Episode 4 (Butterflies in the Garden): Silk Weaver by Vivian Munnoch

Liandan’s mouth gaped in horror. How could they possibly even consider using the silk fields as bait? She felt ill.
“They can’t-.” A hot sickly chill pulsed through her and her knees could not hold her up.

Episode 4:

Butterflies In The Garden

Silk Weaver

 

The moon hung new and bright in its early ascent across the sky, waxing towards a full moon. The tangled branches of the trees’ canopy allowed only sporadic glimpses of the clear starry sky above. The dull sound of ropes and pulleys straining groaned and the branches above shivered and pressed against their restraints. Branches pulled apart to create an opening that revealed the sky above, the light of the stars and moon brightening the ground beneath the trees.

Liandan stood with hands on hips and stared up with a stern look, her lips pressed together in a tight line.

The men working did not see her. She had followed them after hearing where they were going and now watched from a distance. They were working above the silk field.

They heaved together and ropes strained, quivered, pulleys shivered and, with an impotent dull sound, a rope snapped. It lashed back suddenly, the freed branch whipping the other way. Leaves and twigs broke off and fluttered to the ground, some carried on the breeze. Larger sticks cracked and broke, falling clumsily, some getting trapped in the branches to hang perilously in danger of falling later with the wind.

Liandan watched the trajectory of three falling leaves twirling with the twig that held them together. They helicoptered down and across towards the silk field.

Éire does not have silkworms, where duine silk comes from; duine being mortal humans. Liandan’s people weave cloth from the silky protein fiber of spider webs. The silk field is a protected area that is abundant with neighboring webs, carefully managed and cultivated to keep the arachnids from killing each other too often or abandoning the area for safer ground.

Cultivating the webs is dangerous and agitated arachnids even more so. You are protein; therefore, you are food to the spiders. Fortunately, they sleep under the moon if not disturbed.

The falling twirling leaves reached the ground, their momentum dragging them. They spun through one web, destroying it completely, tore out most of two more, and continued on to leave a diminishing swatch of destruction through more webs in their path until they finally came to a stop, glued down now by the sticky webs clinging to them.

The cracking thud of a branch hitting the ground, its aftershock that trembled through the dirt and air both shuddering through Lianden, made her jump, startled. Bits of bark and twigs rained down in a weak spattering.

Her lips pursed tighter in a frown and her eyes narrowed.

“Two of our best web makers,” she muttered. “It will take them all day to spin new webs and we were to harvest them tomorrow night. So help me, if they move on because of this, if they’ve injured the web makers…”

She stopped herself before she said anything she would regret, an oath she could not keep perhaps. The newly spun webs would be too sticky to harvest. She had been looking forward to working with those particular two webs.

Shouts pulled her attention from the silk field back to the work above. Ropes strung above hung slack across branches. A dangling pulley swayed back and forth in a pendulum motion.

Two men came into view, half carrying a third between them. He sagged weakly between them. From her vantage point and distance, Liandan could not tell who he was or how badly injured.

She looked back at the swatch of ruined silk field. The anger that burned inside her and the urge to inspect the damage was tamped down by common sense. The field was motionless. Not even the twitch of a single spider leg. That did not mean they had not been left agitated and awake.

“I’ll come back later,” she muttered and turned away, stalking off back to the village.

Liandan was about to turn down the path towards the spinning hut and changed her mind, instead going the other way in search of the grandmothers retired from the council.

It did not take long to find the two of them sitting in the small garden outside the Grandmothers’ cottage sipping fermented nectar and gossiping in irritated voices that matched the scowls on their age-lined faces.

They paused and looked up when she entered the garden.

“Come for some advice?” Saorla asked with a smirk.

“Probably looking for a husband,” Doireann scowled. “She’s long past due, but with everything going on right now, do you really think this is the time?” Her glare on Liandan hardened.

Liandan shifted nervously under their stares. She tried to control the trembling that filled her whole body. They frightened her more than the king and queen and all their court. She instantly regretted coming and thought about slinking away. That was not possible, of course. Not only did they see her, but they addressed her. She was trapped.

Saorla is the most politically powerful woman in all the Glenns. Matron Queen of Faerie Glenn, she is mother to King Tuathal and widow of the former King Alvyeh. To have her grant you acknowledgement was akin to becoming the most important person in the Glenn beneath her for that brief moment.

The other old woman, Doireann, is the most irritable, sullen, and tempestuous person in the village. Even more so than elder Cian.

“Why have you come to see two useless old women?” Saorla asked.

Liandan swallowed and choked on it, her nerves making her almost vomit. That she was going to bring Ibris to see these two after her brush with death at the ugly beak of Craven felt unfathomable now.

What did I almost do to Ibris? The thought bubbled up through the fear that wrapped her like a tight strangling wraith.

“I-I came about what they are doing to repel C-Craven.”

I can’t believe I stuttered. I sound so stupid. Liandan wanted to take her own betraying tongue out.

Saorla  leaned forward with interest. Her eyes bore into Liandan.

“There are a lot of measures being taken to repel that beast. What puts such a troubled look to ruin your face?”

Liandan barely managed to avoid stumbling over the words that came out too quickly. She could not keep the tremble out of them.

“It’s the silk field. They ruined it. Maybe even injured or killed some of the silk weavers, and the night before we were to harvest the best webs.”

She looked down at the ground to avoid eye contact. Her whole body shivered with nerves and she wanted to turn and run away.

Doireann scowled even deeper, although Liandan would have thought it not possible.

“Dreadful creatures, those spiders,” Doireann said, her voice condescending and age-cracked. “We could use the cocoons of caterpillars if we have to. Much safer and they are so soft. It would make much finer cloth.”

Liandan looked at her with a knot of bland horror sitting in a lump in her chest that she dared not show. She was sure the woman said these things on purpose to bait others into being the victims of her verbal attacks. To cut the cocoon from a caterpillar felt wrong, even though they are not the same kind of creature as her people. Under the curse of the sun they are nearly indistinguishable from each other. It would be like cutting one of their own children from that which keeps them alive.

The old woman stared at her and Liandan imagined the smugness that surely must be burning behind those rheumy eyes.

Her dismay grew and with it offended indignation. She had to say something.

“The spiders repair and replace their webs continuously through the temperate months. Caterpillars must cocoon over a very short window of time. Even if we had an army of caterpillars we could not harvest enough silk from a single cocoon each.”

Doireann’s eyes gleamed with that sour haughtiness although her face did not change.

“So we cut it off when they cocoon again, and again, and again, until we have enough.” She made cutting motions with her words. “We do what we must.”

 

Saorla cut the topic off, interrupting them with a warning look at Doireann.

“There was an accident?” She stared at Liandan intently, forcing her to look away from the other old woman.

Liandan nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. It did nothing for the hollowness burned into her by the nasty words of the other elder.

“They were opening the silk fields to the sky using ropes and pulleys to pull the branches back. A rope snapped. Leaves and twigs rained down into the silk field and larger branches broke off.”

“What in blazes are they doing that for?” Doireann muttered.

“Bait,” Saorla said simply.

They both looked at her and she only nodded to the obvious, her eyes meeting Doireann’s then settling to fixate on Liandan’s.

Liandan could not look away.

“They are setting a trap, or a warning. When the moon shines and the crow has eaten the insects, we will know he has been near. Or, he will have sprung the trap.”

Liandan’s mouth gaped in horror. How could they possibly even consider using the silk fields as bait? She felt ill.

“They can’t-.” A hot sickly chill pulsed through her and her knees could not hold her up. They buckled and she could not stop herself from slumping to the ground as darkness closed in.

Liandan felt a hard coldness. It was distant. The wet chill seeped through her. It was a chill wind or water or frozen winter ground. She was floating on air or water and she was not. Very far away was a noise that could have been a rhythmic thrumming, bud-dud, bud-dud, or the dull sound of a woodpecker on a hollow tree, or knocking on a door. It was a low dull sound and a high sharp slapping.

She felt and heard everything distantly and yet not. Liandan’s mind barely drifted on the edges of coherence, unsure if any of these things were there. Far away, a whisper, her name.

Liandan.

Liandan.

Repeated again and again.

She felt like it grew closer but did not.

An indistinct image wavered in the dark white fog of her confusion. It was like them but not. It was a woman but not. The face loomed close, staring, inspecting. It looked deep inside her, past her, through her, and at her all at once. Round and pale as the moon, surrounded by a hazy red orb that wanted to be black.

