Boy Meets Girl
A string of black SUVs arrived outside Sally's Place, a Washington, DC homeless shelter in the part of town that sometimes scared people who didn't live, work, and play in it. It also sometimes scared the people who live, work and play there, but they couldn't afford condos in places less scary, so were assumed by those that could to be cool with it all. The arrival of these vehicles meant one of three things: a politician in need of a photo op, a celebrity in need of community service, or some serious shit about to go down. In this case, there was no celebrity or shit going down or up for that matter*, just an appearance by the President of the United States, whose staff had convinced him he needed a show of empathy and then strong-armed him into making an appearance at Sally's. Normally Sally was not inclined to provide a prop for a President with whom she shared not a single goddamn point of view, if one could attribute the capability for points of view to such an empty, soulless, no good mother…well you get the idea. However, thanks to some old fashioned quid pro quo, Gale had NOAA’s budget back to where she wanted it, and Sally’s place had received a large anonymous donation from someone whose only request was to allow a certain politician to swing by for a photo op.
A phalanx of Secret Service agents exited the cars and created a secure path to the front door. President Stockbridge jumped out of his SUV and made a beeline for the door belatedly remembering to wave to the television cameras only once he was safely inside, so was forced to awkwardly brush his hair back with his outstretched hand, only then realizing there were people inside he could have waved to, but now things had gotten awkward.
“Hey,” he said weakly, looking for an aide to solve this public relations crisis. Alas, there was no aide prepared to do so, but Sally stepped forward to greet the President, temporarily filling the void.
Meanwhile, the SUV from which the President had just departed began to roll away, stopped, backed up, and disgorged the President's son from the back seat. Web Stockbridge sulked his way into Sally's at a pace best described as turgid. Waving was never an option.
Sally's was a three-story red brick townhouse with a common room and kitchen on the first floor. The twenty five or so people staying at Sally's were already forming a line for dinner and the President was being given some basic instructions on how best to convey mashed potatoes from the tray to the plate most of which he failed to grasp, as he was otherwise occupied trying to navigate an apron that seemed designed to thwart his efforts to get over his head without messing up his hair. Web oozed toward the back of the room and found a seat at the table farthest from the cameras’ focus, his father, and the mashed potatoes.
A teenage girl with cornrows decorated with polished wood beads sitting across the table from him asked, "Are you with him?"
Web hoped she was talking to someone else, but since they were the only two people at the table, that seemed like a long shot. He then thought maybe she was one of those homeless people that talked to themselves—he was pretty sure it was homeless people who did that, right? Finally, he realized he better say something before the girl starting assuming he was the one with issues. And, if you knew Kayla, which you do, you know she was already thinking this kid had issues.
"Um, yeah. He's my dad," Web responded.
"Dragged you along for the photo op, huh?" Kayla observed.
“How come you’re not serving dinner, too?” she asked.
“I…” he started and then realized that the honest answer was that the idea had never even occurred to him and no one had suggested that he should, so he said, “I did it last time at the, uh, animal shelter thingy.” Whew, nailed it.
"Okay, sure. Bet the puppies liked the mashed potatoes,” Kayla joked, a comment that was sadly wasted on her audience. “My dad and I got here two days ago. We were caught in that hurricane and had to hitch a ride up from Richmond. Can you believe all that rain and wind? I heard people died."
Web had the faint sense that there had been some sort of disaster recently, so maybe this was what she was talking about. News was so boring. "Yeah," Web said, because saying something seemed to be required. Then, “That’s really bad,” because it seemed that saying more was actually what was required.
Kayla studied him. He didn't look like an idiot. He looked like a pretty normal teenager, a little round in the middle with brown hair, messy and in need of a cut, a faint red spot on his forehead that was likely the remnants of a pimple. She decided to give it one more shot with both verbal guns a'blazing. "What's it feel like living in the White House? Are there servants? Where do you sleep? How many rooms are there? Have you been in them all? Are there secret passageways? There must be secret passageways. Do you love it?"
Web's first reaction was like that of any male who's asked what he's thinking or feeling, he panicked, then lied, then actually thought about it, lied again more thoughtfully, and then finally realized he did have feelings and was failing completely at expressing them. What Kayla heard was, "Uh, a thousand, no, maybe a hundred, but I've been in them all, of course, wait, what, secret passageways? Do you want to come over?"
