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Prompt Challenger

Encounter

By Gerrit Stainer

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"You what?" Dale's face was livid, he glared at Greg. "Broke the compass?"

"I'm sorry!" Greg's chubby face scrunched up. This hurt more than
the pain of the fall. "I didn't mean to."

"Of course you didn't," Dale snorted. "Hey Travis, genius here broke the compass! I really hope you found that other piece of the map."

"Sorry man, no good." Travis reappeared, panting. "The wind blew it away, it's gone."

"Well that's just great! We'll get lost in these big honkin' woods and lose the challenge, all thanks to our great leader here and his big ideas! Next time he wants to climb a tree let's smack some sense into him and save time." Dale stalked off, muttering under his breath.

Travis looked at Greg, not unkindly. "Are you all right?"

"I think so." Greg's voice squeaked. He felt like a mouse, maybe a big fat hamster. They had food and water. The forest had at least one stream, the one they were supposed to cross later on today. They shouldn't starve. And after all, this forest couldn't be that big? The camp was less than half a day's journey behind. But they weren't following any trail. This was an orienteering exercise: teams of three, map and compass, back at camp by nightfall. They were supposed to walk a circular route through a big patch of trackless forest, picking up tokens at certain points, and bring them back to certify for their badge. They had been making for a rock outcropping and Greg had decided to climb a tree, and had fallen from it, tearing the map in two - a breeze had snatched the other half immediately - and somehow in landing on the ground, his knife in its case on his belt had hit the compass just right, shattering the clear plastic case.

Greg examined it. It had been a birthday present. He saw no way to fix it. He should be glad its edge hadn't poked him in the gut. He imagined himself falling to the ground, landing on a knife blade, right through the heart or throat. Instant death.

A sudden gust of wind drew the attention of all three boys. It was a clear day above the trees and the air had been stiflingly calm, until that breeze had carried away half the map.

The leaves rustled, some branches waved. Then all was still again.

"Is there a storm coming?" said Travis.

"Better not send the Patrol Leader up another tree to check the weather," sneered Dale.

"Maybe you'd like to do it," said Travis. Greg was examining his clothes. Scratches, scuffs, smears of dirt: he was the only one in full uniform. Travis wore his shirt and neckerchief with jeans, Dale wore his shirt plain, with cutoff shorts. A patrol leader who wasn't afraid of a boy he was supposed to lead might have had something to say about poison oak - or mosquitoes, for that matter. Why was Dale even here?

He closed his eyes and shook his head. No use in breaking down and blubbering now: that would only give Dale and Roger more reason to despise him. He stood to his full height, sucking in his paunch that was so unbecoming a boy of his age and station. "Well," he
said, "we can't get the tokens now, but we can get back to camp all right."

"Screw that!" said Dale. "We'll lose."

"Why do you care?" The words came out of Greg's mouth on their own. He caught Dale's gaze and on a sudden hot impulse held it as the taller, thinner, cooler boy stalked up to him again.

"I ought to smack you," said Dale.

"Easy man," said Travis. "Let's just get back. I'd rather lose than get lost. Do you want that?"

"I can't believe I got stuck with such an idiot." And Dale stalked away again, maybe swearing.

A twig snapped and there was a soft laugh, away in the undergrowth out of sight.

This time Dale did swear for sure, whirling to face where the sound came from. Travis stared, and Greg, who should have been frightened, had a sudden urge to laugh.

Needle, said a voice, soft and close. Needle, needle, up and down, back and
forth you go.

"Did you hear that?"

"Of course we did," said Dale. He cupped his hands to his mouth. "Hey! You idiots must be lost. This is our course!"

"That wasn't a boy laughing," said Travis.

They didn't say anything about the words. Had Greg been the only one to hear them?

A whistle, a sequence of notes that was almost like a tune.

"Who's there?" called Travis. He started walking toward the sound. "Hey, come out, we want to talk to you."

"No we don't! Come on Travis, let's go back to camp."

The other two boys both looked at Dale. Travis shook his head and smiled a little bit. "You're not scared, are you?"

"Nobody else is supposed to be out here," Dale said. "That's what they told us."

"Oh," said Greg, "so you were listening?"

"Shut up! Look, whoever it is is out that way, has to be a hundred feet or so off. Come on guys, let's just go back!"

"No," said Travis, "let's go see who it is."

"I agree," said Greg, looking at Travis and nodding. "Someone might need our help. I think it's a girl."

"Nobody's calling for help." Dale looked between the other two. "Come on guys, let's just forget about it."

"You are scared," said Travis. "Come on, admit it."

"Shut up." But Dale's voice was changed. Greg was amazed. He thought the older boy might cry.

"Admit it," said Greg, "you're scared."

Dale should have denied it, hurled an insult, should have done anything but what he did then.

