Chapter 2

Metal Teeth

“Hey Coyote Boy!”

I turned around to see Brandon Hooley, the only kid in fourth grade with armpit hair, rush at me. I raised my arms to defend myself, but he grabbed me by my shirt collar and tossed me aside like a rag doll. I hit the blacktop face first. Girl’s laughter exploded around me.

As Brandon walked past me he kicked my leg. “Next time don’t get in my way, retard.”

My face burned red as I pulled myself up and tried to think of a biting comeback. Instead, I tripped over my own two feet and tumbled back down onto the asphalt.

Crawling back up, I wiped a spot of blood off my lip and blinked red and purple splotches out of my eyes. As I walked away one of the girls on the swings behind me giggled, “Hey Lee! There’s a squirrel over there who wants to talk to you!”

Rubbing the tender spot where my face had hit the ground, I slunk away. What really stung was that the first time one of the girls had told me she had found a talking squirrel I had jumped to my feet and excitedly asked if it had mentioned anyone named Spicket or Sister Raven. It wasn’t until everyone at the lunch table had burst out laughing that I realized I’d been set up. After that I’d spent the rest of the afternoon in the nurse’s office faking a stomachache.

I walked across the playground and sat on the old wooden bench outside the gym. From there I watched the other kids playing and the teachers chatting while I counted down the seconds until the end of recess.

Five months had passed since the coyote had been shot outside my house, and I still hadn’t found a single person who really believed me. Mom and Dad took the coyote incident in stride but insisted that I had imagined the whole thing. My family’s yearly camping trip had been just a few weeks after the animal was shot. All five days had revolved around my parents trying to convince me that the coyote hadn’t said anything. While we hiked through the woods, Mom explained that talking animals were make believe. While Dad taught me how to fish, he told me that people under great stress sometimes see or hear things that aren’t there.

When the fall came, people at school were a lot less understanding. I was being forced to repeat the third grade so I already had a black mark on my reputation. My essay on how I spent my summer vacation, entitled “The Dead Coyote,” had earned phone calls home from both my teacher and the vice principal.

During recess one day a cluster of kids had listened to my tale with their eyes wide and mouths open. For a moment I thought that I had finally found people who would believe me. Then several of the popular kids started making fun of the story. By the end of the day everyone else had joined them. It wasn't enough that I was shorter than all the girls in my class or that I was the only kid in the school who had to repeat a grade, I was known as the crazy kid who thought he could talk to animals.

As I sat on the bench watching the other kids run across the blacktop playing basketball, I wondered for the thousandth time if I should just lie and tell people I had made the whole thing up. My parents would probably be relieved to hear me admit that the coyote had never said anything.

But the idea of telling people that the coyote had just been a normal animal caused a sharp pain in my stomach. There wasn’t any proof, but I knew in my bones it had talked to me. I wasn’t going to lie about what I'd experienced just so people would stop picking on me.

One of the teachers blew her whistle, calling kids toward the gym doors. I looked up and noticed the first couple snowflakes of the season twirling around one another. Mom had told me that a storm was headed for the town. As I stood up and approached the line forming outside the gym, I heard the kids talking about how school was going to be canceled the next day.

I took my place in the back of the line and looked up at the pale gray sky. In the five months since the fourth of July I hadn’t met a single person who had believed me, but in that moment I resolved that no matter what happened I would never lie about the coyote.

By the time school ended, the couple of snowflakes had turned into a downpour. I walked home with my hood up and my eyes half shut to keep the wind from blinding me. Watterson Elementary was near the corner of High Street and Cellar Door drive, only a five minute walk from my house. I'd been going home by myself since my first year of third grade, but I was surprised that Mom didn’t pick me up. She almost always met me in the schoolyard when the weather was bad.

As soon as I walked through our front door I saw why she had forgotten about me. A suitcase was open on the TV room couch, completely packed with white button down shirts and black socks. Dad flipped through the case re-counting all the articles of clothing he had packed as he always did before leaving on one of his trips. Mom leaned against the kitchen doorway. As soon as I walked through the door she looked down at the clock on the DVD player and rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry sweetie, I didn’t realize it was three.”