 

Liandan was paralyzed in body and mind, and yet felt the surge of her mind rush through brittle terror that recoiled and slithered around her, followed her, like a wisp of smoke rising weightlessly on motionless air that dances sinuously and follows the displacement of that air.

The cold hardness crushed against her, the dull rhythmic thrumming rushed through her ears, and sharp slapping tapped to the repeating of her name.

Liandan.

Liandan.

The world came back too cold and hard, too real and still unreal, and too quickly. She saw herself lying on the ground below with the two elder women leaning over her, nattering at each other and talking to her, before her eyes fluttered open and they came into focus above her.

Liandan blinked the fuzziness filling her eyes away and stared up at them. All else forgotten by the simple thought. How did I get here? She meant lying on the ground.

“You fainted dear,” Saorla answered the unspoken question. She rubbed Liandan’s cold cheek then took her icy hand and rubbed it between her age-gnarled paper dry hands to warm it.

“Fainted.” The world felt foreign on Liandan’s tongue. Wrong. How could she be so weak? She prided herself on being strong. She shook her head. “No,  I can’t have.”

Doireann’s eyes held suspicion.

“You were standing then fell, limp. You were gone from your body. Where did you go?”

Saorla waved her off.

“You simply fainted. Probably worrying over the silk field. If they destroy it as a decoy or lure, or even as a warning Craven was near, it will take a lot of work to rebuild. It would mean seeking webs to harvest from arachnids whose moods you do not know. The harvest would be much more dangerous.”

Liandan tried to push herself up, but her legs were weak. Her whole body was shaky and frail.

“Easy,” Saorla cautioned. She helped her up, her grip surprisingly strong for one so old.

“When you are steady we will go see what they are doing with the silk field and talk some sense into them.”

Liandan blinked and nodded gratefully at her.

“Here, sit.” Saorla motioned her towards a chair.

Liandan barely sunk into it when Saorla was pushing a cup of fermented nectar into her hands.

“Drink. You will feel better.”

Liandan looked uncertainly at the cup, up and Saorla, to Doireann’s smug grimace, and back down at the cup. She swallowed. Her throat was so dry the knot stuck in her throat and for a moment she felt she could not breathe or swallow.

Reluctantly, she brought the cup to her lips and sipped the sweet drink. It burned a little going down and had a faint syrupiness. Its heady effect made her head swoon a little the moment it hit her stomach, a purely psychological effect since it was to soon and too little to inebriate even one who has never touched a fermented drink.

She could not shake the chill that still clung to her, or the suspicion she had seen something she should not have. That she had travelled to the other side. Of what, she could not guess.

 

Episode 3 (Butterflies in the Garden): After The Council by Vivian Munnoch

“Why are you spying on the council?”
The aged voice startled Ibris. She stumbled and turned to face the elder. She never would have seen Shanawn there if he had not spoken.
“I-I,” Ibris stammered weakly. A hot flush rose in her cheeks and a sweat broke out on her skin. The sudden dampness chilled her.
She looked down, face red with shame and terrified.

Episode 3:

Butterflies In The Garden

After the Council

Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash

The members of the council table watched the crowded room empty. King Tuathal’s scowl was the deepest. He glared ahead towards the door, making those who dared look behind them as they exited cringe and wonder if his anger was directed at them. They remained cautiously quiet until they breached the freedom of the night, the volume of anxious voices outside growing with the crowd moving swiftly away from the council chamber.

The chamber doors were closed on the last of them, muffling the voices outside. Hands still on the doors, Sarawn turned towards the council table and his king’s hard glare.

Queen Brionna put a steadying hand on her husband’s large fist. Her touch failed to lighten the hard knot of tense muscles clenching it as though he could punch someone and make this better.

Their sons behind them stepped forward the moment the doors were closed. They looked around with tense postures as though searching for an enemy in their midst.

Elder Cian’s age-wrinkled face crumpled into even deeper wrinkles with the scowl of distaste. He pounded his bony fist on the table.

“Why is that beady-eyed black-beaked menace back?” he demanded, his voice thin and wavering with the weakness of a great many years behind him and few remaining ahead.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Elder Shanawn said. He waved his own age-withered hand in a dismissive gesture.

Cian glared at him.

“How can you be so dismissive about this?” Alyil, one of the princes behind them, complained, anger putting a venomous edge on his voice. He strode around the table to face them head on, his brother Rioghan following steps behind.

King Tuathal stared stonily ahead, lost in his own thoughts.

“Shanawn is correct,” Queen Brionna said. Her face remained carefully passive, her voice measured and calm.

The others looked at her, except King Tuathal, who seemed oblivious she spoke, and Cian, who’s unwavering glare still bore into Shanawn as though to spike him dead with his eyes.

”There is little randomness to the world,” Queen Brionna said. “It is rare for a thing to happen without some design behind it. I have confidence you will figure out what it is.”

She rose and moved around the table.

“Morning’s light will return soon. I am tired. I’m retiring to my garden for the remaining hours of the moon. You should follow soon or you will not have time to make it before the sun rises.”

She started toward the door.

Sarawn reached for the doors again to open them for her.

“Escort your mother,” King Tuathal said.

The princes looked as though they would protest being sent away, but quickly checked themselves.

More measured in their reactions young Brassal and greying Farrell came from behind the council table to await orders.

Cian rose now, looking exhausted.

“I will take my leave too. It takes these old bones longer to travel these days.”

King Tuathal addressed the knights.

“Alyil and Rioghan, you will see your mother safely home and stay there yourselves. Farrell, accompany them.”

Farrell nodded acceptance, but the princes tried to hide their scowls. It was no secret the king did not fully trust the young princes to be capable on their own with protecting the queen.

“Brassal, escort Cian home,” King Tuathal said. Perhaps your youthful vigor will inspire his old bones to quicker movement.”

Cian scowled again and Brassal turned his face away to hide his amusement as he nodded understanding.

The three knights followed the queen out into the night. Brassal walked with patiently restrained steps to keep with Cian’s shuffled movement.

Sarawn closed the doors behind them. Only he and King Tuathal were left, Shanawn having slipped out unnoticed with the villagers. Sarawn approached the table to stand before Tuathal.

“Brother, your shoulders are heavy with the news of Craven’s return,” he said.

“That creature caused a great deal of trouble before we routed him,” Tuathal said gravely. “I thought we had seen the last of that ugly bird. He barely escaped with his wretched life. Why would he return to torment us? Revenge?”

“Crows are creatures of habit, returning to the same places to roost and nest at certain times of the year. Perhaps that is all it is.”

Tuathal shook his head slowly.

“If only. Crows have a long memory. Craven will not have forgotten. I doubt he would have returned to that same roost.”

“But it is likely he would return to his old territory.”

“Even a crow will not return to territory lost. We drove him out.” Tuathal exhaled a slow breath heavily weighted with worry. “Find out where he roosts. I will know everything that is inside his mind. Where he sleeps, hunts, scavenges. I will know why the creature returned. In the meantime we must keep the Glenn safe. He must not learn our location. The lives of everyone must be coordinated to provide safety as they go about their business.”

“Some will rebel against their every movement being controlled,” Sarawn warned. “Some will be blind to the danger.”

“If we must lock them inside in the daylight and guard them at night when they go about their business for their own good, we will do that. They do not all have the memories of what it took to survive that blight on our people, Craven. Many were blissfully unaware of what was happening beyond their tiny world. We were lucky Craven was alone, unmated and not a part of a community roost.”

“That is odd, though. Crows pair off to mate, but remain part of their community. What would cause one of them to be cast out?”

King Tuathal snorted.

“It is Craven. Perhaps he was a blight even to his own.”

“Perhaps,” Sarawn agreed thoughtfully.

“We must go,” King Tuathal said. He stood to leave, “before the queen chastises me for being too late.”

They walked out of the council chamber together, closing the doors behind them.

“By tomorrow as the moon rises we will have a plan allowing essential jobs to be performed,” King Tuathal said.

“They are all essential to the people,” Sarawn said.

“So they are. But there are levels even to what is truly essential.”

They walked away along one of the branches angled off from the low building.

The council chamber was like all their buildings, each separately built in the cradle of a tree branch where multiple branches sprout off, creating paths in different directions. It gave the community a sense of being spread out, each building squatting in peaceful solitude that was belied by the activity that swarmed around on a warm night.

