front of the ring of eager faces crowded around his outstretched hands. "Real old. Older’n anything I've ever seen before." He turned it over in his hands and offered it around for their awed examination. "Looks like a rock, doesn’t it?” he asked. The kids in the front of the circle nodded. “It’s not,” he said. “It's an egg, a petrified egg. That's an egg that's been underground so long it's turned to stone."

Ryan didn’t scoff outright, but he certainly had his doubts about the stone the storyman held out in front of him. Sure, it looked like an egg, had the right shape and all, but he had touched it and it didn’t feel like an egg. It felt like a rock. Besides it was huge. He had seen an ostrich egg once. This thing was three times as big. Nothing could lay an egg that size. He looked for his new friend to see if she shared his skepticism but she was staring enthralled at the huge rock just like everybody else.

"Yep. It's an egg, all right,” the storyman continued. “A dinosaur egg. Dinosaurs were huge animals, ten times bigger‘n an elephant, that roamed these plains a million years ago, long before the Indians and the buffalo. They didn't run in herds, though. They were too big. Too hungry. They were so big they could only get together in small groups or they'd eat up all their food and starve.”

“What did they eat?” a small boy in the front asked.

“Trees and bushes and all kinds of plants,” the storyman replied. “Even the kinds that grow in the bottom of lakes.”

“Could they swim?” a girl with long pigtails asked, her eyes wide and shining.

“Some of ‘em,” the storyman replied. “Some of ‘em could fly.”

“Nothing that big could fly,” Ryan said under his breath, only to look up and see the storyman staring at him quizzically.

“The smaller ones could,” the storyman repudiated him, then went on as if he’d never been interrupted. “There were people back then, too,” he continued, “Neanderthals. Looked a lot like the Blackfoot but shorter and a lot more muscular. Why, they were powerful enough to tear a bear apart with their bare hands if there'd been bears back then. ‘Course there weren’t. Not then. Bears didn’t show up for another hundred and fifty thousand years.

“Those Neanderthals were mighty brave, though. They actually hunted the dinosaurs. They didn’t have any guns, either. Not even bows and arrows. They hunted those giant beasts with long, pointed sticks they called spears and with clubs. Course they couldn’t kill anything that big with sticks and clubs so they’d just chase ‘em over a cliff.

“Sometimes they raided the nests of the dinosaurs for their eggs. Like this. They must'a dropped this one and it got stuck in the mud alongside the river and stayed there for a million years and turned to stone.

"Yep,” the storyman concluded, “they lived right here on the very banks of this same river just like the Indians and just like old Jed Sutter. Just like you and me."

A sort of social gravitation had drawn the smaller children to the inside of the group where they reached out curious hands to pat and stroke the mysterious egg, all of them calling out questions at once, including a blurted, “What’s it made of?” from Stevie, which elicited a collective frown from the older kids circled around him as if to say you’re just the new kid. Who are you to ask questions? He’s our storyman.

“Hold on,” the storyman said, “hold on. One at a time.” He turned to a short brown-haired boy in overalls. “Now what is your question?”

After a final glare of warning to Stevie and Ryan, the group turned its attention back to the storyman. Ryan turned to leave. “Come on, Stevie,” he said. Let’s go.”

“But I want to hear more stories,” Stevie argued, reluctant to leave before the discourse was finished.

“That’s all there is,” the red-haired girl informed them, suddenly appearing at Ryan’s side. “He never finds more than one thing,” she said as they started away from the group. “After he tells us about it and answers questions, he leaves.”

“Where’s he go?” Stevie asked.

“I don’t know. Home, I guess,” the girl answered, her coppery curls bouncing as she walked.

Stevie looked up at the girl’s hair dancing in the sun and for a moment regretted her haircut. But only for a moment. “Where does he live?” she asked, as the three of them made their way back up the hill toward the Wheeler house.

“Out in the woods, someplace,” the girl answered, not really understanding why where he lived was very important.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” Ryan promised his sister with a smile, then stopped and looked at their new friend. “Will he be here tomorrow?” he asked her.

“Yeah, he comes every day.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?” Stevie asked her.

The girl looked from one of them to the other for a long moment. “Yeah, I guess so,” she answered, finally. No one had ever showed any interest in where she might be tomorrow before.

