The river. I needed to get to the river. The river would carry me away from here, away from them, away from death.
I struggled, staggered. The sweat streaming down my face clouded my eyes, making it difficult to discern the small details of the terrain below my feet. I tripped and fell, far too often. To make matters worse, I grew more and more woozy from the loss of blood. Though I had taken no major blows, the tiny wounds scattered across my body added up.
I crawled. The rough ground—or perhaps traps and barbs they had placed—tore into my knees and palms. I had to press on. What choice did I have? I could have given up. I could have rolled over, let them swarm, and said, “Take me, you vile little beasts.” That would have been easy. Quick. Merciful.
No. You will not give up. You will not die here. Damn it, man. Move.
I willed myself forward and found my holy grail, coming to rest atop not so much a cliff, as a steep,long, treacherous slope. The river, and its salvation, coursed perilously far below. I had to find another way there. In my condition, trying to navigate down at this point would have been too dangerous.
But which way to go? In which direction lay the ocean? I’d lost track long ago. I grew more confused, more disoriented. The thick canopy of foliage masked the sun overhead. It would offer me no guidance with regard to east or west.
The sound behind me brought the hairs on the back of my neck to attention. The ominous buzz. I stood. I didn’t need to turn around to look. But look I did. There they were. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Eying me. I could wait no longer. I had no other choice.
I turned and leapt. I assumed that after a few seconds I would hit earth and start sliding, rolling, falling, and finally splashing. But I didn’t.
Instead, my descent slowed, then ceased completely. I hung, suspended in midair, torn between two forces. One natural, and one wholly unnatural. .
‘Twas not the betrayal of gravity that halted my escape They had caught me, and were bringing me back up.
Just before I blacked out, I recalled the words, the warning of the old man at the tavern, the fellow with one eye and tiny little scars all over his face and hands.
“They may only be three inches tall. But they’re mean little buggers.”
How did I get here? My inauspicious adventure started three days ago, in that very tavern…
Downing a drink, trying to forget my troubles, I overheard the two men sitting next to me engaged in a hushed conversation.
“I don’t know about this, James. Sure, you’re offering a lot of money. But I’ve heard bad things about that place.”
“They’re just rumors.”
“What if they’re not? Didn’t you send Peter out there? And he never came back.”
“You can handle it. Peter couldn’t row a dinghy in a bucket. But you’re a solid boatman. And you’re the best hunter and tracker in Kensington.”
I could lay claim to being neither a solid boatman, nor a mediocre hunter and tracker. But I was broke and really could have used the lucre. I ingratiated myself into their tête-à-tête. Being a somewhat rough place, one didn’t simply amble up to strangers and say, “Excuse me, and please pardon my ungainly interruption. I couldn’t help but overhear.” So I broke in boldly, scantly acknowledging them, but rather nonchalantly contemplating my tankard all the while.
“If the man doesn’t think he can do it, don’t force him to his own doom. They can smell fear. If you have even the slightest doubt, they’ll capitalize on it and…” I said, making that thumb-across-the-neck gesture, which implies slitting a throat or, shaving perhaps.
“You sound mighty confident stranger,” said the one who had been identified as James.
“Let’s just say I’ve had my share of hunting and tracking exploits.” I lied, unless you count hunting down opportunities to scam a few quid, and tracking the whereabouts of the numerous people to whom I owe debts, so as to avoid them.
“I think he’s your man,” said the other fellow, as he took his drink and excused himself.
James turned to me. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“Matthew, it’s a pleasure. I’m James.” He nodded to the barmaid. “Wendy, an ale for my friend here.”
I thanked the gods of poverty that he offered. I had thought about buying his drink, but doing so would have deprived me of my last shilling.
When the tankard arrived, I took a sip and said, “So, tell me how I can help you.”
“Have you ever heard of Neverland?”
Of course I had not.
“Of course I have,” I said. Lying quickly had become habit.
“Well, then you know that most of the place is a worthless dump…mountains, plains, mazes, a rock that looks like a skull. But in the center lies the prize: Pixie Hollow.”
“Yes, Pixie Hollow.”
“More like Pixie Hellhole,” intoned a voice from the other side of James. It came from the aforementioned one-eyed and scarred man.
“What?” I said, trying to not appear as concerned as I was.