"Definitely," said Kayla.
What the Hell just happened, wondered Web.
At that moment, on the other side of the room, another female was equally exasperated with the rantings of a specimen of the male persuasion but having much less success in dealing with him. Gale had slid in the door just as the President was dumping a second spoonful of mashed potatoes onto the floor. His overall ratio of potato to plate was horrifying the staff, but somehow it seemed to come off as folksy to at least some of the residents rather than bumbling and obnoxious. Gale was definitely not in the folksy camp. How had she ever thought this man was worth investing in? And now, right in the middle of a national disaster, instead of doing something useful, she was providing moral support to a pile of doomed potatoes.
A national crisis. That was the key she realized. No one thinks about those when they vote or make a donation, even big ones. She hadn’t. She’d thought Henry Clay Stockbridge as someone who would vote the way she wanted him to and not ask a lot of questions. He’d sign the bills that were placed on his desk and he’d leave anything too complicated to the multitude of experts every President underappreciated until they were needed. Of course, as she was now understanding, all that got chucked out the window like a cheating husband’s set of golf clubs when a real crisis showed up. Now, Henry was supposed to step up, lead; and dammit that was just not his strong suit. More and more, it looked like the golf clubs were going to land right on the hood of the Mercedes. Shit.
She spotted the President's son across the room talking to one of the residents, which was strange, because she was not aware the kid had that capability. She wandered over, if for no other reason than to avoid being filmed looking horrified at her boss. Before she had a chance to say a word, Web jumped up in front of her. "Gale, hi! Can you take us back to the White House?"
God, it irked her that he called her Gale, but repeated dirty looks followed by repeated "Don't call me Gale," seemed to have no effect. However, in this particular case she was willing to overlook it, since their agendas aligned: they both had a strong desire to escape. She glanced toward the President to see him juggling three ladles. As each one dropped onto the floor, a Sally's Place worker grabbed them and ran in the back to wash them.
"Where are the ladles?" the President cried, as the food line ground to a halt.
"Let's go," said Gale.
*To be fully transparent, the President's son was referred to by some less than discreet senior staff as "that little shit," but never as "some serious shit."
Chapter 8 -- Moo
It’s very important that you store garbage in the garage until pick-up days and ensure that the lids are secure. Raccoons and other animals will be attracted to the smell of food. While bear sightings are rare, they do occasionally wander in more populated areas. You’ll find a pamphlet of how to respond to a bear in the kitchen drawer. Fox and other small predators are also common. The phone number for animal control is [redacted].
-From the spiral bound notebook located in the upper left hand kitchen drawer
Speaking of fences as methods of keeping things where they belong, did you know the oldest evidence of humans making art is a 40,000 year old drawing of a cow? And now that we’re speaking of cows, did you know that they’re notorious for findings ways around fences and taking strolls through neighboring fields and yards? And did you know further that in the solitude and quiet of early morning in the country, a mooing cow can wake your ass up like a rooster on your pillow? And, finally did you know that these vicious sleep attackers travel in slow moving marauding packs?
“Hey, I found a hole in the fence,” calls out the alpha cow.
“Really? What’s on the other side?” utters the pack. Ha. Come on. You get it and you laughed despite yourself. I know you did.
“Looks like grass.”
So it was that we woke one crisp fall morning at dawn to the melodious lowing of cows outside our window sounding closer than John Cusack with a boom box. If these references are too obscure, just skip them. I won’t be insulted. Disappointed, but not insulted.
Making like ma in her kerchief and I in my cap I stumbled to the window and didn’t throw up the sash, because it's a window, so I just looked out it. Not as lyrical, I admit, but a lot more practical when it's cold outside. Just hanging out in our backyard seemingly without a care in the world was a herd of cow. There were twenty or so and most were black and white. They didn’t appear to have an agenda or really any plan at all, so we took their intentions as peaceful . . . for now.
Not knowing the protocol for how to deal with the discovery of someone else's cows in our yard, we did the only reasonable thing we could think of--we ignored them and went downstairs and made coffee. We drank our coffee while standing in the kitchen looking out the window at our new cows. Our boys starting naming them, which isn’t something a small child should do with an animal that contributes to the 222 pounds of meat consumed by the average American each year.
