May 31, 2021
Scarlet kicked at blown-down branches and trundled along the dimming streets. Plainfield’s streetlamps were coughing to life but their lights were feeble flickers against the dusk. She adjusted her shoulder bag, tucked her torn jacket tight around her, and snugged the boa around her neck.
Scarlet entered the forest. She shivered, not so much from the cold as from the itchy feeling of the unfamiliar.
Sounds of rustlings and danger all around.
The rat-a-tat-a-tat of a deadpecker. Kero-keroak from a cluster of crickets. Whaddup-whaddup-whaddup of the slimytoads. A meado of Venus flytraps, their tiny mouths snapping shut on their wriggling insect meals — click-click-click.
Scarlet shuddered, but trudged on. Night descended completely and the path through the woods became a tunnel. A twig snapped and something heavy slithered wetly in the undergrowth. Off in the direction of Grandma’s house, a wolf howled.
She looked at her dad’s watch, but couldn’t tell the time in this utter dark. Why was I so distracted? I could have been at Grandma’s by now.
The bag wriggled.
“You okay in there Pokey? Sniffy?” she said aloud.
The wriggling continued.
Scarlet thought of her friends and their families. In a little while, they’d be clomping cheerfully along this same path, swinging lanterns and singing back the darkness.
“Hey, you guys want a song?” she asked the bag. She didn’t wait for an answer.
“The woods are undead,” she quavered, “with the sound of mucus.”
A raven squawked from a pinetop.
“With zombies they chew,” she sang a little louder, “for a thousand years … ”
A bolt of lightning lit the forest. Scarlet saw a hundred pairs of eyes gleaming back at her. Then they were gone.
“They in-fest my brain,” she whispered, “with the sound of mucus.”
A low roll of thunder drummed rolled down on Scarlet’s head. The sound made her cower.
“My gut wants to spew … each song … it hears.”
The sky burst open and fat drops of rain began to pummel her. Scarlet’s hair gave up all pretense of style and sagged to her skull. Her satin jacket soaked through. Her boa wilted.
Scarlet shook a fist at the sky. “Okay, fine! You win!” She set her shoulder bag down in the mud and fished out the old cloak. Something clunng to the sleeve. She pulled Pokey off. He was angry, and reached for her, trying to grab anything he could get a grip on. She managed to shove him back into the bag and zipped it shut. Mostly shut.
His middle finger was caught in the zipper.
“Oh, sorry!” said Scarlet.
She pushed the finger back in and closed the bag.
Scarlet wrapped the cloak around her and pulled up the hood. Pokey wiggled fiercely.
Warmer now, she considered the world from Pokey’s perspective. He was alone, scared, and had no idea where he was going. Scarlet opened the bag and reached for Pokey’s. She held his hand till he relaxed, then took Sniffy and placed it in Pokey’s palm. Sniffy’s nostrils flared in-out-in-out, then slowed as Pokey’s fingers cradled her.
“Hang on, friends,” cooed Scarlet. “We’ll be at Grandma’s soon.”
Scarlet zippered the bag and slung it back over her shoulder. Now armored against the night in her cloak, Scarlet didn’t feel quite so afraid. The thorny branches scratched harmlessley at the cloak’s tough exterior. Raindrops hit the cloak and beaded to the ground. The wind howled because it couldn’t find a way in. And the pee-stink that had so bothered Scarlet before now reminded her of home.
Scarlet passed Kobayashi Rockpile and the cutoff to O’Putrid’s pond. She was getting close.
I wonder what presents people got me. The dreams-cape! Jeminy is going to be so jealous … Scarlet suddenly felt tired of thinking about Jeminy. To her surprise, she also felt tired of thinking about the dreams-cape.
The path rose as she trudged toward the Uplands and crossed Mollie Tinkle Creek. Almost there. She rounded a familiar cluster of gnarled pines that hung heavily with scarves of moss and there it was — Grandma’s house. But it was barely visible.
Scarlet had expected to see light spilling out into the yard, but the house was almost completely dark. Only the faint flicker of a single candle from the downstairs hall.
Scarlet allowed herself a child-thought. Well, THIS is just leechy. I wonder if she even remembered my unearthday.
But as she shambled to the front door, grownup-thinking took over. Something was amiss. Scarlet’s skin began to crawl, and it wasn’t from skinbugs.
Knock. Knock. Knock. “Grandma? … Grandma? It’s me, Scarlet.”
She peeked through the window beside the front door and saw a figure sidling unnaturally up the front hall. The thing was Grandma-shaped, but … not. It was taller than Grandma. It moved with both agility and grace. Still, even in the dim light, Scarlet recognized Grandma’s beret and her billowy muumuu, cinched as always, with a macramé belt.
The door flew open.
“Come in, come in, child. It’s warm inside!” said the figure.
Scarlet stared at the collar of the muumuu. At the lone feather poking up from under the collar. A peacock feather.
She took a step back. She staring into Grandma’s face.
It wasn’t Grandma’s face.
Scarlet didn’t have time to scream. Barnaby swallowed her whole — cloak, boa, shoulder bag and all.
Down she slid.
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