A lean figure stumbled in the forest, stopping every so often to finger-comb his hair, and point vaguely in one direction, then another. “Bossy girl and her stupid, nasty friends,” the man muttered. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” He plunged forward haphazardly, caught his toe on a protruding root, and fell. Hnahhh! Sprawled in shrubby plants and leaf mulch, the man lay still, absorbing the indignity of his situation. At last he grunted, pushed himself to a sitting position, and gingerly placed a fingertip to a dark smear on his shirt. He smelled the finger—ugh! Animal droppings!
“Stupid, stupid, Sarah Spellings,” said Ichamus Nickel.
No one had listened to him at Sunset Council—and you were supposed to listen to everyone. Frustrated and angry, he had watched them play with the dog—my dog, Rumpus used to be MY dog—and talk to a bird. The meeting had been a silly charade, like everything else in the stupid treehouse village. He had slipped unnoticed into the trees, and tiptoed along the lake shore. Remembering the x-ray vision of that Parleyment turncoat freak, Fern Phractle, he had slipped into the lake and crouched down, leaving his nose above water. He had been patient—much more patient than his pursuers! The Spellings boy had thrown rocks, disturbing the lake’s stillness, and camouflaging his presence. When they realized he was missing, they’d launched a frantic search, eager to recapture their kitchen slave. Who else would cook their elaborate meals, and wash their sticky pots?
“But I got away,” Ichamus chortled. He brushed debris from his ragged trousers; to escape, he’d pushed through a thick tangle of blackberry bushes. Rumpled and tired, he surveyed the unfamiliar forest, chose a direction at random, and forged ahead as if he knew where he was going.
Ichamus was lost, but he had a plan. He would return to his house on Wailsmouth Street. It might be in rough shape; Parleyment had converted his neighbourhood into an army base, and soldiers marching in and out of his house had neglected to wipe their dirty boots. Rallying troops had been a satisfying project, and Ichamus had enjoyed being in charge of his small domain. Sadly the invasion of Vancouver had failed, but at least all the soldiers would be gone. Closing his eyes, Ichamus pictured red tins of hair gel in his bathroom drawer, and a closet full of white dress shirts, navy blue trousers, and black patent leather shoes. Some of his possessions had surely been stolen, but others had likely been overlooked. SMACK! His mental household inventory ended when Ichamus walked into a spruce tree, scratching his forehead and nose.
“Stupid, stupid, Sarah Spellings,” said Ichamus.
“Hey Crazy—who ya talking to?”
Ichamus pivoted wildly, a hand pressed to his bleeding forehead. Had the voice come from inside his head? Baffled, he blinked, and the world came back into focus. A thin, scraggly-bearded man in cast-off army clothes and a brown baseball cap sat on a rock, snacking on factory-produced potato chips. He was almost invisible against the mottled green-and-brown forest.
“There’s no one here but you and me,” the thin man drawled, “so who ya talking to? Uh, by the way, your face is bleeding.”
“I—you—that is, Sarah.”
“Nope—my name’s not Sarah. It’s Mackelman, and don’t call me Mack. Say, have you been in a fight? You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards, as my dear departed mother used to say.” Mackelman reached into a cellophane bag, extracted a handful of potato chips, and crammed them into his mouth.
“I’m hungry,” said Ichamus, licking his lips.
“Whoa. Slow down there, fella. It’s bad manners to open the complaints department before you’ve told someone your name. Basic manners—no one has them, anymore.” Mackelman rustled the bag, scooped out more chips, and crunched them noisily.
“Ichamusnickel,” said Ichamus. Desperate for food, he sucked back a rivulet of drool. “I’m actually starving. Gimme just a handful of those.”
Mackelman sighed. “You didn’t say please.”
“Oh, all right—just a handful. Bags of chips don’t grow on trees, Icky-muss. I went to a lot of trouble to get these.”
Ichamus limped over to Mackelman, and plunged a hand into the chip bag.
“Easy now—leave some for me!”
Ichamus pressed potato chips into his dry mouth. He chomped ravenously, shuddering as the sour tang of vinegar puckered the inside of his mouth. One measly handful of stale potato chips only whetted his appetite, and he stared longingly at the shiny bag, his stomach cramped and empty. Lifting a leisurely hand, Mackelman fed himself a single chip.
“You lost?” Mackelman asked.
“No, not really. I know—that is, I’m pretty sure—” Ichamus couldn’t concentrate.
“Where you headed, Icky-muss?”
“My house on Wailsmouth Street.”
“Wailsmouth Street near the ravine, where Highbury Avenue used to be?” Mackelman asked. He tipped the bag upside down, emptied the last chips into his hand, and ate them.
“That’s right,” said Ichamus, fighting an urge to scavenge the yellow crumbs that littered the skinny man’s facial hair.
“You’re turned around, Icky-muss. You want to be bearing that way,” Mackelman said, gesturing in an imprecise, easterly direction.