The air hung heavy and still so that even sound felt muffled. There was no breeze tonight, nothing to make the branches and leaves dance. Almost as though they waited with held breath, motionless lest they bring the unwanted attention of the crow upon them.

Ibris sat on the stem of a leaf, hidden by the cool green blade against the back wall outside the council chamber.

She had made her excuses to Liandan, claiming exhaustion, so she could sneak back and listen in on the council meeting.

The crowd was leaving as she arrived and she had slipped through them nimbly. No one paid attention. They were concerned with their own thoughts. It was not the public meeting she wanted to hear.

When the door opened and closed again, Ibris started to slip from her hiding spot, but she had paused. She watched Queen Brionna and her escort leave, followed by the elder Cian and his sole guard. As she watched them go the council door thudded closed.

She was about to leave when she heard voices and instead pulled back, pressed herself against the rough wall, and listened. Her breath came heavier and she had to hold it to not drown out the muffled words coming through the wall. Her eyes widened with the talk of locking them in and a sickness sank into the pit of her stomach.

They could not, would not, do that. Would they? It was against the very nature of their beings to be so confined. They would shrivel inside and die.

When they left, Ibris moved to hurry home. She was just about to step from her hiding spot when she heard their footsteps approach and threw herself back behind the leaf.

She practically fell backwards. Ibris sat on the stem of a leaf, hidden by the cool green blade against the back wall outside the council chamber.

King Tuathal and Sarawn had not gone the same direction as the rest of the council.

Panic surged as they approached. It was a tight fist that held her breath. It increased her fear. She could not breathe. Suddenly she needed to, desperately. She had to gulp in great gasps of air or she would die. Ibris knew she was caught. She would be punished severely for spying on the king.

Dizzying weakness gripped her as they were upon her. She clenched her teeth against crying out. She gripped the stem as hard as she could against the blackness that threatened to close in on her vision and against slipping to fall limply below. She was on the verge of fainting with fear, heart thudding so loud in her chest they must hear it.

They walked past, unaware of her presence, and Ibris could only helplessly watch. Each step on they took, talking casually, brought home the realization they did not know she was there.

Once they were gone, Ibris stood shakily and leaned against the wall. She brought up a trembling hand to push a strand of hair from her face and struggled to force herself to breathe again.

After a moment to collect herself, Ibris stepped into the darkness of shadows from leaves above blocking the moon’s pale light.

“Why are you spying on the council?”

The aged voice startled Ibris. She stumbled and turned to face the elder. She never would have seen Shanawn there if he had not spoken.

“I-I,” Ibris stammered weakly. A hot flush rose in her cheeks and a sweat broke out on her skin. The sudden dampness chilled her.

She looked down, face red with shame and terrified.

“I just wanted to know we would be safe from the crow,” she mumbled, her voice shaking as much as her shivering body trembled.

Shanawn nodded.

“A little reassurance, huh?”

She nodded miserably, afraid to look at him. What might her face reveal? Her eyes?

“Just do as they say. Follow the safety precautions and do not venture beyond the Glenn during the daylight hours, and you will be fine. Off with you. The morning light is not far off now.”

Ibris almost choked. She nodded too quickly and scampered off, eager to escape.

He watched her go until she was out of sight before he started making his own way home.

Episode 2 (Butterflies in the Garden): Crow Council by Vivian Munnoch

Episode 2:

Butterflies In The Garden

Crow Council

Photo by Valentin Petkov on Unsplash

Raised voices crashed against the council chamber walls in expressions of outrage and fear. Such volume and pandemonium was cruelty to the ears. Even the softening acoustics of the crowded room could not dampen the volume.

Ibris and Liandan stood in the back, huddled in a corner. They could only catch glimpses of the council through the press of bodies in front of them. It was safer in the back. Invisible.

Sarawn’s face held the same hard anger it did earlier when they ran into him and Shanawn. Both knight and younger brother to King Tuathal, he sat next to the king at the table facing the village. Other knights of the Glenn stood behind him, his son Brassal, barely old enough to be knighted, and Farrell, the grey barely creeping into his hair.

Sarawn alone of the knights held a seat at the council table this night. The king’s own sons, both knighted, stood behind their father.

King Tuathal sat center table with Queen Brionna on his other side. Two of the four village elders flanked them on one side, the other two elder seats on the other end sitting vacant.

Ibris caught a glimpse of the elders present. She could not tell if the elder Cian’s wrinkled face held a frown that was deeper than his usual dour expression.

Shanawn stood where he should have sat behind the table, looking around the room in frustration, one arm raised seeking silence. His thin wavering aged voice was no match for the noise.

With a grunt, King Tuathal stood, silently glowering at the crowd.

That was all it took. The volume lowered, shouts and frightened complaints wavering off to sniffles and a low whimper.

He motioned to Shanawn to continue and took his seat.

Shanawn nodded thanks and addressed the room.

“As I was saying, the rumors are true.”

The crowd almost erupted again, but a stern look from King Tuathal kept them in check.

“Craven’s ugly cry has been heard,” Shanawn said. “His black shadow has been cast across our village again.”

Whispers and murmurs passed through the crowd, but they kept mostly quiet, fixed on the old man.

“Precautions will be taken,” he continued. “The skies will be patrolled. Gathering is to be done only when we have eyes on the ugly black-hearted beast and know he is well away from the village. Above all,” he paused to catch the eye of as many villagers as he could, “take caution Craven does not learn the location of the village. He knows it is in the area, but not yet where. It must stay that way.”

He kept talking, but Ibris lost interest staring at the backs of her neighbors crowded too closely together. The stuffiness off the room was building and with it her impatience to escape it.

King Tuathal’s voice rose above the crowd and she realized the elder stopped talking.

“We will reinstate the Crow Council,” he said. “Craven may be just a bird, but he is wicked and smart far above the usual crow. We drove him out before and we will drive him away again.”

Murmurs filled the room, silencing quickly.

“Craven isn’t so smart,” Liandan muttered. “He’s just a bird that sees us as food. Everything is food to a crow.”

“Or a shiny bauble,” Ibris said.

Liandan looked at her and they both had to cover their mouths with their hands to stifle a giggle. People nearby gave them irritated looks.

Still, Ibris could not shake the sick chill feeling that clung to her since the large bird nearly ate her.

“Come on,” Liandan nudged her. “We heard this all the last time. Let’s go.”

With an uneasy glance through the crowd towards the head table, Ibris followed. Liandan pulled the door open just enough to squeeze through and they slipped out of the council chamber.

The night air was refreshingly cool after the heated stuffiness of too many bodies crammed in a small room.

The council chamber was built in the cradle of a thick tree branch where multiple branches sprouted off, creating paths in different directions. They took one of these paths. The voices muffled behind the chamber walls softened as the distance behind them grew.

“Crow Council,” Liandan muttered. “They have to create a council for everything, don’t they? It is just a bird, no different than the other birds big enough to see anything smaller than them as food.”

“They just need to live too,” Ibris said. “And they don’t eat everything smaller than them. But they do eat insects.”

“And that’s all they see us as,” Liandan said, her voice pouty. “Brainless insects. They do eat anything. I bet they would eat their own kind too. They may not be able to kill everything they eat, but if it is animal, insect, or plant, they’ll eat it if they get the chance. They are just big ugly dumb eating machines with wings.”

Ibris could not help the image that came to her. Craven looming large and close, his ebony feathers gleaming dully, seemingly absorbing the daylight into his black mass. His unblinking eye bright with intelligence fixed on her.

She shuddered, trying to push the frightful image away. It will haunt her for weeks to come.

Liandan caught the pale waxy look as Ibris’s face drained of color and the frightened ill expression she tried to hide.

“It’s going to be okay,” Liandan said. She draped an arm over Ibris’s shoulders. “We just need to find a way to get the message to that butterfly brain of yours to stay out of the open where the crows and other birds can eat you.”

“You aren’t making me feel any better,” Ibris muttered.

They both laughed, but hers rang hollow in her ears.

A chill crossed Ibris’s shoulders, like a shadow passing over her. She looked up. The sky twinkled with stars in a deep blue-black that felt like it went into forever. The moon was out of sight beyond the trees, its mellow shadow still beneath the canopy of leaves above. A breeze picked up. It lifted and played with the leaves, the moon’s shadow dancing beneath them.

Still, the cold shadow of doom wrapped itself around Ibris and would not let go.