We consulted the notebook that had been so helpful on topics like fires and termites but, alas, it had nothing to say on the issue of wandering cows. Finally, we went upstairs, showered, brushed our teeth, and slowly got dressed in the hopes that time would solve the problem. And, by God, it did. When we returned to the kitchen for our second cup of coffee, the cows were gone. Where they went and by what route, I’ve no idea. They were a strangely stealthy bunch.
Maybe their stealth is for good reason, given the increasingly complex relationship Americans and the world have with farming and with cows? First off, let’s dispense with the bucolic image of the American farmer as the backbone of the economy, not because agriculture isn’t vital to the nation and the world (it is) and not because we don’t produce more food per acre than ever before (we do), but because no one actually works on a farm anymore, at least almost no one. A chart showing agriculture employment over the past century looks like a character count from the beginning of a teenage slasher film to the end. Over the same time period, farms have become wildly more productive, just without needing much human intervention. Doubt me? Google “automated combine harvester” and prepare for some next-level Terminator-style nightmare fuel. All this automation, technology and subsequent productivity is great for feeding people, but not so great for farming as a profession or job creator. The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia isn’t immune to this trend. With increasing awareness of the impact meat eating has on the climate coupled with advances in meatless alternatives to the old-fashioned burger, farming as a job creator is a dead-end path.
Into this reality, our little family stepped offering very little in the way of solutions. We weren’t dependent on the local economy for work nor were we planning on grazing or growing anything for sale. We were outsiders looking for a way in or at least a better understanding of the local language. The cows’ unexpected appearance and equally mystifying disappearance provided an opening.
We decided we needed the benefit of some local knowledge. I mentioned earlier the existence of neighbors and let me now explain in a little more detail what that term actually means in the context in which we were currently living. Whereas in the city talking to or visiting a neighbor could be as simple as yelling over a fence or walking across the street, having a conversation with a neighbor in the country required some planning, possibly packing a lunch and in the end felt more like trespassing. Because in order to get to somebody's front door, you usually had to cover a lot of ground that wasn't yours. And you didn't just casually walk past someone’s house on the way to anywhere, so being on somebody's property much less on their front porch was clearly a show of force. Now my wife will probably think this is ridiculous, because the neighbors in question who I’m about to introduce could not have been friendlier, but was there really any way to know that ahead of time?
The cow incident brought this situation to a head, as my method of casually hanging out outside on the off chance that the neighbors who lived a quarter mile away might stroll by creating an informal encounter that could then lead to a more formal interaction and less trespassing, was clearly not going to get us answers about the cows anytime soon. So we gathered the boys and went way outside of my comfort zone and walked down our driveway, across the street, a quarter mile down the street, and a quarter mile up our neighbor's driveway to their front door. My wife forbade me from wearing an orange vest. There was a part of me that still assumed anything that moved in this area was viewed as a deer first and I wasn’t going to be someone’s hood ornament. She brought banana bread.
It went something like this:
“Hi, we just moved in across the way,” my wife opened in country-speak, as “across the way” was country for in an emergency if you were to scream really loud and we happened to be outside, on the side of the house facing yours, we could probably hear you and call 911.
“That’s wonderful. Welcome,” the woman who answered the door said. Her name was Margaret, but insisted it was Maggie.
We made introductions and then I cut to the chase. “Margaret, for some reason when we woke up this morning there was a small herd of cows in our backyard that has since disappeared.”
She nodded her head and said, “Yeah, that can happen. It’s nothing to be concerned about. They usually find their way home.”
“Usually?” This wasn’t a finders-keepers situation with which I was going to be comfortable. But I let it go, because then she said something next that changed our lives.
“My daughter babysits, by the way, if you and Karen ever want to go out,” Maggie offered, as though this was a typical occurrence.
As any parent can attest, the presence of a reliable babysitter is a game changer. The presence of a reliable babysitter within a ten-mile radius of a country house in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia is evidence of the divine. We booked her for the following Saturday night without ever asking to meet her or calling a single reference. To this day, though she seemed a lovely, polite young woman, I’ve no idea if she was an axe murdering psychopath who slept under blankets warmed by the souls of her defeated enemies. I didn’t care. She showed up on time, only charged $5 an hour, and the boys were always alive when we got back. We couldn’t ask for more than that.
