Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  “And he’d wonder how the boy got loose. Don’t do anything. Then he will assume magic got Arthur out.”

  “Oh, good idea!”

  “That’s if no one sees the boy leave,” Elian warned, picking up her purse.

  “If we put your old housecoat on him, and I fold one of the plaid dish towels like a bandana and put it on his head, he can hunch over and if any nosy neighbors are watching from their windows, they will think he’s Mrs. Roma. But we’ll duck under the open windows, and go round by the laundry room.”

  Elian nodded, then pressed her hands to her forehead. “I keep wanting to solve it by myself. I just don’t want you in any danger.”

  “If we get him out unseen, then there won’t be any danger,” Deirdre said. But her heart thumped.

  She didn’t know her mother’s heart was also thumping as she left for work. Elian Weiss was scared, and guilty, and excited by turns. When she was young, she’d had adventure. Now that she was an adult, she worried. But she was determined to let her daughter have her chance at adventure, if Deirdre wanted to take it.

  o0o

  “I looked after school, but there’s no way to get him through my window,” Frederic said the next day, as soon as he saw Deirdre at school. “Not if he’s weak as you say.”

  They checked for roving bullies, and Deirdre said, “So—what does that mean?”

  “It means I’ll have to ask my mom,” Frederic said. “But I think I know the way to do it.”

  “You didn’t ask her this morning?”

  He shook his head. “You gotta realize I never see her. She says in the front half, I stay in the back, the tenants stay upstairs, and as long as no one interrupts Mom’s TV, which she watches all day every day, then we get along fine.”

  Deirdre bit her lip. It sounded like a horrible life, but she suspected Frederic did not want any pity.

  “So we’ll meet at—”

  The bell rang, and they parted for homeroom.

  Both endured the rest of the school day, which crawled by slower than ever. But at last the school day ended, and each packed up books and things, wondering what the next day would bring.

  They met in front of Woolworth’s, and this time Frederic took the lead, motioning Deirdre toward the public phone booth on the corner. He plunked in his dime, and stuck his finger in the dial ring.

  Deirdre said, “You want me to go away?”

  “Why?” Frederic said, grimacing. “If I’m gonna do this thing with you, may’s well know the worst. Besides, I might need to ask you questions.”

  He lifted his finger away, and a moment later said, “Hello, Ma.” And then rolled his eyes. “This is Frederic. No, I’m not going to say Freddie, I’m never going to say Freddie, I don’t care how formal Frederic sounds to my own mother, it’s my name. Not Freddie—No, Ma. No, Ma, I am not trying to be sarcastic. I’m answering your question when you asked Why don’t you say this is Freddie. No, ma, I am not arguing, I answered your—yes, Ma. But it’s not costing you money because I put a dime in the— Yes, Ma. No, Ma. No, Ma. Okay, here’s why I called. I wanted to let you know I’m bringing a friend home. Yes, a friend. You know, F as in fat, R as in rat, E as in eat, I as in idi—no, Ma, I am not trying to be funny. We have to work on a biology report. Biology? For school? We’re writing a report about fungus,” he added. “How many kinds. Just so you know I’m bringing somebody, he’s asking permission now. Yes we’re at his house.” He crossed his fingers. “No, what sound of traffic? I don’t hear any traffic—”

  At that moment someone tried to run the red light, and cars on three sides honked away.

  “Yes Ma, it must be a wedding or something... no, I did not crack my head on the pavement. Yes, I’m sure of it. I oughta know if I cracked my head or not. No, I’m not trying to be funny. Yes, he has permission, and we’ll be there soon. Yes, Ma. Yes, Ma. No, Ma. G’bye, Ma.” He hung up.

  “Is it all right?” Deirdre asked.

  Frederic grinned. “Yes. I couldn’t have sneaked him past her. She hates people over, unless she knows about it. Even the tenants upstairs! This way she doesn’t want him in her part of the house, doesn’t want any fungus all over, doesn’t want ink spilled or blah blah, but we’re home free.”

  Deirdre sighed with relief, and led the way down to the next bus stop—one rarely used by the kids at school. They plunked their tokens in, then sat in front, and Deirdre said, “I never brought anyone home before.”