Episode 1 (Butterflies in the Garden): Danger Above by Vivian Munnoch

Episode 1:

Butterflies In The Garden

Danger Above

Photo by Jessa Crisp on Unsplash (edited by Vivian Munnoch)

The dully gleaming ebony feathers of the crow seemed to absorb the daylight into its black mass. The motionless bird stared unblinkingly at the movement below from its perch in a tree, looking more like its deceased and stuffed counterpart than a living creature.

Below him the little butterfly flitted weightlessly, bobbing on its wings over the flowers in the garden, oblivious to the danger above.

The crow blinked just once, the thin membrane moving across its cold emotionless eye a heartbeat behind the eyelid in a slightly off double motion. The bird tilted his head.

Spindly legs reaching, the little butterfly landed on a flower. Its wings moved slowly to some soundless rhythm. It tasted the air with its antennae, picking up only the sweet pollen of the flowers.

Feeling safe, the butterfly stilled its wings, letting them soak in the delightful warmth of the sun.

With a slow languid motion, the crow spread his wings and took flight, his shadow passing on the ground below.

The fleeting shade was a cooling pulse across the insect’s back, the warmth returned as quickly. Only its antennae moved in response.

Landing soundlessly on a wooden post closer to the flowers, the crow ruffled his feathers and settled to watch the little butterfly.

The insect lifted one spindly front leg and froze. It sensed danger. Its antennae twitched, feeling for the source. Nothing moved except the barest dance of the flowers in the soft breeze. The butterfly relaxed again.

The crow bided his time, watching the butterfly groom its head with its front legs.

He half spread his wings and tilted his head, coldly eying the morsel below. His wings came up and his head down, wings spreading to their full span. He pushed off the post, bringing his wings down against the air. He dove down at the garden.

Danger trembled in the little butterfly’s antennae. Its legs quivered and wings twitched as it sought the source. The shadow came down, growing, and covered it. It realized the danger too late, flapping its wings and bobbing and dodging on the air.

Faster, the crow dove straight for it, closing the gap quickly.

The insect felt the displaced air before it could flit across two flowers. Desperate to live, it tried to weave in the air. It could not move fast enough, its bumbling flight too weightless for speed.

The crow’s beak clapped closed a wing’s hair from catching and crushing the little butterfly just as it dropped below the flower heads. Twisting mid flight, the bird reached for it with the talons of one foot, catching only the velvety softness of flower petals. His claws dug into the blossom, tearing the stigma from style, anther from filament, and ruined petals free in a single violent moment that left the spoiled flower trembling with motion in its wake.

Swooping up to land on the post, the bird shook his foot to knock off the petal impaled on one claw. The torn petal fluttered to the ground. The crow ruffled his feathers in irritation at missing the snack.

The quivering butterfly clung to the bottom of a flower head beneath the watchful stare of the hungry bird above. Hours passed and neither moved. The sun crossed the sky, its light getting old and tired, and finally turned to the early gloom of dusk as it hung lower in the sky.

Lifting his beak to stare balefully at the weakening light, the crow finally gave up and took flight across the yard and over the trees towards his night roost. His ugly caws carried back on the wind.

The little butterfly was still afraid to move. It clung there in the growing darkness. The sun on the horizon made the sky burn with the colors of sunset as it slipped behind the skyline, plunging the world into night.

Rising waxy and pale, the moon cast its dull light into the night.

Moonlight reached down through the flowers and touched the wings of the little butterfly. Its wings quivered and rippled, shriveling into themselves. It trembled, its body twisting in grotesque reaction to the trauma. It fell into the full light of the moon. Its antennae withered and shriveled, its body convulsed in wretched spasms and twitched as it morphed. The lower part of its body split and pulled apart into two as its legs pulled into the body. The front legs thickened instead of withering like the rest and it shook its head in agony, legs splaying at the ends to become hands with fingers.

When at last it lay still, gasping raggedly from the pain ravaging it with the transformation, it was no longer a butterfly.

Clutching at and shaking her head, she moaned and pushed herself into a sitting position. She groaned hollowly and looked around.

She was still the size of the butterfly, but has shed all insectile appearances for human-like. Hair cut in a short bob framed her tiny face. Her appearance was almost elven, slender and diminutively angled.

Ibris stood weakly on unsteady legs, wavering a little. A gossamer gown hung off her, limp and tired. Putting an arm out, she stumbled over and leaned on the flower stalk for support as she gathered herself.

“That was close.” Her voice was rough and high with anxiety. She blinked; looking dazed, and tried to clear her thoughts.

“Craven the Crow is back. This is not good. He has killed too many of us. I should alert the village.”

Still weak from the transformation, Ibris shuddered and her gown shifted. Part of it lifted on each side, splitting apart to reveal wings so delicate they seemed they would tear on the barest breath of a breeze.

She looked up anxiously, expecting to see the ugly crow suddenly appear. She could not fly yet, so she started walking, climbing between flower stalks and blades of grass. Everything towered massively above her.

When her wings have dried, she took flight, moving more quickly. Ibris flew recklessly through the flowers, rising above them and speeding up, darting across the garden. She crossed the yard to the woods beyond and vanished into the shadows of the trees.

The village was alive with activity when Ibris reached it. The dwellings were little cottages of twigs and dry grass faded to sandy browns like logs and flat boards of wood. Tiny flowers decorated gardens, their heads hanging large and heavily.

Her legs were already pumping before she landed, her stride going easily from flight to a swift walk as her feet touch ground. She dodged through the village determinedly.

Ibris stopped at a building that was larger than the small cottage homes. The House of Counsel. She looked at the closed door uncertainly, reached a hand out to knock, and froze. Her hand fell uselessly to her side.

“I’m going to be in trouble for going to the flowers without permission.”

She turned unhappily, retreating.

“Ibris, where have you been?” The voice is soft, but with an edge of irritation, lightly scolding.

Ibris stopped and looked. Her eyes flashed warily as one caught doing something wrong might look. Liandan, the weaver of spider-silk cloth, was staring at her, waiting for an explanation.

Liandan was taller than Ibris, her arms lean and strong from hard work. She was older, but still young enough to be just starting her journey through the adult life.

Ibris took quick steps to her. She lowered her voice to a whisper.

“I know I should not have, but my butterfly brain does not always think.” She looked down guiltily. “I went to the flowers.”

“Without permission,” Liandan guessed. “You are lucky you did not get caught, or in danger.”

Ibris’s cheeks reddened.

“What happened?” Liandan asked.

“Craven.” Ibris’s voice trembled with the memory.

Liandan blanched and her face turned a sickly shade of pale. She reached for Ibris, needed to touch her and make sure her friend was safe. She felt Ibris trembling beneath her hand.

“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

Ibris shook her head. “It was close. Very close. I was sure I felt his ugly beak snapping me in half when I heard it clap closed on the air where I just was.”

She shuddered with the thought.

“But you are okay now. Promise me you won’t go back out there.”

Ibris gave Liandan a pained look.

“I didn’t mean to go,” she pleaded. “I was in the other form. My mind did not think. It has been safe for so long, I guess I forgot.”

Liandan was staring off thoughtfully.

“So, Craven has returned.” She looked at Ibris. “We have to tell the village. Craven is relentless. Ibris, we have to tell the elders.”

“No.” Ibris reached to put a restraining hand on her arm. She stared into her eyes pleadingly. “I will be punished.”

“If we don’t, someone will fall prey to him sooner or later.”

Ibris hung her head in shame.

“All right,” she said quietly.

“We don’t have to tell them everything,” Liandan said. She looked thoughtful. “Did you hear his call?”

“Yes. Ugly and loud.”

“Did you see or feel his shadow cross you?”

“Both.” Ibris shuddered and hugged herself.

Liandan nodded. “We have it then. We will tell them that and leave out where you were.”

“But that would be a lie by omission.”

“It’s only a small lie.”

“It’s a big one and they will ask where.”

“All right. We will have to tell the whole truth. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Come, we have to tell someone.”

Ibris followed her unhappily back through the village.

“We are not going to the House of Counsel?”

“No,” Liandan said. “We will find one of the grandmothers who have retired from the council. They will know best what to do.”

They came around a cottage to see a group of ahead. Sarawn, one of the knights of the Glenn and member of the council was there, looking serious and angry. Shanawn, the elderly historian was looking at him gravely. There were others too, all talking in loud anxious voices and looking concerned.

Liandan grabbed Ibris’s hand so she could not back out and dragged her along towards them.

