Ugh . . . this is gonna be awful, Denby thought as he shuffled his feet across the trimmed turf of the putting green.
When it came to anticipatory anxiety, Denby was a true artist. Gifted. In the blink of an eye, he could take every near and distant memory of unpleasantry and crumple them all into one big nauseous ball. A big nauseous ball that would rapidly ping-pong back and forth in his head.
PING: Remember the last time you walked through the green door? PONG: That jumbo margarita vertigo? PING: It's gonna happen again. PONG: Let's hope you don't throw up. PING: You are definitely gonna throw up. PONG: Remember that one time in third grade when you puked in class? PING: Puked all over poor . . . what was her name? PONG: Amy? PING: Anna? PONG: Abby? PING: It was Abby. PONG: That was embarrassing.
“This is gonna be awful,” Denby said aloud as he watched James pluck the luminescent green bauble from around his neck.
James shuffled Denby to his right, held up the bauble by its chain and whispered, "Brish. Unim. Sesim."
The bauble crackled, spun, emitted a brilliant light, and the unordinary green door materialized. It shimmered as it stood on the edge of the ninth green of the Wexford Public Golf Course.
Denby braced himself and held tight to James’ topcoat. He clenched his teeth and preemptively winced as he put his foot through the unordinary doorway.
As it would happen, Denby's world-class worrying was all for naught. He felt no nausea as he kept a firm grip on James. No odd squishy sensation in his feet. No wibbly-wobbly tilt of the world as he was unceremoniously pulled along. Nothing. Nothing but total darkness.
"That's weird,” Denby said.
"What is weird?" James asked.
"I don't feel sick."
"Do you often feel sick?"
"No, it's just . . . never mind. You got a light switch . . . or something?"
James whispered, “Lemin. Tris. Lim.”
Denby shielded his eyes as light erupted from above.
James whispered, “Siish,” and the light dimmed to a soft, tranquil, Denby-friendly level.
Denby rubbed his eyes and looked around the room, "It’s the same . . . but different? Why is it different?"
The marvelous room behind the green door was indeed the same but different from Denby’s last visit. Same dark wood walls. Same endless shelves. Same leather-bound books dutifully performing their same gravity-defying feat. Only now, the entire room was a completely different shape. The shape of a perfect seamless half-sphere.
The carved wooden table still sat in the center of the room. It was still covered with cubes, stones, trinkets, baubles and gadgets that Denby now knew to be Blindal's handiwork.
Jerry, the earless black rabbit, lounged quite comfortably among the unordinary clutter. He raised his head, yawned, blinked and gave Denby a grin.
"Will be but a moment," James walked to a set of porcelain steamer trunks and unstacked them. "Care for a beverage?"
"Nah, I'm good."
James popped the copper latches on one of the trunks and stuck his head inside. “Are you sure? I have a bit of everything,” his voice echoed.
"Not thirsty, but thanks," Denby walked to the outer bookshelf. He ran his fingers along the unmarked bindings. He was no librarian, but it did not take a trained eye to notice that the leather-bound books appeared to be the same. Some older than others, more worn, more dusty, but the same. He glanced back at James, who mumbled and made a racket while he dug through the trunk like a child after a toy.
Denby gingerly pulled one of the well-worn books from its place. The leather binding creaked as he opened it to the middle.
Is this Latin?
It was indeed Latin—handwritten with clean, uniform, elegant penmanship.
He flipped through the pages. Page after page overflowed with Roman numerals followed by a few words, followed by more Roman numerals.
Denby’s knowledge of the dead language was limited to bumper sticker slogans and mottos printed on coins. He did not see a single “carpe diem,” “semper fidelis” or “e pluribus unim” among the pristine written words. He shrugged and slid the book back into place.
James’ head was still sunk into the porcelain trunk, "Will be but a moment longer."
"What are you looking for?" Denby asked as he continued to examine James’ library.
"Something that may save our skins when Calista no doubt tries to remove them."
“What, exactly, will save our skins?"
"Not sure. But I will know it when I see it," James reached into the trunk, pulled out a metal plate and tossed it aside, allowing it to crash loudly to the floor.
"Take your time. No hurry," Denby pulled another book from the spherical shelving. He opened it.
Is this . . . Japanese?