3 - The storyman

The storyman didn’t, in fact, come to share his magic with the children every day, but he came often, several times a week. He must have had a real name, though none of them ever knew it. They just called him the storyman, because that’s what he did. His eyes would get that faraway glaze and his scratchy voice would whisk them here and there. Like a human time machine, he whirled them back through years or decades, centuries or millennia, mesmerized.

They would listen enthralled as he wove his fantasies about them. No. Not fantasies, journeys. He took them places they’d never been and showed them things they’d never seen. Once, he told them about a sea voyage he had taken. The ocean was something most of them had only heard about from friends or seen in glimpses of postcards from relatives, so they sat enthralled as waves pounded his tiny boat, the wind howled, and the sea roared in senseless repetition until they could feel the chill of the sea air and smell the salt spray.

He fashioned worlds for them, worlds they’d only dreamed of or hadn’t even imagined. They huddled close and shivered as he told them about northern Montana in the dead of winter, life frozen under thirty feet of snow. Their throats parched and their armpits dripped under the blazing Arizona sun, where even the cactus shriveled and died.

At first it was easy to believe the storyman’s narratives, even for Ryan. They were about the town, Sutter's Crossing. Things the storyman had seen and heard when he was a boy. "Your great grampa, Billy," he said one time, "was Jesse Wolford, one of the first settlers in this valley. Used to go trappin’ up in Indian Valley, along Cougar Ridge, all by himself. Left Gramma Wolford all alone with four kids for weeks at a time."

Martin's great grandmother had actually shot an Indian, he told them. "Found him creepin’ through the cabin in the early mornin’. Course that was long before law and order came to town."

There were other stories, too. Stories about how the town had come to be built beside the river. Trappers came first. One named Jedidiah Sutter had built a cabin right down on the bank, pretty near where the park was now. Claimed the whole area for himself. There'd been no dam upstream then and the river ran deep and wide, a major thoroughfare for Indians and white folk alike. There was a big bend in the river there that allowed for a broad, shallow lee inside the turn, a natural moorage.

More trappers began to ply the country upriver, and trade with the Indians increased. A trading post was built. Soon after that a saloon was built. Then a chapel and houses began to sprout, the lumber brought up from Banyon by heavy wagon with the other trading goods. The surrounding land was rich and fertile and the first farms went up, Compton's, Lowe’s, and Brighton's. And always the storyman would produce some memento or artifact to substantiate his tale.

Somewhere along the line, though, the stories changed, got wilder, more far-fetched. The first one Ryan remembered suspecting concerned a horn the storyman found in the dust along the wide, lazy curve of the river just north of the park. He gave that nod of his and stared off toward the horizon.

"This was a watering hole for the great buffalo herds in the 1800’s," he told them. "The herds would come like thunder so loud you couldn't hear each other talk even if you were shoutin’. They'd run by for days, raisin' clouds of dust for a hundred miles in every direction." He stopped then and listened for those buffalo, his head tilted to the breeze, his hand cupped to his ear. And the kids listened, too, until faintly, far off in the distance, they could hear the thundering hoof beats.

"Cougar, too," he went on. "Whole families of 'em livin' up top of the ridge above the valley." All eyes followed where he pointed toward a rocky point on Cougar Ridge and they could almost see them crouched up there, waiting for the herd. "The herds would roll up to the river and start wallowin' and snortin' in the water. And all the time those big cats were just sittin' up there, all fang and claw, waitin' for their supper." They all shivered just a little bit.

* * *

For the most part, Ryan and Stevie were able to avoid the bullies who had confronted them the first day simply by joining the group late, noting where the troublemakers were when they arrived, and then keeping to the opposite side of the audience. At least once the plan had failed. Eddie, that was his name, and the other two, had arrived even later than Ryan and his sister and seeing them on the perimeter of the audience had covertly made their way around the circle until they were standing right behind them. The tall, dark-haired youth jabbed a sharp elbow into Ryan’s back driving him forward against two girls in front of him. The sudden, unexpected blow from behind caused both girls to stumble forward and a soda exploded from the hand of the one on the right, spattering her with sticky, dark liquid.