Ibris tried to pull back, terrified of approaching them. Not just for what she had done, but because of who was there. Sarawn and Shanawn! They both terrified her. The knight of the Glenn standing tall and regal, his scowl making him even more intimidating. And the stooped historian dressed in a ragged robe more fitting a pauper traveler, who knew too much and was one of the most respected council members.

Liandan, too, hesitated. She took strength from being only one of a crowd clamoring for answers.

“What’s going on?” Liandan asked when they reached the group.

Shanawn turned to look at them. They both recoiled at the attention, expecting someone of lower status like their own to respond.

“Craven’s ugly cry has been heard,” he said, his voice thin and wavering with age. “His black shadow has been cast across our village again.”

“King Tuathal must be notified and a meeting of the council called,” Sarawn said gravely.

Shanawn nodded agreement.

Liandan and Ibris looked at each other. Ibris’s secret was safe, for now.

The Latchkey Kids: 3 The Parents Come Home – Andrew by Vivian Munnoch

The clerk looks like he is ready to confront him and accuse him of stealing something, even though he hasn’t done anything.

Andrew walks around the store, trying to be invisible.  He can feel the store clerk watching him and, when he risks a quick look at the clerk, sees the man is watching him suspiciously.  The clerk looks like he is ready to confront him and accuse him of stealing something, even though he hasn’t done anything.

“I just want to keep warm without having to go back home and wait alone for Mom and Dad to come home,” he thinks, feeling dumb just thinking about it.  “What’s there to be afraid of being home alone?  There’s nothing there.”

Andrew is afraid someone might find out.  “I’m too old for this kind of little kid scared of nothing stuff.”

The clerk’s suspicious stare is making him more nervous.  He’s starting to feel panicky; scared of being caught even though he isn’t doing anything wrong.

He tries to pretend he’s shopping, hoping the clerk will leave him alone.  He looks around him and grabs something off the shelf without looking at anything but the price tags below the items on the shelf.  It has to be something he has enough money to pay for, and he doesn’t have very much.  He has no idea what it is that he grabbed.

He’s only buying it to show that he’s not there to make trouble.

Andrew shuffles up to the counter, keeping his head down, and puts the object on the counter.

“Are you really going to buy that?” the clerk asks with a smirk.  He still looks suspicions and is eying Andrew with a distrustful look, judging him either insane or a criminal, depending on his reaction to the question.

Andrew looks up at him with a nod, a flush creeping up his neck, and then looks down at the item in question.  He stares at it in horror.

There, for all of the world to see, is a pink box. He feels like it is staring up at him in gleeful accusation, yelling to the store, “HE IS LYING!”

Andrew swallows, feeling suddenly sick with embarrassment, the red flush rising up his cheeks.  He looks around quickly to see if anyone is looking.

The object pictured on the bright pink box looks similar to that bullet shaped lipstick candy, only longer and white.

Andrew doesn’t know what it’s used for, but the word Tampon glares up like an announcement and all he knows is that it’s something very private that boys are not supposed to know about and has to do with women and teen girls and puberty.

The package says it’s a mini pack just for the purse.  He suffers a sudden flash of thought, envisioning having to explain to his mother why he bought it.

Andrew turns redder, his face burning with a flush of shame, and the clerk behind the counter laughs.  His expression shows pain for the boy’s predicament and relief that he isn’t a shoplifter after all.

“Your mom sent you, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” Andrew mumbles, looking down and hoping no one sees him.

He pays for his unwanted purchase and makes a beeline for the exit, running halfway home before he slows down and starts looking for somewhere to ditch the little bag.

When Andrew gets home, the tampon box has been safely disposed of in a random trashcan along the way.  He lets himself back in the house and goes back to playing video games.

He plays for the next hour, nervously listening for the noises from the basement that sent him fleeing from the house. The noises never repeat themselves, but that almost makes it worse because he can’t make himself stop expecting them.

Finally, his parents come home and he can put this day behind him.

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The Latchkey Kids: 3 The Parents Come Home – Madison by Vivian Munnoch

“I forgot about Caesar,” she groans, “I have to go past him again.”

The thought of having to go past the dog makes her whole body ache with dread, her muscles unwilling to go on even though she knows it’s the only way.  It will take too long to go the long way around and she is frozen.

With no one at the school to let her in and no idea what else to do, Madison heads back home.  She is getting colder, her fingers and toes are burning and painful from the cold now and she is getting very upset.  She is also going to have to explain to her parents about locking herself out when they get home.

“Assuming I’m not frozen to death by then,” Madison mutters miserably.

She retraces her steps, the walk feeling a lot longer this time, and stops when she reaches Mr. Hooper’s house.

Caesar!

“I forgot about Caesar,” she groans, “I have to go past him again.”

The thought of having to go past the dog makes her whole body ache with dread, her muscles unwilling to go on even though she knows it’s the only way.  It will take too long to go the long way around and she is frozen.

“Come on Madison, you can do this.  It’s only a dog and he’s on a chain that doesn’t even reach past the edge of the yard.  Yeah, only a big mean dog that’ll probably tear you apart and eat you.”

Madison loves dogs, but this one is scary, mean, and large.

She stares at the house and yard, willing the dog to not be outside or that Mr. Hooper comes out and controls that nasty dog.

“Mr. Hooper is as scary as the dog is.  Maybe I am better off trying to sneak past the dog.”

She jumps when the dog pops his head around the side of the house with one loud woof, staring at her from the backyard.

Madison swallows, trying to control her fear.  The dog is only standing there watching her so far.

“His chain doesn’t reach the road, so walking by should be safe, right?”  It doesn’t feel safe.

“Okay Madison, let’s go,” Madison urges herself on.

She takes a first cautious step.

The dog just watches.

She takes two more steps, almost reaching the point where she would be even with the curb in front of the house.

The dog moves, shifting position but not taking a step, and she imagines him coiling to spring at her.

“Just do it Madison,” she mutters, “just go.  Don’t even look at him and just walk right past the house.”

A few more steps and Madison is passing front yard, keeping to the far side of the little road, as far away from Old Man Hooper’s house as she can without climbing over the fence on the other side. Every muscle is stiff and tense.

Caesar just stands there watching her very intently.

“Very hungrily,” she thinks.

When Madison reaches not quite halfway past the back yard, the dog suddenly launches himself at her with a deep growl that becomes a barrage of loud angry barking, bounding after her with powerful strides.

Madison screams and whirls to face the lunging dog, putting her arms up to protect herself from the attack.

The back door of Mr. Hooper’s house flies open with a bang and the old man comes barrelling down the stairs on legs that are little more than sticks covered by loose pants.  He is wearing a stained white undershirt with a hole in it and an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt that is also stained and torn.  Madison suspects the brown-red stains are the blood of his and Caesar’s victims from cutting them up in his basement to bury them or feed them to Caesar.  His wild eyes, unkempt hair, and grey patchy chin stubble make him look more frightening and wild, like a backwoods crazy man.

Fists clenched, he raises one and shakes it at her threateningly, the other gripping what Madison suspects is some kind of weapon to knock her senseless with so he can feed her to the dog.

“You quit teasing my dog!” he shouts at her.  “Get outta my yard!  Get outta here and leave my dog alone!  You kids are always teasing my dog!”

Caesar reaches the end of his chain and Madison is relieved to see the chain holding strong.  With the chain taught, still pulling and lunging at her, Caesar’s jaws snap as if he is already chewing on her while he continues to bark ferociously.

“I’m not even in his yard,” Madison thinks.  With a scared whimper, she scurries off towards the back lane, putting Mr. Hooper’s house and Caesar behind her as quickly as she can.  The moment she reaches the corner where the little road meets the back lane, Madison breaks into a run.

Behind her, Caesar is still barking after her and she can hear the old man yelling and muttering.

Madison is still shaken by the confrontation when she reaches the fence with the loose board.  She looks up at the fence, picturing for just a moment Caesar breaking his chain and coming after her, pinning her helplessly against the fence while he tears her apart, tearing first through her coat to get to her skin beneath.  She sees its height as an impossible barrier, and then almost panics when she doesn’t find the loose board right away.

“Okay Madison, calm down,” she tries to sooth herself.

Fingers numb with the cold and her toes like numb blocks filled with a distant sharp pain that are there weighing her legs down but somehow detached, not a part of her, Madison tries again, looking for the notch in the board and counting the boards.