It was not. It was traditional Chinese hanzi, not that Denby could decipher meaning from either.
Once again he flipped through the book, and once again each and every page was filled with beautiful handwritten entries. He slid the book back into place, "If Calista is a friend, why would she want to remove our skins?"
James ignored the question and continued to dig through the trunk.
Denby pulled another book from the shelf. A book that was not as well-worn as the others. He opened it.
Finally something I can understand.
The elegant handwritten entries were transcribed in Italian. And thanks to a brief obsession with Mario Puzzo's “The Godfather” and a crush on a foreign exchange student named Eva, Denby could understand Italian. Some Italian. Unfortunately, none of the written entries seemed to deal with organized crime or the location of school lockers.
1432 Marzo 23. Alessia. Desiderando. Lago. Bellissimo. Contento.
What does this mean?
Denby flipped through the pages. More dates followed by more words, followed by more dates, followed by more words. Over and over.
"Hey. What does any of this stuff mean?" Denby asked.
"Excusy?" James lifted his head away from his search and saw that Denby was about to run his hand down the inky page of a book. He bounced away from the porcelain trunk, hurriedly grabbed the manuscript, snapped it shut and slid it back into its proper place on the shelf. "Now, now, we have no time for trips of nostalgia.”
“What? Are they like your diaries . . . or . . . something?”
“They are not diaries, Denby.”
“They are . . . memories . . . memories written with the ink of Ilgamish.”
“Ink of what?”
“Ilgamish. The ink was a gift from an acquaintance,” James explained. “The acquaintance has since passed, and the ink’s wells have long run dry. These . . . manuscripts . . . represent all that is left of its . . . unordinariness.”
“Unordinary? How? What does it do?”
“When the ink of Ilgamish is read properly, and touched with the tips of one’s fingers, it allows the written memory to be relived.” James continued, “So . . . let us not touch the ink, my good Denby.”
“Okay . . . gotcha . . . no touching your diaries . . . I mean . . . memories . . . whatever.”
James walked back to the opened porcelain steamer trunk. Denby followed.
“Gonna tell me what the deal is with Calista? Maybe start with why she’d wanna remove our skins.”
James stuck his arm deep inside the trunk. "Calista and I had a falling out. A moment of differing opinions."
"You got into an argument?”
“Yes," James felt around inside the trunk. He stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth as he searched, “An argument.”
"I’ve been in arguments. Nobody's wanted to remove my skin."
James did not respond and kept digging through the trunk.
“Was she like your girlfriend or something?” Denby asked.
"No, she was not ‘like my girlfriend or something,’" James twisted around and put both arms deep inside the trunk. "We were but friends. Allies. And . . . due to differing opinions, I left her company. Left her company at a most ill-advised time."
"You left her hanging?"
"In the lurch, I am afraid."
"And for that she would remove our skins? Not even a hello? Just . . ." Denby made a slicing motion with his hand, "Schwoop. Off with our skin?"
"Yes. Schwoop. Off with our skin," James stopped his search and yanked both of his hands out of the porcelain trunk. "Found them!"
James reached out his clinched left hand, let loose his fingers and revealed a ring. The ring had an etching on its surface. An etching of a bearded man adorned with a crown.
“What is it?” Denby asked.
“What does it look like?”
“The Ring of Khangaalak. A gift given to me by one of the wisest and kindest kings to ever live,” James smiled. “Now, Denby Evers, I give the ring to you.”
Denby took the ring from James’ hand and caught its glint from the tranquil light. “This will protect me from a Calista skinning?”
“It will protect you from the gods themselves . . . for a time.”
“For a time?”
“For a time.”
Denby began to slide the ring onto his finger, which prompted James to rattle off in rapid-fire succession, “No. No. No. No.”
James gently grabbed Denby’s wrist, “Only when immediate danger is near. Then and only then, do you put on the ring.”
“Immediate, life-threatening danger,” James explained. “You will know. And if not, I will most likely be near enough for you to hear my shouts of ‘For the love of the gods, put on the ring.’ Or something equally eloquent.”
“Gotcha,” Denby examined the ring and the etching of the bearded king’s face. “So, what does it—,” he stopped as he saw what was in James’ right hand. “Oh my god, is that a lightsaber? That’s some sort of weird lightsaber, isn’t it?”