“Hey!” the one on the left called out, whirling around to see who had pushed her. “The new kid,” she said, seeing Ryan just stepping back from them. “What a surprise.”

The other turned slowly, unable to believe what had just happened, her gaze going from her ruined blouse to the face of her assailant. “Look at me,” she demanded of Ryan. “Look at my blouse. It’s ruined.”

“I’m sorry,” Ryan stammered out, “It wasn’t --”

“You should be, you clumsy jerk,” the other girl said.

“It wasn’t his fault,” the red-haired girl intervened, her copper curls bouncing as she pointed an accusing finger at the dark-haired boy behind Ryan. “Butch shoved him.”

“I did not!” Butch protested.

Though not as new to the town as Ryan and Stevie, she was none-the-less an outsider. Whenever children gathered there were always those who didn’t seem to fit in, be it because of some physical quirk the others refused to accept or some personality trait they chose to scorn. Her father had left when she was quite young and she and her mother had moved often in her early years. Always new in town and naturally taciturn, she had never developed the social ease of her peers so that now when she desperately wanted to be accepted by the others, she hid her longing behind a surly façade. “You’re a liar,” the girl retorted, her blue eyes blazing. She stood toe-to-toe in front of him, though her head barely came up to his chin, “as well as a bully.”

“It was an accident,” scarface offered. “He stumbled.”

“And you’re a liar, too, Eddie Falco,” she accused, turning her wrath on him, “and a coward.” She turned to include the third member of their little cabal. “All three of you.”

“You’re lucky you’re a girl,” Eddie said with a growl.

“Or what?” she challenged. “You’d punch me in the face? I’m surprised gender makes any difference. I thought cowards picked on anyone smaller than them.”

Eddie’s face grew bright red and Ryan could see the anger and embarrassment seething up through his veins, and just for a moment he thought Eddie might really hit her.

“Come on,” Butch said grabbing his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah,” the girl called after them as they stomped away. “Go pull wings off birds or something.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, not sure how he felt about being rescued by a girl.

“Forget it.” The girl brushed off his gratitude as if she was angry at him as well, and stormed off.

4 - The cabin in the woods

Ryan and Stevie sat beneath their tree and gazed longingly into the park. It was mid-afternoon and the park was busy with activity, activity they still were never invited to participate in. Children swung on the swings or ran laughing and yelling in the woods. Families and lovers spread blankets by the river. But there was no storyman. It had been four days since the last time he had come to share his stories with them.

“You think he’ll come today?” Stevie asked, picking at one of the buttons on her overalls.

“Maybe,” Ryan answered, “Maybe today.” He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the same thing he wore everyday. He couldn’t understand how Stevie could wear overalls all the time. He’d die of heat exhaustion if he did. She seemed comfortable enough, though.

“You always say that,” Stevie answered with a pout. It was a kind of game they played and they both enjoyed it.

“Well, maybe today,” Ryan repeated, though his tone had lost some of its playfulness.

“Maybe he’s sick,” Stevie offered. Overhead, the branches and leaves of the elm created a living lacework through which she could see the blue sky lazily watching over her. The sun had just passed its zenith and the sky was already a shade of blue like she had never seen before, a magic blue that beckoned.

“Yeah,” Ryan answered, suddenly inspired. “Maybe he is. We’d better go see,” he said scrambling to his feet.

“No, Ryan,” Stevie balked, the sudden loss of her reverie erasing the euphoria of a moment ago. “We’re not supposed to.”

“Not supposed to what?” he asked, feigning innocence. “Look in on a neighbor who’s sick and might need our help? What could be wrong with that?”

Stevie frowned at him. She wasn’t fooled by his charade. “We’re not supposed to go to a stranger’s house.”

Ryan waved away her objection. “He’s not a stranger. He’s the storyman.”

Stevie refused to be swayed by Ryan’s Samaritan rationalization. “We’re not supposed to and you know it,” she insisted.

Ryan conceded the fundamental point. “Maybe not, but, look. It’s been nearly a week. I mean he’s here almost every day, right?”

“Yeah.” Stevie hated it when he got logical. It usually meant she was going to end up going along with whatever it was he had planned whether she wanted to or not.