Her fingers will not work when she tries to move the board.  Madison pulls her mitts off and blows hot air on her fingers, putting them in her mouth and sucking on them to try to warm them up.  It only makes the pain in her frozen fingers worse.  Putting her mitts back on, she tries again and this time moves the board.

Madison starts squeezing through the board when she hears the sounds of footsteps and heavy breathing behind her, and then the jingle of a dog’s chain.

“That heavy breathing is definitely a dog panting,” she thinks.  “Caesar!  He got loose!”  Terror grips her and she squeezes frantically through the fence, almost falling through on the other side.

She turns as she lets the board fall back into place just in time to see a woman jogging up the alley with a big fluffy white dog.

Madison leans against the fence and lets out a nervous giggle. “It wasn’t Caesar,” she says in relief.

She walks the rest of the way home, each step seeming to take her farther away instead of closer.  The pain in her frozen fingers and toes is getting worse.  She tries walking faster, and it makes the pain in her feet worse but at least she should get home faster. Her nose is burning too now and she walks holding her mitts to her face, blocking the cold and warming her face with her own breath cupped beneath the mitts.  She leaves only a crack to see through between her mitts.

“Will I ever get home?” she moans in despair.

When Madison finally gets home, she is so cold that her hands and feet hurt so much she is crying.  She still can’t get in, though, because she lost her key and locked herself out.  Madison sits on the steps and just cries.

“Are you okay?”

She looks up, startled, to see the woman who lives next door.

“I locked myself out,” Madison sobs.

“You look frozen!” the woman exclaims sympathetically.  “Come inside my house to warm up and we’ll watch for your parents to come home.”

Madison gratefully goes with her.

Inside the neighbor’s house, she is given a warm blanket and a cup of hot cocoa.  Her fingers are too frozen at first to hold the cup.  She sits there, rubbing her hands together, trying to warm them.  When her fingers and toes start to warm up the pain is terrible.  Frostbite had been setting in.  She has to wait for the pain in her fingers to lessen before she dares try picking up the cup of hot cocoa.  She sits there drinking it thankfully and watching a television show that is way too young for her that the neighbor put on to entertain her.

A few hours later, Madison’s mother arrives home.

The neighbor notices the car in the driveway.  “Someone is home at your house.”

Madison looks up at her with fear in her eyes.

“I’m going to be in trouble for locking myself out,” she thinks.  “Worse, my parents are not going to trust me to be home alone now.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” the neighbour asks sympathetically, seeing her fear.

“No, I can manage,” Madison says unhappily.  Her mind is working, thinking through what she will say to her parents.  She gets up reluctantly.

“Thank you for letting me wait here, and for the hot cocoa,” she says as she pulls on her coat and boots at the door.  She waves goodbye as the woman closes the door behind her.

Madison trudges home reluctantly.  “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” she thinks again miserably.  “They’ll make me go to a babysitter now.  I’m too old for babysitters.”  She opens the front door to find her mother frantically searching the house and calling her.

Hearing the sound of the front door and the thud of Madison’s boot dropping on the floor, her mother rushes to the door.

“Where have you been?”  Her voice is as anxious and harsh with worry as the expression on her face.

Madison shifts nervously, standing there with one boot on and one off, her coat open, and hat and mitts dropped carelessly on the floor with her backpack.

She looks down at the floor, not wanting to meet her mother’s eyes.

“I lost my key,” she mumbles quietly.

“What?  Look up at me when you speak. What did you say?”

Madison huffs in frustration, not wanting to repeat herself.  She looks up at her mother, her mother’s worried look making her want to hide.

“I got locked out.”

“How?  Where is your key?”  She advances on Madison.  “Take your jacket off, give me your backpack.  Where is your key, Madison?”

Madison lets her mother take the offending backpack.  She takes off her other boot and jacket while her mother searches the backpack.

“I don’t know.  I got home and I couldn’t find my key.”  Her voice is cracking and sounds small, making her sound years younger.

She stands there watching her mother pull stuff out of her backpack, shaking them out and finally dumping the rest of the contents on the floor in a mess.

“So where were you?”

“I was next door.”  Madison decides not to tell her that she walked all the way back to school and then home again before finally ending up next door.

The front door opens behind Madison and her father walks in.

“What’s all this?” he asks, looking down at the mess scattered on the floor and at his wife rifling through Madison’s backpack.

“Madison locked herself out.  She lost her key.”  Madison’s mother doesn’t pause in her search of the backpack and its contents.

Her father takes his shoes and coat off, hanging up his coat, and gives Madison a disappointed look.

That look makes a red flush burn her cheeks.  She would have preferred anger to his disappointment.

He shakes his head. “Did you check her backpack and coat?”

Her mother looks up at him with an annoyed look.

He picks up Madison’s coat from the floor and searches the pockets, feeling along the bottom hem in case it somehow slipped through a hole in the pocket into the inner lining.

Madison just watches.  There are no holes in her pockets.

“How did you lock yourself out?” her father asks while he searches the coat.  “This was a pretty big responsibility we trusted you with.  I guess you just aren’t ready for it.”

“There is no key,” her mother exclaims, dropping the violated backpack on the floor.  “I guess we were wrong.  You just aren’t responsible enough yet.”

She turns and heads for the kitchen.

“Mom, I am. I’m twelve,” Madison begs, following her.  “What are you going to do?”  She has a pretty good idea what her mother is going to do and she is mortified at the idea.

“Mom, no, please, I’m too old for babysitters.”

Her mother picks up the phone and digs her little phone book out, turning on Madison.  “What if the neighbour wasn’t home?  Where would you have gone?  It’s too cold out; you could have froze or had frostbite.”

Madison blushes at the memory of her freezing walk and the pain of frostbite in her fingers and toes.

“I’m finding you a babysitter.”  Her mother starts flipping through the little phone book.

“Mom, please,” Madison begs, fighting the tears she can’t stop.  Twelve is too old to go to daycare or a babysitter.  Too old to cry.  How can she show them she’s old enough if she cries like a baby?

“You just aren’t ready yet for the responsibility of getting yourself to school and home,” her father says, entering the kitchen and pacing angrily.

The tension in the air between them all is heavy.  Madison watches helplessly as her mother is determined to find a babysitter and her father continues pacing angrily and scolding her and complaining about the locked door.  She doesn’t even hear his words anymore, seeing only the teasing and taunting at school when the other kids learn she’s going to a babysitter.

Madison looks at her father, usually her biggest ally when her mother is set on something and is being unreasonable.  She has no ally there now.  Madison isn’t sure if he is angry with her, himself, or at the door that kept her from getting into the house.

Madison is mortified.  “Babies go to babysitters,” she thinks.  “I’m old enough to be home alone.  I’ll show them!” Her heart sinks. “But how?”

With no mature options, she resorts to what has always worked in the past.  Madison cries and begs them to give her another chance.

This goes on for some time, a battle for who has more stamina.  Her mother keeps threatening to send her to a babysitter, her father pacing angrily and lecturing her, and Madison keeps crying and begging for another chance.  Finally, her parents wear down first and relent.  Madison is given another chance to show that she can handle the responsibility.

THE LATCHKEY KIDS IS AVAILABLE ON KINDLE AND IN PAPERBACK ON AMAZON

 

The Latchkey Kids: 3 The Parents Come Home – Kylie by Vivian Munnoch

“Please don’t let him know I’m home,” she pleads silently. 

She can hear him out there, tipping things over, letting them fall, while he searches for a hidden key. 

Kylie listens in fear to the doorknob being jostled.  She knows it’s her father trying to get in.  She expects to hear the sound of breaking glass at any moment.  She inches up cautiously to a window, staying low below the bottom edge, and carefully rises up just high enough to peak out.  She needs to see, to know where he is.  She is terrified he might see her.

He tries the front door first, and then moves around the house.  He tries a side window.

Kylie skulks through the house, following him around.  She almost steps into a bedroom doorway, catching the dark motion at the window barely in time and darting back, pressing herself against the wall.  Her heart is pounding so hard in her chest it feels like it’s going to come right through her rib cage and out through her chest.

His face is pressed against the window, looking in.  He moves on to the back of the house.

Kylie sneaks into the bedroom and looks out, trying to see where he went.  She moves on, following him to the back of the house, going into the kitchen now.  She wants more than anything to look out and see what he is doing, but is terrified he will see her.

“Please don’t let him know I’m home,” she pleads silently.  “He hasn’t tried yelling through the door and pounding on it, so maybe he doesn’t know.  Maybe he thinks the house is empty.”  She crouches against the back door, below the window level, listening.