“It’s Okay,” I mumbled, staring at Dad. “You’re going already?”

“Sorry, sport. Big meeting just came up in Buffalo.”

“But you just got back yesterday.”

“Must mean your old man’s pretty important to the company,” he smiled shutting the suitcase.

Mom stepped forward. “The highways are going to be closed in two hours.”

“Which is why I should hit the road now.” He picked up his suitcase and set it up to roll out the door.

“Can’t they send someone else? If you stay, you can take Lee sledding in Cherry Park.”

“Lee can go sledding with what’s-his-name. That Marty kid.”

“Well, I think he’d still like to have you around.”

Dad raised his hands like someone pleading. “The company needs me, sweetie. This is the big one. I have to go. I’ll be back sometime next week.” He leaned in to kiss her on the cheek.

Mom sidestepped the kiss.

My father looked at her for a moment and grabbed his suitcase, “I don’t know why you’re mad. This thing’s got promotion written all over it.”

Mom shrugged. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Dad looked down at me. “And I bet when I see you again you’ll have grown two more inches!” He hugged me and walked out the door.

An hour later the blizzard arrived and almost blew our house down. We lost power that evening and had to finish dinner by candlelight. While I gnawed on the crust of my grilled cheese sandwich, Mom stared at one of the candle flames. “You know, when your father and I first met, he hated leaving me, even for a second.”

I turned my head so she wouldn’t see me rolling my eyes. When Dad was away, Mom got wound up talking about the early days with him.

I was still in high school. He had to come by the diner where I worked to see me. My grandmother hated him. Didn’t even let him through that door over there.” Mom pointed at the front door, as she always did at that part of the story. Then she smoothed my hair. “Not until you came along. After that, he grew on her.”

I had a different way of dealing with Dad’s weekly business trips. The following morning when Mom was out shoveling our steps, I snuck over to the enormous bookcase in the TV room. At the very top was a cigar box filled with old photographs of Dad and his friends in college and high school. A few of the pictures went all the way back to when he was my age.

Every once in a while when Dad was away, I would secretly climb the bookcase and take down the box. Then I would sneak into my room and go through the old pictures making up stories to go along with them.

I was an expert at climbing the bookcase like the shelves were rungs on a ladder, and I always made sure to avoid Mom’s blue glass whale figurine on the third shelf.

That morning I scaled the bookcase as nimbly as usual. When I was within reach of the top shelf, I stretched out my right arm and took a hold of the dusty box. I pulled it down.

I stepped off the shelf when one of my laces caught under my other shoe. I stumbled and toppled backwards. As I clung to the case my feet desperately fought to regain their balance. One of my sneakers knocked into something that flew off the shelf.

I glanced down and saw Mom’s blue glass whale flying out toward the hard wood floor below. Shutting my eyes as tightly as I could, I waited for the sound of glass shattering that would mean the end of my world.

There was a soft “fwump.” I opened my eyes and saw that the tiny glass figurine had miraculously landed on my book bag that I had left on the TV room floor.

Shoving the cigar box back where it belonged, I dropped to the ground and picked up the figurine. Before I could return it to its proper place, Mom walked through the front door and almost dropped the shovel.

Lee! Don’t play with that!” she snapped. “Your great-grandfather gave that to me before he passed away,” she grabbed the figurine from me. “It’s not a toy.” Mom gently returned the whale to the bookshelf. “Now come on and help me set the table for lunch. I need to go down the street and help Jasmine shovel her driveway. Rory Austin will be here in twenty minutes to keep an eye on you.”

Rory was a sophomore in high school, and Mom sometimes paid him five bucks an hour to keep an eye on me when she had to step out. I heard that he had to spend most of the money replacing mailboxes he’d blown up, but Mom said that was just a neighborhood legend.