Ichamus turned in a circle. He had no idea where he was. “Well—where is your home?”
Mackelman coughed up a dry chuckle. “Why, are you inviting yourself over? I’m a mercenary, and I live where I please. For the moment my home is a canvas tent; when the weather gets colder, I’ll choose a house for the winter.”
“You can’t choose a house. Houses belong to people,” said Ichamus, sneering a little, out of habit.
“Have you been living under a rock? No wonder you’re such a mess! Tell you what, Icky-muss. I’ll bring you up to speed,” said Mackelman. He balled the empty chip bag, and tossed it carelessly over his shoulder. “No government means no laws. There’s no police to enforce the old laws. Stores are empty. Nobody truly owns anything. Grab what you can and save yourself, that’s how it goes these days. The strongest survive, and the weak…” Mackelman shrugged. “If I choose your house, and I’m stronger and meaner than you, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
There was a red symbol on Mackelman’s jacket, a single cartoonish eye above a tall, gridded triangle. “What does that mean?” Ichamus asked, his tone sullen.
“The rig eye, of course.” Mackelman yawned. “The sign of the Slickers.”
“Really? You don’t know? Slickers find caches of oil and gas, mark them with the rig eye, and report the locations to Parleyment. Icky-muss, if you’re sick of starving, get yourself a can of red spray paint, wear the rig eye, and keep your eyes peeled. Parleyment pays in food.”
“I don’t know where to get spray paint!” Ichamus exclaimed.
Mackelman rolled his eyes, and started walking away.
“Where are you going?” Ichamus yelped.
“That’s strictly my business—but it’s the direction you want. I’m not feeling chatty, so stay behind me, and don’t talk. If you can keep up, you’ll get to Wailsmouth. And you’re welcome, by the way,” Mackelman called over his shoulder. “No manners at all,” he murmured to himself. “Truly shocking, what animals we’ve become.”
Mackelman’s brown hat and mottled green clothes were effective camouflage; the forest kept swallowing him up. Ichamus tried to focus on the rig eye, the red symbol on the mercenary’s jacket. Even without speaking, Mackelman was rude and unfriendly, never looking back to encourage the man he knew was there. Still desperately hungry, Ichamus scanned the forest for something to eat. He saw plenty of mushrooms, but he didn’t know which ones were poisonous. After two hours of trailing Mackelman, Ichamus’ stamina failed him. Weak and trembling, he collapsed on a tuft of moss beneath a cedar tree, ripped a fern from the ground, and nibbled its bitter leaves. Black tree-shadows frightened him, and Ichamus curled up, hugging knees to chest. A voice in his head said it missed Sassamatta Grove with its safe, snug treehouses, glittering ladders and bridges, and bountiful food.
“Shut up,” said Ichamus. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
Birdsong woke him at dawn. Ichamus shivered, hating the birds for rousing him from the comfort of sleep to the torture of wakefulness. Wearily, he used the cedar tree’s bark ridges to pull himself upright. No sign of Mackelman—but was that the burbling of water?
Ichamus hadn’t stumbled far when, with a thrill, he recognized the steep embankment of the Highbury Avenue ravine—he was almost home! Thrusting scratched and bruised arms through thick vegetation, he made his way to the water’s edge—and stared in disbelief. Last year, the waterway had been a foamy white torrent; now two muddy, brackish feet of water flowed sluggishly toward the ocean, bits of plastic and styrofoam bobbing on the brown surface. Domestic debris was stuck in the sludge, cracked corner of a flat-screen television, bent leg of a rusty ironing board.
Ichamus had to quench his thirst. He fell to his knees and slurped the filthy water, grit of mud settling between his teeth. He rose, and tried to gauge where he was, in relation to his house. At least fording the stream would be simple; previously, ziplines had been the only method possible.
Ichamus waded through the water, drenching his pants to the knees. He searched the embankment for a trail, and spotted a dangling rope, and bootprints kicked into the muddy slope leading to the streets. Using the last of his strength, Ichamus hauled himself up the ravine. When he reached the top he dragged his body over the edge, and collapsed.
The sun was high overhead when Ichamus came to, blinked at his surroundings, and realized he was almost there! He tottered along the top of the embankment, turned right, and arrived. A white rectangle was tacked to his bright red front door. Ichamus climbed his front steps. The rectangle was a piece of paper inside a clear plastic bag, affixed to his door with two roofing nails.
Ichamus groaned. Who had so mutilated his lovely front door? Grasping the plastic bag with both hands, he pulled it from its moorings, and tore it open. His initialswere printed in thick black letters on the paper, IN. He unfolded it, and with a rush of apprehension recognized the meticulous, slanted writing on the page.
You are reading this note. So your holiday with your little forest friends must be over. You will find me near a town called Billy’s Bay—map enclosed. Come, and repent for your lack of support, nerve and management skills. If you don’t come willingly, rest assured that I will find you.
p.s. The mess in your house was unavoidable