  Frederic rolled his eyes. “Well, you can tell how often I’ve brought anybody home. Well, Kenny Unger used to come over and play—remember him in third grade? But Ma always fussed about his noise, and after they moved away, there wasn’t anyone else.”

  That was the year Suzi came, and the class turned mean.

  o0o

  Frederic didn’t say anything as Deirdre led him to her apartment building. He hated his house, which was an old clapboard house pretty much like all the others in his neighborhood, needing a paint job and a new fence, but it seemed like a mansion compared to these prison blocks.

  But once they got inside the apartment, everything was cheerful with nice pictures on the walls, and though the furniture was as old and worn as his, everything was clean. It smelled much better than his house.

  Coming forward to greet him was a tall, slim lady with black hair and blue eyes, holding a baby. She smiled. “Welcome, Frederic. Please, sit down. If you like oatmeal cookies, I just made some.”

  No adult had ever smiled at him like that, or treated him like he was welcome. He had no idea what to say or do.

  “Those cookies are my favorite,” Deirdre said, standing awkwardly by the door. “You’ll be okay, won’t you?” she asked, not quite looking at her mother or the boy from school, who seemed so out of place sitting on their shabby couch below one of Sulamith Wulfing’s angel prints.

  “Don’t mind me,” Frederic said, feeling just as awkward. “I’ll do my homework.”

  “We’ll be fine. Go ahead, darling—you must be careful not to let anything seem different whatsoever. Here’s your stuff.”

  Deirdre nodded, turning to the pile of things on the kitchen table. She took off her sweater and put her mother’s housecoat on, tucking it under her skirt, then pulling her sweater on over it and buttoning it. She put the folded towel inside her big school notebook, slid the scissors and the key into her pencil case, and the wrapped sandwiches in her sweater pocket.

  Then she picked up her books and said, “Do I look all right?”

  “Fine. That sweater is a bulky one, I’m glad to say.”

  Deirdre held her books tight against her, and then forced herself to relax. “Okay. Just another day, another fifty dollars.”

  Mrs. Weiss kissed her forehead. “If you don’t want to do it, I’ll find a way,” she murmured, smoothing Deirdre’s hair back.

  Frederic watched, feeling a kind of swoopy, sick sense inside. He realized he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had kissed his forehead. Probably Gran Holmes, before she died.

  Deirdre turned his way, let out her breath in a whoosh, then said, “Well, I always wanted adventure. Here it is. Okay, stupid babysitter act. Now in session.” She opened the door and let herself out.

  Frederic watched Mrs. Weiss sit on the floor to play with the one year old, who was saying “Ba ba ba ba!” and banging a toy on the floor. Mrs. Weiss used her fingers to make hand people, talking in a high, squeaky voice that made the baby laugh and wiggle.

  The fresh cookies smelled good, and the plate was right there in front of Frederic. Deirdre’s mother didn’t look up, just kept playing with the baby, so he grabbed a cookie, jammed it into his mouth. It was delicious.

  Feeling a little less weird, he pulled the math book toward him, and got to work.

  Eight: The Hunt on This World Begins

  Deirdre couldn’t believe Mr. Blick the Ick (it helped to give him a stupid nickname) didn’t hear her heart thumping clear downstairs.

  But he just acted exactly like
usual. In fact, he seemed even more abrupt, tossing down the Man from Uncle thingie and saying, “Summon me if you hear anything.”

  He was gone in the next breath, slamming the door behind him.

  Deirdre tiptoed to the front door and pressed her ear against it. She thought she heard heels on the flagged stairs, but even so she forced herself to count to one hundred.

  Nothing happened. So she dropped her books on the coffee table beside the button thing, flung off her sweater, and yanked the housecoat off. Then she pulled out the towel and her pencil case. With her rescue equipment in hand she moved to Arthur’s door. Unlock, peek—and he was in the chair, tied up again, and gagged.

  “What happened?” she demanded, and then remembered the horrible gag.

  Snip! Snip! It fell into Arthur’s lap, and he worked his jaw.

  “I’ll get you some water,” she said. “Here are the sandwiches—oh. How about the ropes.” Her hands shook as she moved around back, and worked away at the hemp with the scissors.