“And now he hasn’t shown up for a week? I’ll bet he doesn’t have a phone way out there. What if he’s fallen and broken his leg? What if he needs a doctor? Even if he had a phone and called for help nobody’d ever be able to find him out in those woods. Nobody knows where he lives.”

“We do,” Steve replied, unconsciously falling into her brother’s trap.

The night after the storyman found the dinosaur egg Ryan had lain awake in his bed. He and Stevie had walked along that very same stretch of beach just the day before and neither of them had seen anything. Surely, they wouldn’t have missed a stone that size, even submerged as it was, not with Stevie’s expectant gaze searching the sand for anything that might arouse her curiosity, her quest being rewarded by a constant trove of treasures she picked from the wet sand and held out for Ryan’s approval. They would not have missed a stone that size… if it had been there. He decided he wanted to know more about the mysterious old man. The next day, despite Stevie’s protests, they had followed him into the woods.

“Exactly. And we’re the only ones who do. That’s why we have to go. It’s our responsibility.”

Stevie shrugged helplessly. She knew it. “Okay,” she agreed, “but only to find out if he‘s broken his leg.”

“Or if he’s sick or something,” Ryan added.

“Yeah, or if he’s sick or something,” she conceded.

They had traveled no more than a dozen steps down the path to the storyman’s cabin when Ryan felt, rather than saw, someone following them. He turned around and saw the red-haired girl at the edge of the park, peering down the shadowy trail.

“What are you doing?” he asked, turning to confront her. “Why are you following us?”

“Where are you going?” she asked, ignoring his question.

“To the storyman’s house,” Stevie divulged before Ryan could stop her. “To see if he’s broke his leg or he’s sick or somethin’.”

She gave Stevie a peculiar look then turned back to Ryan. “You know where he lives?”

“We followed him before,” Stevie blurted out once again. “But we didn’t touch anything, Ryan just looked in the windows.”

Cimmy stood there for a long moment, looking from one of them to the other. She seemed to be deciding something. Then she nodded. “I’m going, too,” she announced.

“You can’t…!” Ryan began, and realized immediately he couldn’t think of one good reason why not.

“I can’t?” she huffed, locking her arms under her breasts in a way Ryan and Stevie both recognized their mother had when laying down the law. “And just who’s going to stop me?” she demanded, her feet spread, shoulders slightly forward, daring him to try. Ryan recalled the time she had assumed the same stance against Butch. He decided it wasn’t going to be him who tried to stop her. When her challenge remained unmet, she softened her tone. “Besides,” she went on, “I’m just as curious about the storyman’s absence as you are. And if he’s hurt or sick I can help, too.”

She was right, of course, whether Ryan liked it or not. But up until then the storyman’s residence had been a secret only he and Stevie had shared and he resented now having to include someone else. Yet…. “Yeah, okay,” he said, but she could tell he wasn’t just giving in. There was something more.

“Good. Okay,” she said with a smile that nearly stopped his heart. “Lead on.”

“I’ll lead,” Stevie volunteered. She certainly didn’t seem too concerned about keeping their secret. Ryan started off after her the red-haired girl falling into step alongside him. Ryan risked a quick glance at the girl keeping step beside him. Though they had seen each other many times over the past six weeks, it was always at the park and in the company of the other kids. This was the first time he’d actually been alone with her. On those other occasions she always seemed kind of… hard, like she was looking for a fight, and the other kids made a point of avoiding her. Though they would bristle and comment, even Butch and the other young toughs avoided directly confronting her. But Ryan had seen something else in that cool, blue gaze once, a sort of yearning, but for what he didn’t know. Glancing at her now, he was surprised to find that part of him was glad she had chosen to accompany them.

“I’m Ryan,” he offered, as they followed Stevie’s blonde head down the path, “Ryan --”

“Wheeler,” she finished. “I know.” She seemed to hesitate for a moment, then, stopping, offered her hand. “Cimmy. Cimmy Parker.”

Ryan stopped as well and stared at her hand. He had never shaken hands with a girl before. Well, Stevie, but that was brother-sister stuff. This was something else. Not like spitting in your hand and shaking hands over a gravestone with your best friend. Or nicking a finger, and making a blood pact. This was important, like meeting someone’s father. He grasped her hand firmly and squeezed.