But this is a chapter about cows. When Saturday night came around Karen and I left the boys in the care of Maggie’s daughter and headed for a small restaurant about half an hour away that was recommended to us by Maggie. She and her family were quickly becoming our personal Wikipedia, Yelp, and Angie’s List. Getting from our house to the restaurant required us to leave our brightly-lit home and driveway, navigate ten miles of poorly lit winding country roads until we reached a series of poorly lit town roads in the middle of which was an Italian restaurant that would serve us food that we could eat without our children. Because they had food and we had no children, it was the best restaurant we’d visited in months.
Don't worry, I'm bringing the story back around to cows not because I ordered a delicious steak that evening, but because of what we encountered on one of those winding poorly-lit country roads. My wife spotted it first. There on the side of the road, very clearly on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence, was a baby cow. It was black, adorable in as much as a 100 pound bovine can be adorable, and it was very clearly wondering how the Hell it had gotten itself into this situation. Now, this wasn’t a heavily trafficked winding poorly-lit country road, but there were cars occasionally traveling back and forth in each direction at speeds that would not be beneficial to either baby cow or car should the two meet. It turned our way as we slowly drove closer and we glanced at each other unsure as to what the appropriate response was to a wandering cow. You just don’t get this scenario in downtown Washington, DC and if you did, the traffic would be gridlocked for several hours, allowing the military plenty of time to deal with it. Out there in the middle of nowhere, the Marines weren’t coming to the rescue. And now that eye contact had been made, no one was going to crush our baby cow.
We pulled over, got out of the car, and took a couple tentative steps toward the animal like well-dressed yuppy ninjas before stopping when it became clear that this was the full extent of our plan. How does one convey best of intentions to a frightened baby cow? Instead, I decided to tackle a problem I could handle, which was accomplished by waving my arms frantically at cars as they approached to try and get them to slow down just in case the cow decided to make a break for it down the middle of the road. The cars that sped past us did slow down, but no one stopped to help, which I think was just because Karen and I clearly looked like we’d everything under control or because I was waving my hands around like a maniac and talking to a cow. The effect was the same.
In the end, the conversation went something like this:
“I’m not putting it in the car,” I insisted. “And whoever owns it won’t like us stealing their cow.”
“Well, we can’t just leave it here,” Karen countered, I’m sure mentally Googling “how to care for a baby cow.” Which, if you were to do this, an extremely helpful Wikihow page on how exactly to do just that would appear, so clearly our situation wasn’t as unique as we thought.
“How’d it get out?” I asked diverting and stalling, for there was no obvious hole in the fence and our little future pet did not seem to be a jumper.
“No idea. What if you hold the wire fence open more?” she suggested.
“The barbed wire fence?” I pointed out.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” she sighed on behalf of women everywhere who have to both contend with powerful motherly instincts and husbands who are occasional pussies.
In an incredibly manly fashion I adjusted my maniacal arm waving and sought to explain in exquisite detailed hand gestures to the cow just how it should run away from me and navigate the gap in the fence created by the nice lady trying to not impale herself just over there. Perhaps some connection was made or perhaps the cow just wanted to get away from the crazy humans who weren’t offering to feed it, but it worked. It jumped back through to safety. It didn’t look back in either gratitude for its rescue or reproach for foiling its escape, but scampered off into the darkness.
Operation Baby Cow Rescue complete, so we high-fived over our very our Baby Jessica moment (look it up, honestly you people wear me out) and drove off along the winding road. The experience cemented a connection between us and the country like we’d passed some unwritten test. It’s possible that the cow snuck out every night and went for a stroll along the road and all we did was interrupt its routine, but it felt as if we’d helped if not the cow then the owner who didn’t have to go searching for his lost animal. It sounds a little silly now, but it made us part of the community, not just visitors for the weekend and that made West Virginia, the house, and that winding road feel more like home.
Sitting at the restaurant a short time later, we recounted our heroics and convinced ourselves that such rescues were amazingly rare occurrences almost bespeaking divine intervention, despite the presence just a week ago of a herd of yard cows who had clearly found not only a way out, but a way back in without human intervention. I’m sure baby cows don’t learn such things until much later. I ordered spaghetti with garlic bread and my wife smiled. My go-to Italian restaurant order was off the table tonight . . . veal scallopini.
A Cookie Runs for Its Life
"What?! How?" I asked.
"And what exactly is hypertime?" asked Mr. Fisher.