"All right!" he said, sitting on the ground with his arms raised protectively. "I'm scared. There, you happy?"

A shriek erupted from deep in the forest, rising and getting louder.

"It's coming for us!" yelled Travis. He pulled Dale up. "Run!"

This time Greg was as terrified as the other two. He followed, huffing and puffing, lagging behind, a stitch forming in his side, panic overshadowing him as a rushing sound approached from behind, slowly? Was it gaining on them? It was. He tried to run faster.

Then it was upon him, on them. A wind, a rushing, a shaking to the core. Greg grabbed on to a tree trunk and tried to form a prayer, but all that came out was please, oh please...

The sound faded, going on before them, and Greg opened his eyes. He hadn't wet his pants at least.

But Dale had. The boy was hopping and swearing again, holding on to the trunk of another tree. Greg walked over to him. Dale's eyes were shut tight.

Travis came up beside Greg. "Dale, hey man, it's gone now, whatever it was. You know what I think, it was some kind of airplane. Yeah, I've heard about some experimental fighter jets."

"Maybe some kind of stealth aircraft," said Greg, who had a big book of military aircraft in his bedroom, which he stayed up late at night looking through.

Dale stood still and opened his eyes. He looked at the other two and Greg couldn't help but feel sorry for him.

"The hell it was," he said. "Didn't you hear the screaming?"

"No," said Greg and Travis together.

"I heard the voice," said Greg, "before, at first."

"What voice?"

"Okay," said Travis, "I'm trying not to freak out here. You guys didn't
see anything did you?"

"Just the wind," said Greg and Dale together.

"But there was a voice," Greg said. "You two didn't hear it? At the start?"

"What did it say?" said Dale. "No, don't tell me, I don't want to know. I won't say what I heard either. Seriously guys, we get back and let's just not talk about this okay?"

Greg thought of whether he would tell anybody Dale had peed his pants from fright. It wasn't until years later that it occurred to him that Dale could have retaliated, negating whatever power over him Greg might have gained with his attempt at blackmail. At the moment under the dark trees, all he thought of was that there was someone with him
who was probably even more frightened than he was.

"I won't say anything," he said with the hasty good-heartedness that had gotten him into so much trouble in his 13 years so far. "We have to stick together."

Dale nodded. He didn't say thanks, not even when Travis agreed they wouldn't say anything, but he looked reassured, and different than Greg had ever seen him, like some hardness had fallen from his face, and left behind the look of someone with real feelings.

Greg shook his head. He looked beyond the other two and then pointed.

"There it is," he said, "the rock!"

In their flight they had almost passed it by to the left. It was only a short way through the trees. Travis laughed and clapped his hands. "Well, while we're here we might as well get the first token."

Greg expected Dale to object but he followed Travis dumbly to the base of the rock. Greg followed them both, looking over his shoulder and seeing nothing out of the ordinary: just the dark green light of a forest in summer. At the beginning of this expedition he had
compared it to Mirkwood and neither of the other had shown a sign of recognition. He wondered if Dale even read books. Travis seemed like a reader, probably. In that moment Greg realized he knew little about Travis, really: the boy listened more than he talked.

"I found it." Dale's voice was quiet in the warm humid air. He was standing where the rock rose sheer from the forest floor. This kind of feature was uncommon in this terrain: Greg had tried to tell the others that it was not an outcropping but an erratic, deposited by a glacier long ago. They hadn't seemed interested.

Now Dale's interest was held by a small wooden box. The others gathered round him in a solemnity that reminded Greg of church meetings; for a brief moment, with all three of them together, despite the fright they had just had, the world seemed just right. Greg almost felt that if he had put out his hands he would have found two others to
join them.

Then Dale opened the box.

They were underground, they were looking down on a box: not a small one, a large one, not one but three? Nothing in the vision kept steady, but they could see clearly enough that there were three skeletons there, wearing khaki shirts, one with olive green slacks, one with sturdy but slightly faded jeans, the third with tattered cutoffs.

The world churned. They were looking down, they were below, under something dark and heavy, gazing eyeless up into nothing, but seeing it, feeling it. Instead of fright or panic there was peace, and then forgetting. All got darker and quieter, there was nothing to do, say or think.

There was a rustle behind them. Greg blinked. Behind them? He blinked again and saw: he was standing to Dale's left, and Dale's left hand was in his right. Greg felt like he was waking up. Dale blinked sleepily and let go of Greg's hand, but not with anger or disgust.
His right hand let go of Travis's left. He blinked and looked down.

The other two looked down too. At their feet was a shoebox with a bundle of red cloth inside.

Behind them came another rustle. Together they turned and looked.