“Ow!” she cried out and he released her immediately. He looked up into her eyes and in that instant he saw, as if a shutter on her soul had been thrown open, a vulnerability he had not seen there before. Then, just as quickly it was gone.

“I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean to --”

“It didn’t really hurt,” she declared, her glare daring him to refute her. “You just surprised me, that’s all.”

He took her hand back up in his, gently this time, turning it over to examine it. It was smaller than his and surprisingly soft. “It… um… looks okay. You sure I didn’t hurt you?”

He looked up then and found her studying him with the same curious expression she’d had the first day they’d met.

“No,” she said, wondering why she hadn’t pulled her hand away from him immediately. “I’m fine.”

He looked back down at her hand still cupped familiarly in his as if it belonged there. “You don’t shake hands with boys a lot?”

With a sudden blush she jerked her hand away. “No,” she answered emphatically. “Never.”

But she had offered her hand first. “Then how come…? I mean it was your idea, you know?”

“I know. I don’t know. I just felt like it.” She felt her cheeks warm even further and thanked her mother for her rosy complexion.

“I guess I should feel special,” he said, not sure exactly what that meant.

“I guess you should.”

“You said your name was Simmy, like Timmy, but with an S?”

“Pronounced “S”, spelled with a “C”.”

“That’s a really…,” Whoa! He had just crushed her hand and now he was going to tell her he thought her name was weird? He was making a real good impression. “…unusual name.”

“I got it from my great uncle. Called me Cinnamon, because of my hair,” she fluffed her auburn tresses with her left hand; they were beautiful, “only he couldn’t pronounce cinnamon. All he could say was Ci - ma, Cimmy. The name kind of stuck.”

“So what’s your real name?”

“It’s not me,” she said, hoping the renewed heat in her cheeks didn’t show.

“What is it?” he persisted.

“It’s not me,” she declared again. He thought she might stamp her foot for emphasis.

“What about me?” Stevie chirped up. She had stopped in the middle of the path and they had nearly bowled her over.

“What about you?” Cimmy asked.

“Don’t you want to know my name?” Stevie asked.

“Of course, I do. What is it?”

“Stevie.”

“And you’re Ryan’s little… brother?”

“Yes,” Stevie answered with a look at Ryan the older girl couldn’t read. “I’m Ryan’s little brother.”

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Ryan persisted.

“Tell you what?” Cimmy asked.

“Your name.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I never tell anyone.”

“I thought I was special.”

“You are,” she said, realizing just then that the words were true. “You got a handshake.”

They walked along in silence for several minutes each lost in their own thoughts. Finally Ryan spoke. “Do you believe his stories?” he asked, referring to the storyman.

“Yeah,” Cimmy answered after a moment’s consideration. “I guess so.”

“All that stuff about dinosaurs? Animals don’t lay eggs, birds do.”

Stevie had slowed to eavesdrop on their discussion. “Spiders lay eggs,” she offered. “We found some.”

Ryan snorted to himself. He had found the milky egg sack on the underside of a long tongue of bark. Stevie was terrified at first but as Ryan held the flat strip of bark out so she could see the tiny eggs attached to it, her curiosity overcame her fear.

“Dinosaurs aren’t spiders,” Ryan replied.

“No, they’re reptiles,” Cimmy said, “like snakes and snakes lay eggs.”

“Do they?” Ryan asked.

“Yes they do,” Cimmy answered.

“And turtles,” Stevie chimed up. “Remember those turtle eggs we found?”

We again!

Cimmy nodded. “See. Turtles are reptiles too, so dinosaurs could have laid eggs.”

“Maybe,” Ryan acquiesced, “but not here. They weren’t anywhere around here. And what about that arrow, anyway, and that girl?”

His reference was to the last tale the storyman had shared with them. He had found an arrow on the shore behind the post office. "A renegade band of Indians had kidnapped a young girl in South Dakota and hightailed it south," he told them, eyes on the northern horizon, as if he could actually see them, riding hell bent for leather through those hills, like some kind of private movie running off in the distance where only he could see it. But the children looked, too. Hoping.