Right after Mom left the power came back on and Rory turned on the television. I told him that I was going to go play in the snow. He said he didn’t care what I did as long as I didn’t kill myself or bother him.

The snowman I built was impressive, but it was tedious work by myself. There wasn’t anyone I could have a snowball fight with, and it was pointless to build a fort. Finally, I climbed the slope that led into the woods. I tried sliding down it on my back, but the snow was too deep. I just sunk down into it and stared up at the steel-colored sky.

After a few moments I jumped up and threw a stick at the snowman, spearing him between the eyes. Then, I picked up another stick and began dueling with the snowman, hacking him to pieces. The whole time I quoted lines I’d heard on television. “You fight well,” I shouted, holding my stick like a sword, “but you are no match for me! I am the true king of this realm!”

“Well, well, well!” a voice shouted behind me. “So it can talk.”

I spun around. The yard was empty.

“Up here!”

I looked up into the pine tree branches and saw a little brown bird staring down at me. “So you’re king of this realm are you? Guess someone's gots to be.” The bird spoke with a lazy drawl, like someone who had nothing better to do than sit on his porch and enjoy the world run by.

I took a few awkward steps back, not certain if I was supposed to be embarrassed.

“Don’t got much to say when you’ve got folks to talk to, do you?” The bird fluttered down to one of the lower branches. “Say something, kid.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Whatcha apologizin’ for? I never heard of no laws that says a Fifth can’t be learnin’ how to talk to folk like me, although I might say it’s pretty darn weird.”

I didn’t know which part to tackle first. I tried to figure out why I had been called a “Fifth,” but I went straight to the part about me being weird. “You’re the one who shouldn’t be able to talk!”

“Is that a fact? Doesn’t surprise me that you think that, seeing as how my breatherin aren’t that eloquent. Isn’t that right, sir?” He turned to face a crow perched on a branch in the Austin’s yard. The crow cawed mindlessly.

“Ya don’t say? See, they don’t take much pleasure in conversation or wit, but it’s been quite a long time since I’d had the pleasure to speak with an exile. You know, as long as we are talkin’, you might as well talk with one of my friends, someone who might have a better idea of what to make of you. What do you say?”

I was starting to feel lightheaded. In the months since the coyote had been shot, I had expected something like this to happen, but that didn't make the experience feel any less twisted. I just barely managed to mumble, “Who’re your friends?”

“Just folk I know. In this neck of the woods they’d either be the man at Old Wolf Rock or Spicket.”

“Wait, you know someone called Spicket?”

“Of course I know Spicket!” the bird chirped. “Everyone around here knows Spicket. She would be the one in charge of folk like you. But the old man’s a bit smarter, a whole lot smarter if you don’t mind me sayin’. Maybe I should take you to see him.”

“Where are they?”

“In there, of course.” He motioned with his beak toward the woods.

I looked up the slope and into the trees that intertwined with one another. “My mom doesn’t let me go in there.”

“It’ll only be for a little while. He’ll just want to talk to you. I’m thinkin’ he might be able to help you out a little. Figure out how you got to be the way you are.”

“But Mom would kill me if she came back and I wasn’t here.”

“Then how about ol’ Spicket? She’s not that far away.”

“I just shouldn’t.” I backed away.

The bird let out an exasperated sigh, which might have been cute under different circumstances. “Well if you’re gonna be a coward, don’t worry about it.” He hopped off the branch and fluttered toward the forest.

“I’m not a coward!”

“Sure you’re not.” He landed on one of the first branches in the forest. “That explains why you won’t go into a little ol’ patch of woods. Afraid the trees’ll eat you?”

I marched up the slope. “I just don’t want to get in trouble!”

“Don’t worry. You can stay here and be scared if you want.” The bird hopped off his branch and flew to one just inside the woods.

“I’m not scared!” I shouted, pushing my way between the bushes bordering the forest. “I just don’t feel like getting yelled at for….”