"Yeah," interjected J.P., "that sounds like some stupid science fiction thingy."
We all stared at J.P. and then at the cavernous alien building around us, newly awed by his stupidity. All of us except Brian, who was staring at the Prince.
"No way," said Brian.
"Why don't you answer the question," the Prince said to Brian.
"I don't know what hypertime is, but when the Prince whispered in my ear he said, 'the big stupid one is going to say, yeah, that sounds like some stupid science fiction thingy, in response to a question by Mr. Fisher."
"Really? That's absolutely fascinating. So, the HTS can send messages back in time?" said Mr. Fisher. "How far back?"
"It depend on the size of the HTS," the Prince replied. "This one is quite small."
"Can you only send messages to yourself?" Mr. Fisher asked, now clearly excited.
"Larger HTS can be broken into pieces and each piece will receive a message sent by any of the other pieces, but make them too small and they are basically useless. Large HTS, however, are very rare."
"Where do they come from? Do they occur naturally or are they manmade?" Mr Fisher continued his interrogation.
"They were found on a planet, 108WB. That is the only place they have ever been found and there are no more."
"How do you know?"
"Because 108WB was destroyed in the early years of the war as each side tried to collect as many HTS as possible and keep the other side from getting them. The planet's a wasteland," the Prince said matter-of-factly.
"How are we supposed to steal something that important? Why don't you do it?" Jack said.
“My father thinks it's a pointless mission. I think he's wrong," said the Prince.
"So, why don't you prove him wrong? Why involve Tom and his friends?" asked Mr. Fisher.
"I said, I think he's wrong. I'm willing to bet your lives on it, but not mine."
No one knew what to say. The Prince apparently took our silence as agreement.
"Excellent. I'd feared this would be more difficult," said the Prince. "Here's the plan."
Everyone spoke at once.
"Wait a minute!" I said.
"We didn't agree to do anything," said Brian.
"I don't even like him," said J.P. pointing in my direction.
"This is very unfair to all of us," said Mr. Fisher.
The Prince slapped his hand down on the table. The sound echoed throughout the vast room.
"This is pointless," he said. "His parents die if he refuses,” the Prince yelled.
“And we’re gonna die if we stay,” said J.P., “I’m leaving and you guys are crazy if you don’t come with me. Seriously, you are going to die.”
I looked around at my friends and at Mr. Fisher, who said, “I will stay with Tom. You all should go. There’s no point in us all risking our lives.”
“That’s right,” said J.P.
"No way I’m leaving Tom,” said Jack. “And Brian’s not either, right?”
Brian hesitated before nodding his head, but I could tell he was conflicted. It struck me then that I had not really given any thought to the fact that Brian and Jack were risking their lives for me. I just assumed they would come with me and we'd save my parents and be home for dinner or something like that.
Now the reality of the situation was hitting home for all of us. This crazy Prince was really going to let my parents die if I didn't do what he said. And what he was saying sounded more and more insane and dangerous with every passing minute. I made a decision.
"Mr. Fisher's right," I said. "You guys should go. I shouldn't have brought you here in the first place."
"Don't be stupid," said Jack.
"You know, our families don't even know we're, you know, not on Earth," Brian said. "I don't want to leave Tom, but my mom will freak if I don't show up around dinner time."
"It's really okay," I said. I didn't mean it.
"Listen to your friends, Jack, I'm leaving," said J.P.
"I never thought I'd say this, but J.P.'s right," I said. "Go home. If Mr. Fisher meant it and he'll stay . . ."
"I did," Mr. Fisher said.
The Prince, who had been looking on with an extremely bored expression, said, "Well, this has been very touching and all. I'm getting all weepy. Of course, no one has actually asked me if I will allow anyone to leave. Kind of a big question mark, don't you think?"
"Don't be a jerk, at least don't be a bigger jerk," I said. I was losing my patience and about to say several words my parents would not want coming out of my mouth, except that was when the roof exploded.
Huge jagged pieces of glass rained down on us.
"Under the table! Now!" shouted the Prince. We dove for cover. Over the noise of a thousand windows shattering, I heard Jack scream. The shower of glass probably lasted for less than a minute, but it seemed as though time had stopped. Each piece of glass striking the table caused my stomach to contract like I'd been punched. We waited for the table to break apart dooming us all. Finally, there was silence and then, things really went downhill.