  The rope took more time, but eventually it gave. Arthur murmured, “Thanks,” and clumsily rubbed his wrists.

  “Water,” she said, and ran to the kitchen. Her hands were still shaking—she almost dropped the glass, but caught it just in time, and leaned against the sink, her heart really going crazy behind her ribs.

  Arthur shambled to the doorway, barely upright. He clutched at the door frame with one hand.

  She brought him the water and he drank it straight down. Then he crouched down onto the floor and started on the sandwiches. She got more water.

  While he ate, she said in a quick, nervous voice, “You’re to wear the housecoat. Bend over. Like an old lady. I’ll put the towel on like a bandana. We’ll sneak, but in case anyone sees you.”

  Arthur ducked his head in a single nod. “I comprehend. I am to vanish. Yes?”

  “That’s the idea. I’ll get you to our building, where Mom and Frederic are waiting. I come back here, and do my homework.”

  Arthur frowned, and lowered the sandwich. “It is good and kind, what you are doing. I am grateful. But please. Do not vex Kessler Sonscarna.”

  “I don’t plan to do anything at all,” she said. “Except act surprised. My mom thinks the plan will work because no one suspects kids of things like rescues. And if something happens here afterward, well, I’ll run to Frederic’s and hide, and my mom will figure something out. Mr. Blick the Ick has never seen or heard of Frederic.”

  Arthur pressed his fingers to his eyes. “I—I do not know what to think, except to be grateful.” He smiled somewhat painfully.

  “Well, soon as you are ready, let’s do it,” she said, terrified that the man would silently return and they’d find him standing outside the door with his ear pressed against it.

  Arthur took the glass to the sink. “Where was it?”

  Deirdre dashed to the kitchen, rinsed the glass, and set it carefully where it had been. Then as Arthur listlessly pulled on the housecoat, she hunted for sandwich crumbs. There were none. Arthur had been careful.

  He bent his head and she fixed the towel on like a bandana, tying it at the back of his neck. They looked at one another, and he said, “The gag and the ropes.”

  “Should they vanish with you?” Deirdre asked.

  “I think so.” He turned, his steps slow, so Deirdre darted around him and picked up the items, and shoved them into the pocket of the housecoat.

  Then she shut the bedroom door, locked it, and sprang to the front door. Eased it open a crack.

  Except for the low murmur of someone’s stereophonic records playing across the way, there was no sound. And no one in sight.

  She led the way, Arthur following. They crept down the stairs, and then Deirdre peered in all directions. She made a motion to bend over, and they scuttled below the front windows of the building, Deirdre hoping that no one was looking out their back windows at them.

  They crossed the alley and ducked through the breezeway, and around the laundry room to Deirdre’s building. Another pause, another peek, and upstairs she ran, Arthur following more slowly, pulling himself up the rail.

  Deirdre opened her mouth to congratulate him on remembering to walk like an old woman, but then she looked into his face. He was pale, his forehead clammy with sweat.

  She opened the door to her apartment, and waved Arthur in. Her mother was standing by the door, her eyes strained with worry, but Deirdre forced a grin. “Part One, mission accomplished,” she said, and zoomed back down the stairs.

  She ran a different way back to the other building, and lunged up the stairs three at a time.

  The door stood wide open, just the way she’d left it. Still, she tiptoed in, looking around the tiny living room.

  Her books sat where she’d left them, next to the communicator. She shut the front door, smoothed her hair back, and sank down to begin her homework. Her hands were still shaking, but she knew she had to get calm, or she’d ruin everything.

  She’d finished the math and was halfway through the grammar lesson when the key turned in the lock and she jumped. Then she forced herself to bend back over the work.

  Mr. Blick entered, and she busied herself with putting her books together.

  “Any problems?” he said.

  “I heard a noise once, but it wasn’t repeated. Maybe it came from outside,” she added, but she realized how shrill she sounded—like Suzi’s gang—and shut her mouth. Her hands twitched—and her pencil, forgotten until now, dropped out of her hand onto the carpet.