I stepped through the tree line and stumbled onto another planet.

The dismal, polluted tangle of wiry limbs and bushes vanished. I stood in a forest with tree trunks wider than my own house.

With my jaw open, I stared, paralyzed. The only part of me that moved was my neck as I tilted my head up to face the ceiling of limbs that vaulted overhead.

Many of the branches were wide enough for a grown man to jog along them without even having to look down. They did not grow into one another, competing for room. Instead, all of the tree limbs fit neatly together like a complex network of roads.

Lowering my head, I looked around at the tree trunks and the bushes that grew between them. Unlike the woods I had stepped into, nothing here seemed to be competing for space. It was as if every root and twig had been carefully placed where it belonged so that it would not impede on anything else. In fact, during the first few seconds I stood in that new forest I felt as though I were standing in an enormous natural cathedral.

At first glance there seemed to be nothing artificial among the trees. There was no litter or trash sticking up from under the snow. Even the houses I should have been able to see through the branches had vanished.

No, vanished isn’t the right word. Nothing had moved. The trees hadn’t grown and the bushes hadn’t spread farther apart. It’s more like one second the world was one way and the next I realized that it was really another.

I turned around half expecting to see that my yard and house had disappeared, but they were still visible. Something was wrong about them, though. They didn’t look like they belonged there, as if they were cheap special effects in a movie.

“First time across the Rift?” the bird asked.

I jumped at the sound of his voice. “Yeah.” I turned and gaped at the forest around me. “Wait, what’s a Rift?”

“There were times when folk like you would be burned at a stake.”

“What’re you talking about?”

The bird fluttered to a twig next to me. “I can explain everything with Spicket.”

My eyes grew wide. The bird’s face had thin red markings painted all over it. They were different from the coyote’s but similar in style. Up to that point I hadn’t been close enough to tell that they weren’t just a part of his feather pattern.

The bird flew on to a snow-covered branch about ten feet away. I followed and asked, “Did you know a coyote?”

“I know a lotta coyotes.”

“This one was shot on my street last summer. He had paint on his face like you.”

“Hmmm.” The bird fluttered his wings. “That’s a bit odd. You didn’t shoot him, did you?”

“No! It was my neighbor, Mr. Austin.”

“And can Mr. Austin talk to folk like me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“But he was able to see and shoot the coyote. That’s even odder. We might need to bring this up with Spicket.”

As we walked I glanced around. In a few more steps I would no longer be able to see my house. To shake the feeling of lightheaded nervousness, I asked, “What’s your name?”

“Sparrow.” The bird flew on to the next tree.

“Your name is Sparrow?”

“Yep.”

“And you are a sparrow?”

“More or less.”

“What are the other sparrows called?”

“Well what do you think they’re called? Stink rat? We’re all called Sparrow, only most of us can’t talk so it doesn’t matter what you call em.”

“How can you talk?”

“A lot of animals can, at least one of every type. They just have to be friends with the right type of folk to learn.”

I was about to ask what he meant by “right type of folk” when something caught my eye.

“Whatcha stopping for?” Sparrow fluttered over my head.

I looked down at a flat rock barely sticking up out of the snow. It was about the size of a football with images smeared all over it.

“It’s just an old shrine!” The bird landed on a branch over me. “Woods used to be full of ‘em.”

The center image on the shrine was a silver oval. The top of the oval was cracked open. What looked like lightning bolts and rows of long, thin lines were exploding out of it. Beneath the oval were stick figures holding spears.

“What are those things?” I pointed to the thin lines.

“Crops,” Sparrow answered. “It’s supposed to show when people stole lightning and farming from Lord Human.”

“Who?”

Branches rustled behind me. I spun around.

One of the tree limbs bobbed up and down. Snow fell from the branch and hit the ground just a few feet from my boots. I took two steps back and glanced up at Sparrow. The bird’s eyes were wide and his wings upraised as if ready to take flight. He stared deeper into the forest. I spun around to face the direction I had been walking.