The Prince started yelling for his guards, several of whom seemed to appear out of nowhere. Mr Fisher was helping J.P. to his feet, but J.P.'s legs had other plans and he sat back down shaking and wrapping his arms around himself.
"Help me! Please!" Brian called out. Something in his voice made everyone turn. I stumbled around the edge of the table, trying to avoid the more sinister looking shards of glass. I saw the blood before I saw Jack. It was flowing across the floor, winding between pieces of glass like water through a rocky creek bed. Brian was cradling Jack's head in his lap and at first all I noticed was that Brian didn't have a shirt on. Then I noticed that Jack's left arm was lying next to his body and that Brian was holding his shirt against Jack's shoulder where the arm used to be attached.
"Help me!" he shouted at me. I realized I'd been staring, rooted in place. I ran the last three steps, but I had no idea how to help.
"Oh, this is just great," said the Prince, who had just come around the edge of the table and saw what had happened to Jack. "Surgeon!" he yelled.
A tall woman came running over and knelt down next to Jack. She quickly placed his arm into a metal case filled with what looked like orange slime and closed it. Roughly pushing Brian away, she lowered Jack's head to the floor and placed a large piece of square cloth on his shoulder. The cloth immediately changed shape and sealed the wound like some kind of alien band aid, which I guess it kind of was. The surgeon then called for two guards who brought a stretcher over and eased Jack onto it. Before any of us could ask any questions, the surgeon, the guards and Jack were gone.
"Curious that a surgeon was so nearby. Of course, maybe that’s typical here," said Mr. Fisher, who was now standing with J.P. along-side the Prince. I wanted to ask him what he was talking about, but J.P. chose that moment to throw up.
"Show them to their rooms," said the Prince, motioning to two large guards standing nearby. "I assume all this talk of leaving is over now?" he said.
"It is not," spat J.P. "We're getting out of here. You almost killed us."
"Technically that was the Chatrang trying to kill all of us. Even with our defenses, these sorts of things happen from time to time, though that" he pointed at the roof, "is going to take some effort to repair and I'm sure my father is most angry at someone right now. Especially once he finds out that I was in this room when it happened.
"Anyway, that's not any of our problem. We have our own issues to attend to. Your friend is being treated, but it will take some time to replace his arm. He is being loaded onto the ship you will use for your mission. By tomorrow morning we will have done all we can do for him and he will simply need to allow the arm to fix itself for a few days. Unless you want to leave him alone as he goes through this rather painful recovery, I suggest you are all on that ship tomorrow morning."
J.P. walked up to the Prince trying to look tough with vomit on his shirt. "I don't think you're hearing me," he said to the Prince. "I don't care about Jack and his . . ." We never learned what J.P. didn't care about because Brian punched him so hard in the stomach, breathing became J.P.'s biggest worry for the next five minutes. By the time he could talk again, we were all being shown to our rooms by guards who seemed to have a new-found respect for Brian.
After a series of twists and turns down hallways with elaborate paintings of people with strange eyes engaged in a variety of battles, we came to a large circular room with a huge fireplace in the center. The room was shaped like a dartboard with doorways at each of the numbers along the outside edge and the fireplace representing the largest bulls-eye I'd ever seen. The walk to the room had been mostly silent, as we all thought about Jack and what had just happened (well, everyone except J.P., who just kept up a steady stream of complaints). I desperately wanted to talk to Mr. Fisher who had been mumbling to himself for the past five minutes, as though trying to solve one of his puzzles in his head. Before I could talk to anyone, though, the guards ushered each of us to a separate room and closed the door behind us.
"Are you going to cry?" the Princess asked. She was sitting in a high-backed chair made of dark wood in the far corner of my room. "I only ask because we can't cry and I always find it so interesting."
I could only stare at her speechless. After all that had happened to me today, all I could think about was how much I did not want to cry in front of a girl and how much I wished she wasn't there because now that she mentioned it, crying seemed like a good thing to do.
"I'm tired," was all I could think of to say.
"Really? I'm impressed. Most of my brother's victims are scared. Perhaps you could survive after all," she said.
"Well, now I am scared. Thanks," I said.
She smiled and said, "Come, sit." She pointed to another chair nearby with a small dark wood table next to it. On the table was a glass filled with greenish liquid and a plate of what looked like cookies, even though I was sure I saw one move when I sat down.