“If you go there, you’ll come out calling it ‘Pixie Hellhole.’ That is, assuming you do come out.”
“Pay no attention to him. He’s off his rocker.” James then lowered his voice. “He thinks there’s a ticking crocodile after him.”
“It’s true. He’s real,” the stranger said, rabid fear flavoring his voices. Apparently, losing an eye did not affect his hearing.
“Come,” James said, grabbing my arm and leading me to a table and away from the voice of caution, and perhaps even reason, who had not finished his litany of horror tales. “It may be true that the inhabitants of Pixie Hollow can be a little aggressive at times. Perhaps tenacious. Okay, sometimes downright ferocious. But they’re basically mosquitoes.”
That prompted the stranger to utter the aforementioned comment about “three inches tall.”
“So they’re big mosquitoes. Bring a fly swatter and a butterfly net, and you’ll be fine. Look, if it were easy, the pay wouldn’t be so good.”
“And what exactly is the pay?” I said, struggling to contain my greed-borne curiosity.
“One hundred pounds. Half now, half when you deliver.”
“And exactly what do I need to deliver?”
“What else? Pixie dust.”
“Naturally. And how do I get it?”
“You’re a tracker,” he said. “You find a giggling umbrella, follow it to them, capture one, and she…I mean it will lead you there. To the dust.”
Of course. Follow the giggling umbrella. And while I’m at it, why don’t I find a yellow brick road and follow follow follow follow it as well? Hmmm. That has a nice ring to it. Put it to some music, and you’d have a catchy tune.
“I think I can handle that. So, what exactly does pixie dust do?”
“Look friend, I’m not paying you to play twenty questions with me. I’m paying you to go to the island, get as much pixie dust as you can, and bring it back. If you don’t want the job…”
At least, I now knew it was an island.
“No. I’ll take it. I can handle mosquitoes.”
“You do have a boat, right?”
Of course I didn’t.
“Of course I do.”
“Great. You’re hired.” He dropped on the table a small sack, which happily jingled. He took one last sip from his stein, stood, and said, “Meet me back here in one week. You’ll get the rest then.”
“Count on it.”
James turned to leave.
“One more thing,” I said. “How do I find it? The island?”
“It’s the second to the right and straight on till morning.”
Though I was, as already acknowledged, by no means an accomplished seafarer, his directions made no sense.
“I’m not sure I follow you. Exactly what does that mean—second to the right and straight on ’til morning?”
He just shrugged. “That’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows.”
After he left, I sought out the one-eyed and scarred man whose opinion of Pixie Hollow seemed to run contrary to that of James. Unfortunately, he had disappeared. I slumped down at the bar and ordered another ale.
Where am I going to get a boat? And then providence stepped in once again.
“Sure,” said the fellow to my left, to his companion, sitting to his left, “I’ll be up in the Highlands for a few days.”
“Still hunting that ogre?”
“I know he’s out there. I’m going to capture him and bring him back alive. With any luck, I’ll get that talking donkey I heard about as well. Since I’ll be traveling by horse, I won’t need my boat. Feel free to borrow it, if you want to do some fishing while yours is getting repaired.”
“Thanks. I may have to do that. Edward says it will be another week before she’s seaworthy again. Damned sea monsters. She’s moored down at the north docks, right?”
“What’s her name again?”
“Tinkerbell?” He barely contained a guffaw.
“Don’t start. My wife picked the name. And since I bought it with the money that she had set aside to remodel the kitchen, she got all whiny about it. So I figured, okay, let her have this one. Trust me, my friend, do yourself a favor and just stay single…”
Quite a propitious turn of events. Within the span of an hour I gained a job, some money, and a boat. (Not to mention a boatload of concerns, questions, and apprehension, but I forced myself to put those aside.) Now, all I needed were some supplies.
Michael Seese is an information security professional by day. Or, as his son could say even at age three, “Daddy keeps people’s money safe.” He has published three books: Haunting Valley, Scrappy Business Contingency Planning, and Scrappy Information Security, not to mention a lot of flash fiction, short stories, and poems. Other than that, he spends his spare time rasslin’ with three young’uns. Visit http://www.MichaelSeese.com or follow @MSeeseTweets to laugh with him or at him.