A figure crouched behind a bush less than a dozen yards ahead. It stared at me.

“No,” Sparrow’s voice quivered.

The hair on my arms stood straight. A cold sweat broke out across my skin. My throat felt like a cold fist was clenching it, blocking off the air. More than anything I wanted to wake up or at least run, but my entire body was frozen stiff. All I could do was stand in the snow while the thing watched me.

The face staring between the branches should have been on a super model. It had a dark tan with a strong chin and dimples. It was giving me the kind of smile you’d expect to see on a movie star walking down the red carpet.

The eyes were completely wrong, though. They looked like someone had dug out the eyeballs and shoved chunks of blue ice into the sockets.

The face's smile grew wider. As the lips pulled back I saw that the mouth was filled with rows of jagged metal teeth that had been hammered into the gums at random angles.

The fist clenching my throat tightened as the thing crawled out of the bushes. It moved on all fours with limbs that were twice as long as they should have been. With the exception of the face, every spot of skin looked like it had been ripped off a dark green lizard. The black hair on its head stuck together in clumps and ran down the creature's back creating a long, tangled mane.

The creature opened its jaws wide enough to swallow my head whole. Out wriggled a fat gray tongue. It licked the lips of the supermodel face.

“Run, kid!” Sparrow flapped his wings. “Get back to where you belong!”

Branches cracked overhead. Sparrow turned around, “Watch out! There’s two!”

I swung around just in time to glimpse a long, leathery body scuttling headfirst down the tree trunk like an enormous spider. It leapt at me.

Sparrow flew between us. There was a flash of fire. The second figure smashed against the gigantic tree trunk. I turned and ran, pursued by the sounds of enraged snarling.

Sprinting between the trees, I could hear the creature charging after me through the snow. My brain willed my legs to run faster but hidden roots and fallen branches tripped me up.

In my mind I saw those metal teeth dripping with thick saliva. I saw what would happen if that thing caught up with me. It would knock me into the snow and grab my throat with its claws. Then it would rip me open and dig into my guts with those fangs made for killing.

Somehow, my legs picked up speed. Gasping for air, my lungs felt like paper, but my legs were sprinting faster than they had ever gone before. I never thought I could run like that. It would've been impossible if I hadn’t seen the creature chasing me.

Just up ahead the trees were giving way to the edge of my yard. If the monster got me, I would be within sight of my house. Tree branches whipped me in the face. Something hot pressed against the back of my neck. The thing was so close I could feel its breath pushing against my skin. It smelled like the sweet taste you get after you vomit.

Those dead blue eyes pressed into my mind. When the thing crushed me to the snow, they would be the last things I ever saw. Wet snarls would deafen me. The putrid breath would clog my mouth, and that would be it. No growing up. No becoming a billionaire. No showing up the kids at school. My short, pathetic life would end being torn to pieces by something that shouldn’t even exist.

I forced my legs to move faster. I wasn’t even running anymore, I was flying. It was probably my imagination, but I could have sworn the creature gave a sharp bark of surprise as I burst forward. Snow and branches blurred around me.

Just as I felt the thing about to pounce, I jumped over the edge of the slope, tumbled down through the snow and crashed into our yard.

Pulling myself up, I stumbled forward and slammed into the back door, pounding frantically. “Let me in! Rory! Open the door!”

I heard the television’s volume go up.

I slammed my fists even harder. Any second now claws would dig into my neck and drag me back to the forest. “RORY!”

The door opened. I tumbled inside.

It was unlocked, genius.” Rory licked peanut butter off a knife.

The monster almost got me!” I slammed the door shut.

You mean your crappy snowman?” He glanced out the door’s window.

No! A monster! A real monster! In the forest! This bird tricked me to go in there and everything got weird and there were these monsters and they tried to eat me!”

Does your mom feed you glue for breakfast?”

I’m serious!”

              Rory went back into the TV room and collapsed on the couch. “You’re such a little freak.”