"Are you hungry? Thirsty? The shroomcaps are very tame and should be easy to eat," the princess said.
I glanced at the plate. The shroomcaps had stacked themselves into a neat tower, except for one that seemed to be trying to throw itself off the table.
"Uh, no thanks. I'm not really hungry," I said. The renegade shroomcap succeeded in wriggling off the edge of the table and rolled itself to safety under my chair.
I lifted my feet up off the floor unsure if a shroomcap was capable of revenge and turned back to the Princess. I found myself staring at her large eyes and wondered why they seemed so pretty on her and so creepy on her brother.
"I saw you arguing with your brother earlier," I said.
"I don't like the way he treats people, like you and your friends," she said. "It never ends well and I'm sick of it."
"What do you mean 'it never ends well'?" I asked.
She laughed, but quickly caught herself and turned serious again. "I'm sorry. That was badly said, though unfortunately true and the reason for my being here. I know this may seem difficult, but you need to refuse my brother and not play his game -- or you will not make it back alive."
"He doesn't seem like the type who takes no for an answer real well," I said skeptically.
"He's not. But the only way to stop him is to leave. He'll be mad, but hopefully he'll move on to make some other trouble," she said.
"You really think he'd let us all just leave if I said no?"
She hesitated before saying, "There would probably have to be certain sacrifices . . ." And she just left that hanging in the air like that.
"My parents? You think I should just leave them to that, that, thing? Forget it. You're crazy," I said.
"I know it's a difficult choice, but in war there are sacrifices. Many people I have known, some close to me, are no longer with us because of this war. They are gone, but the Ashtapada continue to be. That's the way of it," she said.
"Well it's not my war and it's not my way. I have no choice at all. I'm not leaving without trying to save them even if I have to play your brother's stupid game. My friend has already sacrificed his arm. If you really want to be helpful, why don't you stand up to your brother and stop all of this? And what's an Ashtapada?" I said it with more heat in my voice than probably proper when speaking to a princess. She looked stung and I instantly felt guilty.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I know you're trying to help."
"No, it's okay. You're right, though you know nothing of the relationship I have with my brother. He holds a great secret over me that he uses to his constant advantage and I allow it. Maybe someday this will not be the case, but for now I can do no more than warn you that he does not care what happens to you. Do not think of him like some human who you can bargain with or make feel guilty. He will even risk his own people for his fun," she said.
"Why, would he do that? You are at war, right? Doesn't he want to win?"
"If you asked him that question, I'm sure he'd say, yes. But, you have to understand, this war has been going on our entire lives and most of it occurs far away. Attacks like the one today are extremely rare. I can't explain it any better than to say, he's bored."
"Bored? Great, that's just great." I buried my face in my hands in disbelief. "Couldn't he just get a hobby or something? I don't know, collect baby Maggoricusses or something?"
The Princess reached out and lifted my chin. "You are his hobby, earth-boy."
"Then, help me," I demanded. "All this talk isn't helping at all except to scare me to death. You know how things work around here -- do something!"
She again looked shocked, but I didn't feel bad at all this time.
She stood up and said, "I came here to warn you, to give you advice."
I laughed. "Well, thanks for nothing." I got up and walked away from her hoping she'd leave, but when I looked over my shoulder she was just standing there staring at me.
"You can go," I said.
She sputtered, "I can . . .no one talks to me like that."
"Yeah, well, according to you I don't have much to lose, now do I?"
"Well, no, I suppose you don't. Still, telling me I can go. My mother would die if she heard."
"Welcome to the club," I said morbidly.
"You are a strange one, earth-boy and I will promise you this -- if I can help you, I will," she said.
"Maybe I can do a bit more than just offer advice. Now, if it's acceptable to you, I'd like to leave."
I smiled despite my fear and anger. "Sure."
"Good luck . . . ah, I don't know what your name is," she said.
"Tom," I said.
"Good luck, Tom. I think we may meet again, which I have not been able to say to any of the other poor souls my brother has brought into his games. Oh, and we are the Ashtapada," she said, sweeping her hand in a wide circle to indicate the world upon which we stood. And then she was gone.
The door closed behind her. When I tried to open it, it was locked. I walked back to the bed, barely able to lift my feet, and fell across it. A random thought suddenly occurred to me. I guess I don't have to go to school tomorrow.