She can hear him out there, tipping things over, letting them fall, while he searches for a hidden key.  She almost jumps and screams at the sudden shaking of the back door when he tries to open it, rattling the doorknob and shaking the door in its frame.

Kylie fights the tears, trembling, and holding her hands tight over her mouth to keep her whimpers from being heard on the other side of the door.

The rattling-shaking of the door stops.  She can hear him muttering, but not what he is saying.  He walks off, back around the house, trying another window.

Kylie scrambles away from the back door, staying low, peeking around a bedroom doorframe before scampering past the open doorway.  She sees the dark shape of his form moving past and scampers into the room, ducking beneath the window.

She breathes deeply, holds her breath, and slowly rises up to peek cautiously out the window.  She just catches her father moving out of sight, continuing on to the front.

Kylie scampers through the house to the front.  She slips into the living room, staying down and against the wall, inching to the front window.  She rises up against the wall beside the window where she is hidden by the partially open curtain, peaking through the small crack between the curtain and window frame.

She holds her breath, watching him walk away and get back in his car.  He turns his head and looks back at the house, and just for a few heartbeats Kylie is positive he sees her, that he is staring at her.  Then he starts his car and drives away.

She feels sick with fear and weak with relief.  She sinks to the floor and sits there sobbing.

“I wish I was dead.  I wish I was never even born, that I never even existed,” she whimpers miserably.

After that, Kylie sits in a dark corner waiting for her mother to come home, scared her father will return and break into the house.  It feels like time has stopped and will never move again while she endlessly waits.

“I’m going to have to explain to Mom how I lost my coat and boots,” she moans.  “I have another hat and mitts I can wear. They’re old and worn out, and Mom fixed the mitts a few times, but that was my only coat and boots for winter.  What am I going to wear tomorrow?”

Kylie is startled by a sound at the door.  She freezes; her stomach knotting and her heart pounding hard in her chest and feeling like it skipped a beat.  “Is he back?”  She is terrified.

Relief floods Kylie when she hears the familiar jingle of the way her mother always jingles her keys just before she unlocks the door, followed immediately as the door opens by her mother’s voice calling her and her younger sister’s babbling mid-sentence about what she did today.

“Kylie, what are your coat and boots doing on the front step?” her mother calls out as she comes in the house.

Kylie is confused.  “Coat?  Boots?”

She gets to her feet and goes to see what her mother is talking about.  She stops, staring in confusion at the clothes her mother is holding out to her.  “I can’t believe it,” she thinks numbly, “there is no way any of those girls would have brought back my clothes.  So how did they get there?”

“Well?” her mother insists impatiently.  “Why are they on the front steps?”

“I don’t know,” Kylie says, staring in wide-eyed confusion at the bundle that is her coat wrapped around her boots and stuff.  Tears pop to her eyes.  She can’t hold them back.

“How did they get there?” she thinks wildly. “Did he leave them? But, if Dad left them, that means he was following me. He followed me to the park, watched them beat me up and take my stuff, and he did nothing.  Nothing to help. He left me walking home like that.  No, even Dad wouldn’t just watch and do nothing, would he?  Would he leave me to maybe die walking home in this cold?  No, I don’t think he would.  Then who?  How?”

Seeing her distraught look and her red swollen eyes, her mother knows immediately that something is wrong.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, concerned.

Kylie looks up at her mother, her face twisted with all the fear and sadness she has been feeling for the past few hours and it all pours out about being beaten up at the park, how her coat tore, and the three girls stealing her clothes and leaving her to walk home without them in the cold.  She chokes on her tears and stumbles over the words when she starts telling her mom about her dad trying to get into the house.

Her mother listens, horrified.  She is more upset about her ex-husband coming to the house than about the girls in the park, but she can deal with only one of the problems.

“We’ll go to the girls’ houses and talk to their parents,” she says.

“No!”  Kylie is stricken by the idea.  “That will only make them bully me worse!”

“We can’t just let them get away with this,” her mother insists.  “And, they left you without a coat or boots in this cold?  Something has to be done about it!”

“Please mom, no,” Kylie begs.  “Don’t you remember the last time?  Their mothers believed them, not us.  They wouldn’t believe those girls were bullying.  They were even worse to me for months after!”

Her mother looks at her, taking in the strain and fear no mother wants to see in her daughter’s eyes, and realises she’s right.  Saying anything will only make things worse for Kylie at school.

When she had confronted the girls’ parents before they had sided with the girls, believing their story and saying Kylie made it all up and that she was the bully.  The bullying did get worse after that.  When she complained to the school, the principal pretended to sympathize and promised to talk to the girls and did nothing about it.  But she could tell the principal believed the three girls stories that Kylie made it all up.

“I wish I could pull her out of that school and send her somewhere else,” she thinks unhappily, “but how would she get to school?  The other schools she could go to are full and wouldn’t take her when I tried.  We would have to move and I just don’t have the money for that.”

She sighs, feeling helpless to protect her daughter.

“Well, let’s take a look at that coat,” she finally says, closing the discussion about dealing with the bullies.  She is relieved because she doesn’t have to deal with a confrontation with the other girls’ parents.  But she still has the bigger problem, keeping them safe from her ex-husband.

One thought just doesn’t fit, however.  She cannot reconcile how the coat and boots ended up on the front steps.

“Kylie, if those girls took your coat and boots then how did they end up on the steps?”

“I don’t know,” Kylie says miserably.  “I guess someone must have seen what happened.”

“And they did nothing to help?”

“They brought my stuff back at least.”

Kylie’s mother frowns, not satisfied with that explanation.  She unrolls the coat and together they look for the tears.  It won’t look very good, but it will have to be mended so Kylie can wear it to school tomorrow.

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The Latchkey Kids: 2 The Shortcut – Andrew by Vivian Munnoch

“There’s nowhere to go and no one to hang out with, except Dylan, and that isn’t an option.

“Dylan changed.  He became a bully, picking on anyone smaller and weaker than himself.  I don’t like him much anymore.  I don’t think he’d bully me, but he’s just a jerk now and I don’t want anything to do with that.”

Andrew is wandering aimlessly. He doesn’t want to go home yet and feels completely foolish about it.  It will be a while before his parents get home and he doesn’t want to be alone in the house right now.  He can’t put the thought of that noise he heard in the house out of his head.

“There’s nowhere to go and no one to hang out with, except Dylan, and that isn’t an option.

Dylan was my best friend for years and probably would have understood my fear of being alone in the house for hours. The focus is on the was. We don’t hang out anymore, not since Dylan became withdrawn for a while and wouldn’t talk to anyone.  Not even to me.”

Andrew feels a pang of regret and hurt at that.

“Dylan is back to going to a babysitter’s instead of going home anyway, and he has no interest in being friends anymore.”

When he first found out about the babysitter, he didn’t believe it.  He had to ask.  Dylan reacted angrily and has avoided him ever since.  He knew Dylan would be embarrassed and wouldn’t want anyone to find out, so he kept the secret.  Dylan is close enough to hang out after school if his sitter lets him, but Dylan doesn’t seem to want to anymore.  Andrew is fine with that.

“Dylan changed.  He became a bully, picking on anyone smaller and weaker than himself.  I don’t like him much anymore.  I don’t think he’d bully me, but he’s just a jerk now and I don’t want anything to do with that.”

Despite his thoughts, he has doubts.  He is not so sure Dylan wouldn’t beat up and bully him too.  Dylan is bigger than most of the boys his age and so far everyone has been fair game, except him.

The cold is getting to him.  His feet, hands, and face are freezing; his ears, too, despite his hat.

“I’ve got to figure out something now.”  Andrew stomps his feet, putting his hands over his ears, trying to warm up.

“I’ll go to the store. It’s not far. At least I can go inside and warm up.”

He walks fast, alternating between a fast walk and a jog until he gets to the store.  He’s hanging around there for a while, staying outside and trying to find a sheltered spot where it might be less cold.  He stays out as long as he can stand it, the cold biting his fingers and toes until they hurt.  His ears feel like they are on fire and the cold air stings his nose painfully when he breathes in.

The cold is too much for him, driving him inside to find warmth.  He looks at the inviting warmth through the window.

“They won’t like me just hanging around and will kick me out, probably accusing me of shoplifting or something.  People always seem to be suspicious for no good reason of kids on their own without parents.  I have to do it.  I’m going in.”