Gripped firmly in James’ right hand was a cylindrical copper sword hilt. It was cracked and worn and looked as if it had been neglected for several lifetimes. It had no blade, and at its base was a scratched black-orbed pommel with symmetrical grooves cut around its center.
James held it in front of him, “No, Denby, this is not some sort of ‘weird lightsaber.’”
“Are you sure? It looks like a weird lightsaber.”
“I am sure. It is not a weird lightsaber.”
Denby looked closely at the ancient black-orbed hilt, "That will protect you from Calista?”
“No,” James was stone-faced, “Afraid nothing will protect me from Calista.”
James closed the lid of the porcelain steamer trunk and latched it tight. He slid the ancient sword hilt inside his topcoat, "Be a dear and grab Jerry, will you?"
Jerry’s head perked up when he heard the sound of his name. His rabbitlike legs twitched, shifting the impromptu nest of unordinary clutter. A gadget fell from the table, bounced and rolled to Denby’s feet.
"We're taking the rabbit?"
"He is not a rabbit."
Denby picked up Jerry, who promptly scurried up his arm and sat atop his shoulder.
Denby mumbled under his breath, "Diaries that aren't diaries. Girlfriends that aren't girlfriends. Lightsabers that aren't lightsabers. Rabbits that aren't rabbits. Ink that shouldn't be read. Rings that shouldn't be worn. Friends that are about to skin us alive."
"What was that?" James asked with an eyebrow raised.
"Nothing. Tellin' Jerry he shouldn't play in traffic."
"All right then, off we go, my good gentlemen! Calista awaits."
“People don’t disappear. Not like that,” Bradbury said over the echo of crickets as he sat on the hood of the Nova. His feet rested on her chrome bumper while her headlamps cut two slices of light through the night. Slices of light that traced over the road, past a hedgerow, up a short ridge, across a sandy bunker and onto the ninth green of the Wexford Public Golf Course. The ninth green, where Bradbury was ninety-nine percent certain he had witnessed Denby Evers vanish into thin air.
“It’s not possible,” Bradbury leaned forward. “It isn’t.”
Eighty-eight percent certain.
“It’s pretty dark out there. I probably lost track of him.”
Seventy-seven percent certain.
“I mean . . . maybe . . . maybe I blinked . . .”
Sixty-six percent certain.
“I blinked and he ran off and I just missed it,” Bradbury looked toward the dark outline of trees that butted up against the cut grass. “That’s probably what happened. He ran off. Lookin’ for that lady of the fountain, or . . .”
Fifty-five percent certain.
Bradbury leaned back and looked through the windshield of the Nova. He stared at the gold locket that dangled from the rearview mirror and took a deep breath, “You want me to go traipse through those woods, dontcha?”
Forty-four percent certain.
“You want me to go look for him?”
Thirty-three percent certain.
“You want me to go make sure he is okay?”
The headlamps of the Nova seemed to flicker.
“Okay, I’ll go find the kiddo.”
Bradbury slid off the front of her hood. He took but two steps to begin his search when he saw, in the slimmest slice of light, Denby Evers reappear out of thin air on the ninth green of the Wexford Public Golf Course.
The green door sparkled in the darkness as it clanked shut behind James, Jerry and Denby. Jerry stood upright on Denby’s shoulder, placed one paw atop his head and clung loosely to the ginger curls while James whispered, “Clau. Dere. Nun.” The green door spun, shrank and dematerialized into its proper translucent trinket.
About now it would have been in Denby’s best interest to focus on the task at hand. The task of finding, confronting and convincing Calista, the wild woman of the woodlands, to join them on their journey. Denby was not focused on the task at hand. Far from it.
I hate golf . . . he thought.
Hate was a strong word. A strong word Denby reserved for what he considered to be the most appropriate of occasions. Such appropriate occasions occasionally revolved around the ordinary sport known as golf.
He had not always hated golf. For the majority of his life, he had given it no thought whatsoever. Until, that is, the first summer at his ordinary office when he was involuntarily volunteered to join junior sales executives on the weekly ordinary golf outing. Every week he would be unforcedly forced to spend three hours of a sunny afternoon unsuccessfully swinging a borrowed club at a little dimply ball that in no way, shape or form would be traveling in any intentionally desired direction.
