CONVENIENCE IS FREEDOM.
FREEDOM IS FAMILY.”
“Very good, children,” said the voice gently. “I will speak again with you tomorrow.”
The loud click, the disengaging of a handset, sounded. It was followed by
the brusque voice Elsie and Rachel had heard earlier—robotic and terse.
“BXXG ZZZGT STRIP AND BATHE. SUPPER AT EIGHTEEN HUNDRED HOURS.”
A burst of energy filled the room as the girls in the dormitory shed their soiled jumpsuits, revealing identical red woolens beneath, and dashed toward a door at the other end of the room, presumably leading to the bathrooms and showers. Elsie and Rachel sat in shock. In a few short moments, the large room was emptied of its occupants and a noisy commotion could be heard echoing from within the tiled walls of the bathroom. At that moment, a figure entered the room and approached the two Mehlberg girls. He was an old man, dressed in the requisite gray coverall, and he was carrying what looked to be two packages, wrapped in transparent plastic. Arriving at the girls’ beds, he wordlessly dropped the packages at their feet; he then abruptly turned and walked, stooped and crooked, from the room. Elsie watched as Rachel picked up the package and tore into the plastic. Inside, neatly folded, were two items of clothing: a starched gray jumpsuit and a pair of red long underwear.
Return to Wildwood
Prue was still in shock by the time the heron wove through the deep, snow-shrouded canopy of the trees and touched down on the forest floor. She’d barely uttered five words to Curtis, whose midsection she’d hugged tightly during the flight. They’d flown high enough to break through the low-hanging clouds, and she’d been awed to see the pinpricks of stars shining through the darkness of the night sky. But her heart was frozen; the attack had left her numbed, and her mind was spinning with unanswered questions. Why had she been targeted? Who was Ms. Thennis, after all? And more important, how was she ever going to explain another disappearance to her parents? The heron’s breathing was labored as its two riders dismounted; Curtis turned to Prue and thrust out his hand.
“Hey, partner,” he said.
It was the first time Prue had been able to smile since the scuffle in the street. She and Curtis shared a handshake that collapsed into a long hug. Pulling apart, Prue searched her friend’s eyes. “What’s going on, Curtis?”
The other heron had deposited Brendan near them; they were standing in a snowy glade, surrounded by tall fir trees. A little moonlight was peering through the shifting clouds, dappling the white snow opalescent. The Bandit King approached Prue and set his hand on her shoulder. His red beard was flecked with frost.
“For your safety,” he said, “you’ve got to stay with us.”
“Who … what was that thing?” Prue asked.
“A shape-shifter,” explained Curtis. “This is all going to sound totally crazy. It was sent to kill you, Prue.”
Brendan spoke. “We don’t know. Important thing is you’re kept hidden. We gave that thing a good thrashing, but I don’t expect it to stay away long.”
“But what about Ms. Thennis? What happened to her?”
Curtis and Brendan shared a look. “I don’t think Ms. Thennis really exists,” said Curtis. “She’s a Kitsune—a black fox who can take the form of a human.”
Prue absently massaged the nape of her neck, thinking back on the previous few weeks: Mrs. Estevez’s resignation, the sudden arrival of her fresh-faced replacement, Ms. Thennis, at the school, the dirt beneath the teacher’s fingernails after she’d found Prue on the bluff. In the face of these strange events, “Why?” was all Prue could manage.
“Too much to tell,” said Curtis. “Let’s get to somewhere warm.”
Bidding farewell to the exhausted herons, the three travelers marched beyond the clearing’s looming underbrush. Curtis and Prue followed Brendan closely as he wove his way through the dense knot of trees; as they walked, Prue peppered her companions with questions.
“Your family should be safe,” responded Brendan to one of Prue’s most urgent queries. “We’re told that Kitsunes, while being vicious, deadly creatures, rarely waver from their mark. She was after you, not your parents or your brother.” Prue imagined her mother and father watching the lentil curry simmer on the stove, fretfully eyeing the clock. They’d have guessed her disappearance by now.
“I’ll need to let them know I’m safe,” said Prue.
“It’s done,” said Curtis, lifting the dangling boughs of a vining maple so that Prue could walk underneath. “Owl said he’d take care of it; he promised to send a messenger.”
“Oh, that’ll be just great,” said Prue, envisioning her mother’s surprise to have a starling alight on her knee and explain to her that her missing daughter was okay, she’d just been abducted by bandits and taken back into the Impassable Wilderness. “But I guess nothing my family isn’t kind of accustomed to by now.”
“Exactly,” said Curtis. “Weirdness abounds in the McKeel family.”
A massive cedar bridged the gap of a narrow defile in the landscape, and the trio carefully walked across the tree’s snowy bark to arrive at the other side; a rushing creek babbled below. “So where are we going now?” asked Prue.
“To the camp,” replied Brendan. “You’ll be safe there.”