He glances at the store clerk nervously as he enters the store and starts wandering up and down aisles, pretending he’s looking for something.

 

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The Latchkey Kids: 2 The Shortcut – Dylan by Vivian Munnoch

“They stole it from Kylie.  There is no other reason they would have it.”  He thinks it over, feeling guilty for his automatic response to shove it back in the trash.  His conscience wins.

Dylan is sitting morosely staring out the sitter’s living room window when he sees three girls coming up the street, Amber, Jessica, and Brooke.

Dylan isn’t all that interested in what they’re doing, but they are girls and he has nothing else to do, so he watches them.  Amber is carrying a bundle.

“This is so boring,” he thinks.  He’s always bored at the babysitter’s.  “Mrs. Foster is nice enough, but she just doesn’t have anything to do.  No video games or anything.  She doesn’t have kids and has nothing in the house for them.  All I can do is sit here waiting for one of my parents to pick me up.  I wish they would hurry.”

Dylan watches the girls stop while Amber jams the bundle into a trashcan next to the garage across the street.  From their nervous looks around, he has no doubt they are hiding something.

Curious about what they are hiding, he waits for them to move on.

“I’m going outside,” he calls out to Mrs. Foster.  Shrugging on his coat and pulling on his boots, he goes out.

The chill air feels like it’s biting his lungs when he inhales.  He hurriedly zips up his coat, wishing he had grabbed a hat to cover his already stinging ears.

Dylan checks up and down the street to make sure no one is watching and darts across the street to the trashcan.  No one is home at the house, but someone might drive by and see him digging in the trash.  He looks again before lifting the lid to look in.  Pulling the bundle out, Dylan looks it over then unwraps it to reveal a coat wrapped around boots and a hat and mitts.

He studies them.  They look familiar.  He realizes they belong to Kylie.

“What are they doing with Kylie’s stuff?”  His eyes narrow.  “Those three are the nastiest girls in school and Kylie is Amber’s favorite victim.”

Dylan looks back at the babysitter’s house, debating what he should do.  “Kylie just lives on the next street.  If I run the stuff over there, the babysitter might notice me gone and I’d be in trouble.  Besides, who knows why those girls have the stuff?”

He’s about to stuff the clothes back in the trash can but thinks better of it.

“They stole it from Kylie.  There is no other reason they would have it.”  He thinks it over, feeling guilty for his automatic response to shove it back in the trash.  His conscience wins.

With a last glance back at Mrs. Foster’s house across the street, Dylan darts between the houses, cutting through the back yards to the next street.

Dylan doesn’t want Kylie to see him.  He approaches her house from behind, sneaking as he cuts through the next-door neighbor’s backyard towards the front.

He is just about to break cover from the neighbor’s yard and sneak up to the front door when he spots a car parked in front of the house.  He looks up and down the street.  It’s mostly empty, so there is no reason for someone at another house to park in front of this one, and besides, the car is parked on the wrong side of the street. Street parking is on the other side.

“Her mom probably isn’t home yet, so who would be at her house?”

Dylan studies Kylie’s house and yard and spies a man skulking around the house, peeking in windows.

He ducks behind the bushes between the yards, hiding out of sight.  He is still beside the house and he moves quietly and stealthily along the row of bushes, watching the guy from his hiding spot as he goes around to the back of the house.  He watches the man try the back door.  It’s locked.

“Is he a burglar?  Who is this guy?”  Dylan watches the man turn over things in the yard, tipping a large snow-filled flowerpot on its side and breaking the top off it.  His feels like his veins are turning to ice.

“He’s looking for a key,” he thinks.  “He is a burglar.”

Dylan’s mind races, remembering his own house getting broken into, how much that scared all of them, and the terror his dog still suffers every time someone comes to the house.  That was the worst part, not knowing what they did to the dog.

“I have to get out of here.”  He’s about to dart away and run back to the safety of the babysitter’s house, but he stops instead, spotting the frightened face of Kylie peeking out a window.

A cold chill fills Dylan. “She’s home alone and some guy is trying to break in.”  He holds his breath, his mind reeling, trying to think what to do.

Dylan is frozen, unable to move or act, and can only watch helplessly while the burglar searches for a way in. His mind moves strangely, thinking, “He doesn’t look like what you’d think a burglar would look like.” He’s picturing the stereo-typical burglar hunched over and dressed all in black with gloves and a mask. This guy is dressed like any other man, kind of dorky looking even.

Finally the man gives up, gets in the car parked in front of the house, and drives away.

The extreme cold is seeping through his clothes, but Dylan still can’t make himself move.  He is in shock and filled with a numbing dread.  After what feels like forever, he manages to break his paralysis.  Shivering with fear shock, he sneaks to the front door of the house, skulking low below the level of the windows so Kylie doesn’t see him, and leaves the bundle of clothes on the front step before sneaking away.

As soon as he’s far enough, Dylan sprints for the sitter’s house, his heart pounding and his chest tight with anxiety.

“Should I tell someone?” he thinks as he runs, uncertain. “The guy is gone, but what if he comes back? What can they do anyway, since he’s gone? Probably nothing.” By the time he reaches the sitter’s he has decided not to bother saying anything.

 

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The Latchkey Kids: 2 The Shortcut – Kylie by Vivian Munnoch

“We should have taken the rest of her clothes too,” Amber sneers nastily, “and stayed to watch.”  She starts limping and groaning, holding herself in a mockery of how Kylie must have made her way home.

Amber, Jessica, and Brooke are feeling pretty smug about the fun they had at Kylie’s expense.  They giggle and chatter about what they did to her as they walk away from the park, Amber rolling Kylie’s hat, mitts, and boots in her coat.  She fingers the tear in the coat caused in the struggle, waggling her fingers through it to peals of laughter from all three.

“We should have taken the rest of her clothes too,” Amber sneers nastily, “and stayed to watch.”  She starts limping and groaning, holding herself in a mockery of how Kylie must have made her way home.

“Oh, I am so cold,” she mock wails and then breaks into laughter.

“It would have been much funnier if we left her in only her underwear,” Jessica agrees with a nasty laugh.

Brooke laughs too, her laugh and smile faltering a little.  She had been caught up in the moment, enjoying tormenting Kylie just as much as the other two, but now she’s not so sure.

She keeps her feelings guarded, not wanting the other two to know that she is having doubts about what they did.  She feels the painful bite of the cold through her own mitts and boots and feels bad for making Kylie walk home with nothing to protect her from the severe cold.  And stuffing snow down her pants and in her shirt, she cringes inside, imagining how much more painful that must have made the cold walk home.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have done it on such a cold day,” she thinks to herself.  She glances at the other two, who are oblivious to her lack of enthusiasm.  “I can’t ever tell them about my doubts.  They’ll turn on me and start doing these mean things to me.  You never show weakness to anyone who treats others like this, and Amber would definitely see my secret doubts as weakness.”

As they walk back to their homes together Amber realizes they can’t bring the clothes back with them.  How would they explain them to their mothers?  They would be in a lot of trouble, both for stealing and for leaving Kylie to walk home coat and bootless in this cold.

She smirks at the painful bite of the cold seeping through her own mitts and boots, making her fingers and toes burn and tingle with the cold.  “Hah!  Serves her right,” she thinks nastily, though if you asked her she could not have told you what it served her right for.  There is nothing Kylie has done to deserve the abuse other than just being there.  Amber also would not be able to explain why she hates Kylie so much, she just does.  She doesn’t need a reason.

She pauses, turning to her friends.  “We have to get rid of this junk.” She raises Kylie’s clothes for emphasis.

The other two nod.  They know what she means.  They will all have some explaining to do about the clothes if any of their mothers see them.

“Where?” Jessica asks.

“First place we see,” Amber says.

They walk on up the street, watching for a good place to stash the clothes.

Amber stops with a cruel smile.  “There!”  She spotted a trashcan next to a garage.

The others follow her as she darts to it.  The lid is frozen and she has to work at it, but it finally comes off and she shoves the clothes inside and puts the lid back with a satisfied smirk.

“We better hurry,” Brooke says, eyeing the trashcan and feeling bad for throwing Kylie’s clothes in the trash.  “She’ll never get them back now, that’s for sure,” she thinks.

She has more urgent things to worry about right now.  They were only supposed to be out for a little while and all three have to get home soon before they get in trouble.

“We’re going to be late,” Brooke says.

The other two nod and they hurry off down the street.

 

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