"The cavalry chased them all the way to here,” he said. “They finally caught up with the raiding party at dawn, just when they were striking camp and preparing to cross the river. With little or no cover, the renegades were slaughtered to a man by the soldiers. But just before the last one fell, he shot the girl with an arrow.

“The lieutenant pulled the arrow from her breast, but it was too late. She died in his arms. He buried her on the spot and laid the arrow over the grave." The storyman held up the arrow for all of them to see. "This arrow, right here," he said, giving that familiar nod of his.

“That could have happened,” Cimmy answered.

“Yeah,” Stevie agreed, “it could have.”

Ryan was unconvinced. “But that arrow?” he persisted. “How could he know for sure it was that arrow?”

They walked only a short distance farther when Stevie stopped. “That’s it,” she announced in a low whisper.

It wasn’t really a cabin, just a bunch of rooms nailed together to make one piece. The original cabin had been logs and two of the original walls formed one corner of the structure that stood before them. The other two walls had been expanded at least twice, once mostly using stone and mortar, and another time with wood.

Ryan stared through the trees as he approached the cabin, his heart suddenly racing. This wasn’t the cabin he and Stevie had seen the last time. This cabin was far more sinister and ominous. Where the last one had been rambling in a neat sort of way, this one seemed to spread, malignantly, as if willing itself to engulf its victims. The other’s windows had smiled a cheery, inviting glow. These windows were dark and brooding, a cold dark, that seeped out into the surrounding woods, so that, even though it was still early afternoon, the entire cabin was shrouded in shadow.

Ryan felt Stevie’s grip on his pants leg tighten. “Let’s go home, Ryan,” she pleaded, barely above a whisper. “I don’t like it here.”

Ryan reached back and mussed her hair, an old, familiar gesture that almost reassured her. “I know,” he said, feeling her grip relax just a bit, “it looks real different.”

“Different how?” Cimmy asked. Though she had no previous image to compare against the scene before her, she, too, felt oddly uneasy.

“Last time it was lighter, cheerier,” Ryan said. “Not so….” He peered around at the surrounding woods. They seemed to loom over the three of them.

“Scary?” Stevie suggested.

“Yeah, scary,” Ryan agreed.

“Well, scary or not, are we just gonna stand here or are we gonna go see if the storyman‘s all right?” Cimmy asked with a nudge on Ryan’s back. “Isn’t that why we came here?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said, trying to mimic her bravado, and started toward the cabin, Stevie pressed close behind him, “it is.”

The first uncurtained window they peeked through was to the library just like the last time, only this time the farther room was dark, no light crackled from the fireplace. Peering in over his shoulder, Cimmy could just make out the open door and the dim room beyond. They tried the next window. The curtains were drawn across this window but there was enough of a gap to see it was the room with all the shelves and their odd contents. The first time he’d peered through that window the curtains had been opened and he’d clearly seen the shelves along every wall and the… things carefully displayed on them. He hadn’t recognized any of them at first, but after a moment realized many of them were the artifacts the story man had found. There was the dinosaur egg in a shallow box and next to it an arrow lovingly placed across a rose-carved stand. There was a piece of horn, and a huge, dangerous-looking fang and a lot of other things he didn’t recognize. Each of them had a white card in front of it with writing on it.

One by one, they approached each window and peered in. Some were uncurtained, revealing another view of the room with glass shelves, two more views of the study, and a dark glimpse into what appeared to be a small, neat bedroom. Having completely circled the house, they found themselves staring at the narrow porch. Two posts supported a low hanging slab of roof that offered minimal protection from the elements.

“Why don’t we just knock?” Cimmy suggested after it became evident neither of her companions was going to budge without some encouragement. “If anyone’s here they’ll answer.”

“What if he’s hurt?” Stevie asked.

“Maybe he’ll just moan loud or something,” Cimmy answered.

Ryan led them up onto the porch, expecting the boards to cry out an alarm with every footfall. He paused when he reached the door to share a look with each of his companions. “Go ahead,” Cimmy urged in a tight whisper. Stevie clung tightly to his leg, but nodded her agreement. Taking a deep breath, Ryan reached out a tentative hand and tapped softly on the door as he might were he summoning his father from bed in the middle of the night and wasn’t sure if it was for a good enough reason.


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