Afterwards none of them could quite describe what they saw: the form was feminine, but it shifted and flowed, like heat shimmer, like flame and smoke. She stood before them, seemingly made out of a thickening of the air and a condensing of the colors around: green, brown, gray, black. The boys trembled and fell to their knees.

"What do you see and what do you fear?" she said, coming closer until she stood within arm's length. "You see, you guess and feel and dream from your fears and your crooked eyes. With these you design to conquer. But I have shown you what I have, to remind you that my power is greater than yours. For in the end I will hold you, and as you make your stumbling steps through your world I will bedevil them. What have you to say to that?" The curve of her smiling lips was the color of sunlight through leaves, her eyes looked like
acorns.

"Go away!" said Dale, closing his eyes and pushing his hands out. With effort he rose to his feet. "Just go away and leave us alone! I'll never serve you! Never!" He rushed forward.
"Never! Never!"

Travis ran and caught Dale by the back of his shirt. "She's gone, man."

Dale turned around and grabbed Travis's elbows. "She's gone? She? I think that was the Devil! Don't you think so?"

"I don't know," said Travis. "I don't think the Devil would have been sent away so easily." He looked at Greg.

"I don't think so either," said Greg. "What just happened? Did you guys see...what was it? Were we dead?"

Dale loped up to the box and picked it up. Letting the cardboard fall he untied the red cloth inside. Out fell three bracelets: string and beads.

Greg crouched down. "There's a note here." He looked at it. "Congratulations, and these are for us to wear, to show our skill."

"Your skill." The laugh on the air was musical and drifted away into the trees.

"Hey," yelled Dale, "I mean it. Leave us alone!"

"Would you leave me alone?"

"If you leave us alone, we'll leave you alone," said Travis. "How does that sound?"

"You're not supposed to make deals with the devil!" hissed Dale.

"Oh but is that possible?" The voice was close again, though they saw nothing. "Or desirable? There's attention," and the air suddenly felt cooler, and a scent of blossoms touched their nostrils, "and then there's attention." The scent of blossoms changed to car exhaust, asphalt, other inhospitable smells that Greg knew by memory but not by name. The screaming sound rushed at them again. Greg started but then held his ground.

"That's right, Greg," said Dale. "Look, we're not going to be frightened by you! Right guys?" And he held out his hand.

Travis took it. Greg took his other.

"That's right," said Travis. He drew up to his full height, now in the center, the point man. He stepped forward and jutted his chin out.

"Would you rather have fear or respect? And which is better to give? Or receive? You know so little, you three, so little."

"Who are you?" asked Greg suddenly. He let go of Travis's hand and held up the three bracelets, not stopping to think how foolish it seemed. "Do these mean anything to you?"

Why should they? But he held them up and stood still. The other boys stared at him. Nobody knew what to say or do next.

There was silence, then she stood in front of them again. "What are they? Some kind of creature of fibers? Oh, but they were made with love and care, I can see that. And doesn't that mean something to you?"

"Who are you?" asked Greg again, trying to keep an eye on her as she shifted and flowed.

"That's for me to know and for you to respect." She smiled again and raised a brow (maybe). "But if you follow me I'll lead you to where they hid the other gifts. And I'll try not to frighten you overmuch with my moralizing. You have all your life ahead of you after all. But if I could feel assured of your respect I would rest easier after you had left this place."

"Are you the Devil?" said Travis. Dale groaned.

She laughed. "If you want me to be one, or if it's needed, I do my best." She seemed about to change again, maybe about to charge again.

"I don't think she is," he said softly, still looking at her. Something about her felt familiar and even comforting.

"Don't get taken in," said Dale.

"Just stop a minute," said Greg. "Both of you, how do you feel, inside, right now? Really?"

"Besides afraid?" said Travis.

"Are you still afraid? Especially besides afraid." Greg didn't know how else to say it, but
somehow they seemed to get his meaning.

"I don't understand," said Dale, after a long pause.

"Neither do I," said Travis. He looked at her, standing almost imperceptible in front of them. "I wish you'd tell us who or what you are then."

"I don't know if you'd believe me if I did. And anyway, experience is the best teacher. Now, do you want to gather the rest of your gifts and get back to your camp or not?"

"What about bedeviling our stumbling steps?" said Greg.

"You've paid enough attention and are smart enough," she said, turning (and it looked like she tossed her head, like Laurie did: a mirage of bark-colored hair flipped around), "I won't tell you to trust me. Follow if you will."

"Guys?" said Greg, stepping forward. "I really think we should follow her."

"We're with you," said Dale. "If you could wait, please!" Greg had never heard a tone so deferential from that mouth before.

"After all," said Travis, falling into step, "you're the patrol leader."

Dale laughed, but without malice this time.

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About Gerrit Stainer

This professional archivist lives in the land of his pioneer forebears, tending a garden and fruit trees and writing love letters to the land in the form of fiction.

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