  She started to bend, remembered the key in her pocket, and sat down again on the couch, then leaned forward to retrieve her pencil. She tucked it into her notebook, grabbed her books, and stood up. Mr. Blick hadn’t moved, he just stood there, watching. His steady gaze felt like an invisible fist socking her right in the heart.

  She clutched her books tight and said, “Well, good-bye.”

  “Your wages,” he replied, and held out the usual wad of money.

  She took it, shoved it into her pocket on top of the key, and then opened the door.

  “A moment,” the man said.

  She jerked her head round, clenching her jaw.

  “You will come tomorrow?” he asked.

  She nodded. “Sure! Same time?”

  “Yes.”

  “Okay, then,” she said, and backed out onto the landing. “Uh, ’bye.” She turned away, her shoulders tight.

  The door shut behind her, and she gave a slow, shuddering breath, but forced herself to walk slowly down the stairs. Was he checking the bedroom now? Or was he standing at the front window to watch her cross the alleyway between the buildings?

  She felt as if cold eyes were x-raying her brain as she walked across the alley, but she didn’t turn her head, just kept plodding along. Step, step, step... and she was in the breezeway at last, out of sight of ‘C’ Building.

  Another shuddering breath, and she hurried to her apartment. Inside, with the door shut, she faced her mother. “Are they gone?”

  “Yes. I told them to go down the stairway at the other end. Did anything happen?”

  “No, he was just as creepy as always. Here’s the money,” Deirdre added, pulling it out of her pocket. “Oh. And the key. And scissors.”

  Her mother set the things down, then took Deirdre’s hands. “You’re trembling.”

  “I just kept imagining the worst. I’m all right,” Deirdre said.

  Elian Weiss sighed. “Maybe I shouldn’t have...”

  Deirdre shook her head. “You had an adventure. Even if I don’t get to go off world, this one is mine. Short as it was.”

  “Here, darling,” her mother said. “You’ve done well, and I am proud of you—but it’s not over yet, remember. How about something to eat?”

  Deirdre shook her head. “My insides are too cramped up.”

  Elian gave her a tender smile. “I figured on that. What I made is some nice raspberry Jell-O. How about a bowl with whipped cream?”

  That wa
s Deirdre’s favorite food when she was sick. She grinned at her mother. “It sounds good.”

  Soon she was eating cool, stomach-easing Jell-O and cream while her mother hummed as she spooned food for Ursel in her high chair. She’d cancelled her work, which was a relief—Deirdre hated the thought of being alone, with just Ursel, who was not only no protection, she’d have to be protected.

  Time passed slowly, and she finished her homework without really thinking about it. Instead, she tried to imagine where the boys were now.

  o0o

  They were just a block from Frederic’s house. If Frederic had been alone, even as much as he loathed the regimented torture of school sports, he would have been home long before. But with Arthur along they’d had to have frequent stops, sitting down on every bus bench they saw. At first Arthur murmured apologies, but these last few times, he just sank down with a sigh, his eyes closing. Frederic looked around at the traffic, the unheeding kids on bikes and scooters, hoping there wasn’t a malevolent spy among ’em.

  “One more block,” he said, when Arthur forced himself up at last, his eyes still closed.

  Frederic could feel the effort this other-world boy was making. That last block seemed to extend ninety miles—Frederic had never before realized how long it took to get past a house when you counted every step. But finally they turned up his front walk, their pant legs swishing past the weeds, and Frederic was glad he hadn’t tried to force Arthur up through the windows twelve feet from the ground.

  He opened the front door, and the familiar smell of home defined itself for the first time as a mixture of stuffy room, cigarettes, overcooked food, and old-lady perfume. But Arthur didn’t react at all as they tromped into the small entryway.

  A rattling thwack, and Frederic’s mother emerged through the strings of pink plastic beads she’d hung in the living room door so she could see everyone coming and going (this meant the tenants upstairs, too). She loomed over the boys, but at least she wasn’t angry.

  “Hel-lo,” she cooed, squinting in the gloom at Arthur. There was only a single forty watt bulb in the hallway, as she didn’t like wasting electricity for which she couldn’t charge rent. Since all the windows were kept tightly shut, with layers of screen and curtains over them, the light was dim, like being inside a pink submarine.

 
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