He spontaneously and needlessly thought of those ordinary outings as the smell of the dewy, clipped turf hit his nose.
I really hate golf.
James snapped his fingers in front of Denby’s nose, “Yoo-hoo?”
Jerry clutched Denby’s noggin as it joggled and successfully filed away the invasive memories.
James nodded toward the nearby forest, “Stay close. We shall be venturing into those creepiest of woods.” He slapped Denby’s back, “But, fear not, nothing will befall you while I am in your company, and, of course, you have the ring of Khangaalak.”
Denby held up the ring, “Yep.” He tossed it upward and clumsily caught it with a juggle, “Magic ring,” then slid it safely into his pocket.
James straightened his topcoat, “Follow me, my good—”
“Denby!” A shout interrupted from the darkness.
The trio turned sharply and saw Bradbury as he struggled to make his way through the hedgerow. He was hung up in the greenery as he yelled again, “Denby!”
“This is a touch bit . . . problematic,” James said. “The charioteer mustn’t interrupt our mission. See if you cannot coax the good man to move along. March on his merry way,” James looked at the tree line of darkened maples and pursed his lips, “with haste.”
Denby did as instructed and took off on a gallop. Jerry clung to his curls with every hurried step.
Now, in Denby’s defense, it was dark and the terrain uneven. It would take the most nimble and cautious of runners to not make a misstep. Denby, of course, was not a nimble and cautious runner and immediately made a misstep. His toe dragged across a ridge that rose from the turf.
Ah geez . . .
That misstep started a stumble, a stumble that could not be stopped.
Oh no . . .
He stumbled and stumbled.
. . . no . . . no . . .
His stumbly steps hit the head of a forgotten golf club that laid across a lip of sod on the edge of the sandy bunker and his stumble turned into a tumble. A tumble that could not be stopped.
. . . no . . . no . . . no . . .
He tumbled and tumbled.
. . . no . . . no . . . no . . . no . . .
Jerry held on for as long as he could, but the turbulent tumble was too much. His paws lost their grip, and he fell to the ground as Denby crashed face first into the damp sandy bunker.
. . . ugh . . . hate . . . golf.
James was a mere stone’s throw away, but he did not witness Denby’s graceless display. He did not see the tumble. He did not see Jerry’s disorderly dismount. He was completely and totally fixated on the creepiest of darkened woods.
James scanned the ordinary trees against the blue-black sky. Back and forth he looked. Back and forth until he saw something. Something not quite right. Something out of place among the Pennsylvania maples. It was a knotted and gnarled tree trunk roughly the size and shape of a large, ordinary man. He gazed upon it with an intense focus and shut out the entire world. He shut out everything but that knotted and gnarled trunk.
One moment was all it took. One moment of extra-unordinary concentration and he knew what it was. He reached inside his topcoat and slowly removed the ancient black-orbed hilt. He growlingly whisper-shouted, “We are seen.”
Denby rose to his feet, dusted sand from his face and hurled back, “I know. I know. I’ll get Bradbury outta here. Gimme a minute.”
“Not him,” James nodded toward the knotted and gnarled trunk on the edge of the creepiest of woods. “Her.”
James ripped a chained bauble from his tangle of necklaces. He palmed it, judged its weight, then threw it high into the night sky. As the airborne bauble arced in the darkness, James bellowed, “Flick! Moorish!”
The bauble hissed, whirled and then exploded into thousands upon thousands of itsy-bitsy sparkly blue bubbles.
The bubbles fell slowly to the ground. From the bumper of Bradbury’s Nova to the edge of the creepiest woods, the bauble’s bubbles descended upon the Wexford Public Golf Course.
Denby reached outward and caught a handful as if they were large flakes of falling snow. The bubbles popped with flashes of light, and a bright blue haze formed, turning the dark night into an unordinary day.
Denby could see. He could see everything. He peered into the creepiest of woods.
It took a moment, but he saw it. He saw what James saw—the knotted and gnarled trunk. He too thought it seemed quite out of place.
Nah . . . no way Calista is a tree.
Although, he did have his doubts.
James looked with reluctance at the ancient black-orbed hilt. He rolled it across his rutted palm and closed his eyes. Gracefully, he slid one foot forward and rose to the balls of his feet. His fingers began to wrap firmly around the hilt. He raised it above his head and twisted the scratched black orb. He twisted precisely one quarter turn, no more.
The ancient hilt unleashed a long radiant red-orange flame. It was angry. Angry that it had been cooped up for so long. It whipped wildly through the bright blue haze.
James struggled to keep balance as the flame danced and snaked around him. His hands shook as he again twisted the orb another precise quarter turn. One quarter, no more.
The untamed flame shortened. James’ body shook. His arms strained as the flame twirled and crackled. He twisted the black orb. One last precise quarter turn. One quarter, no more.
The chaotic flame shifted into a blade. A thin, flat, metallic blade that shimmered in the night.
Denby watched from the bunker with sand on his cheeks, “I knew it! I knew it was a weird lightsaber!”
James opened his eyes, swung the angry weird lightsaber and turned its blade parallel to the turf of the ninth green. He fixed his full concentration on the knotted and gnarled trunk—the unordinary trunk that hid among the Pennsylvania maples. He yelled at the top of his immortal lungs, “Denby! For the love of the gods, put on the ring!”
Denby, in a panic, pulled the ring from his pocket. It fumbled in his fingertips. He could see the bearded king’s face etched onto its surface. He could almost hear the king say with his metal whiskered mouth, “Calm down, listen to your friend over there and slide me onto one of those fingers. Any finger will do.”
“Okay,” Denby agreed aloud, and he made ready to don the ring.
Unbeknownst to Denby, Bradbury had freed himself from the hedgerow and now stood directly behind him. He had been standing behind him when Denby whooped about the weird lightsaber, and he was standing behind him now while Denby was covered in sand and spoke to his empty hand.
“Hey . . . kiddo . . .” Bradbury gently tapped Denby on the shoulder. He tapped gently, but apparently not gently enough. If Denby could have jumped out of his skin, he would have. He would have been skinless and it would have saved Calista the trouble.
So startled was Denby, he dropped the one thing that would actually prevent him from losing his skin. The ring of Khangaalakh flew from his fumbling fingertips and rolled across the sandy bunker.
Oh my gods . . . oh my gods . . .
Denby dropped to his hands and knees and scrambled across the sand for the lost ring.
Hide-and-seek with the lost was a game Denby often played. He played the game with wallets, watches, keys to apartments, codes to copiers. So often were these moments of misplacement that he came to expect them and always tried to remain cool and calm. At this exact moment, however, he did not have an ounce of coolness or a crumb of calmness. Wholly justifiable, really. It was not as if Denby could send a text to his nice landlady and have her swing by with a spare ring of Khangaalak.
Oh . . . my . . . gods . . .
Without the benefit of the illuminating unordinary blue haze, Bradbury could not see Denby’s desperation. He could not see the sifting and searching. But he could hear. He could hear Denby nearly weeping with frustration.
Bradbury spoke softly, “Kiddo . . . tell me what’s goin’ on.”
“I already did,” Denby frantically kept up the search.
“I didn’t believe,” Bradbury kneeled in the sand. “Tell me again. Tell me I’m not seein’ things. Tell me I didn’t see you disappear into thin air.”
“Won’t matter,” Denby scoured the sand. “You’re not gonna believe me.”
“Maybe I will,” Bradbury reached out, wrapped his arm around Denby’s and gently brought him to his feet. Bradbury dusted damp sand off the loaner tee shirt, “I just gave this to ya.” He slapped the sides of Denby’s arms, “Now, tell me I’m not seein’ things.”
Denby slid around Bradbury, grabbed the back of his head, pointed him in the direction of the unordinary high noon and asked, “You see a six-foot-four immortal with a weird lightsaber?”
“Then you’re not seein’ things.”
Bradbury wanted to believe, “He’s out there? James is out there with a . . . weird lightsaber?”
“Like some sorta samurai,” Denby said. “Something’s . . . off, though. I think . . . I think he is scared. I am pretty sure he is about to fight a tree.”
Bradbury’s willingness to believe overrode his desire to scoff at something being off, “A tree? What kinda tree could scare an immortal?”
Denby did not answer.