Dawn in the Ruins
Brendan’s kingdom was in peril. The castle walls, beleaguered by rain since early morning, would now need fortification. Large drops of rain pierced the invisible veil of warm, heavy moisture that lingered beneath the maple and oak trees on the outskirts of his neighborhood. Sweat and mud saturated his clothes burdening his trek to the castles, but he had to keep going. It was all up to him.
Mom said he could stay outside so long as there was no lightning. Quentin and James had to stay home because their moms were afraid of rain, and neither was brave enough to sneak out on his own.
When he arrived at the boys’ riverside castles, he groaned. Moats had risen around the base of the walls. Green and brown foam rushed downstream in the rapidly rising river. He sloshed through the mud and began inspecting the castles’ damages.
The roof on Quentin’s castle bowed under the weight of collected rainwater, and his sentries had been swept away. Brendan didn’t have time for search and rescue. James’ knights still circled the base of his castle, so Brendan gathered half of them into James’ tower and relocated the others to Quentin’s keep. Normally, Brendan wouldn’t have dared to move the guards inside, but on a day like this, there would be no visits from neighboring kingdoms and no enemy attacks.
A new haul of building materials had been washed to the shore by the storm. It was a mother-lode of wood, cardboard, and metal parts of who knows what. Fetching them would have to wait. There would be no way to climb back up the banks in this weather, and the river was moving so fast. Maybe he was brave, but he wasn’t stupid.
Tomorrow he would collect anything useful with the other boys, and they would repair and expand their castles. A roll of thunder boomed in the distance. Or was it a truck on the highway just downstream from the boys’ kingdom? Since he couldn’t be sure, he continued his work. Rumbling didn’t count if there was no lightning.
He was about to go searching for sticks to block the castle doors when a bright flash pierced the dark gray clouds. He counted four Mississippi’s before thunder boomed so loud that his castle seemed to vibrate.
He shuddered and bolted out the castle door. Mom was not going to be happy that he’d been out in lightning. He’d better hurry home.
Struggling to dodge the soggy pine branches hanging low over the slippery path, he hurried back to the edge of the woods. Another flash lit all the trees in blinding silver. This time he only counted two Mississippi’s before the thunder.
He ran faster, jumping over tree roots and rocks. The rain fell so hard that he could barely see, and he wondered if this is what it felt like to be a ship lost at sea. His waterlogged shoes anchored his feet and slowed his pace, so he removed them. Warm mud bubbled up between his toes as he approached the tree line border on the edge of the civilized world.
Miss Becky’s bamboo forest marked the end of his trek from the river. She allowed the boys to play in it, but she had decreed that if they ever cut it or hurt any of the bamboo, they’d be banished forever. He couldn’t have that.
Miss Becky’s name was short for Rebekah, but nobody was allowed call her that except for the government. She had eyes the color of the sky and white hair with just a touch of yellow, like caramel ice cream. Miss Becky always had candy or Oreos to share.
Without the shelter of the trees, he felt the full onslaught of the pelting rain. A third bolt of lightning struck somewhere to his right. The ensuing thunder roared with no time to count. He decided to make sure that Miss Becky was safe. Her back porch had a big awning and a swing where he could wait out the storm. Since she was probably scared, he decided to sprint to the porch. More lightning forked across the sky.
Miss Becky was a princess living in a maze of towers and mysterious artifacts. Mom called Miss Becky a hoarder. Old magazines and newspapers with pictures of famous people long dead and places that no longer existed lined her floors and rose in tall spires throughout her house. Toys and clothes piled with containers and books formed columns that ascended to the ceiling. Sometimes she would give him a gift from her collection. Everything in her house had a story describing its worth or importance. She even had some magical things, but she wouldn’t tell him what.
Mom forbid him to go inside. She said that Miss Becky’s house was not safe because the towers might fall on him or a rat might run out and bite him. He wasn’t scared of rats, and towers that old and strong were not going to fall easily. But he would not disobey his mother.
“Do you have any kids?” he had asked Miss Becky once.
“I had three boys a very long time ago, but they turned into birds and flew away,” she said, staring out the window so sadly that he decided not to ask how it had happened.
Perhaps he would ask her about it today, but not until he made sure she was safe. He opened the back door and stuck his head inside, careful not to let his feet cross the threshold. As soon as he called for her, she emerged from behind the nearest tower.
“I wasn’t expecting you today,” she said, one eyebrow lifted. “What are you doing out in this storm? Your mother is probably worried sick.”
“I’m not scared of rain,” he replied stoically drawing up his shoulders and sticking out his chin.
“Of course you’re not,” she nodded. “But still, you shouldn’t be out in this.”
“I wanted to make sure you’re safe.”
“How thoughtful of you. Would you like an Oreo?”
He nodded, and a moment later she joined him on the porch swing with a plate of Oreos. He took two. He carefully separated the first cookie, making sure the white filling stayed intact.
“Did you ever have a husband?” he asked, crunching the chocolate wafer.
“Once I did, but he evolved backwards and became an ape.”
Thunder rumbled again, but it was further away now.
His eyes widened. “How?”
“Well, there is a part of town where lots of apes and other animals live, and he used to like going down there. He’d eat with them and play with them, and eventually he started acting like them. He got hairy all over, and his arms got longer, and he stopped speaking like a man. One day when I came home from work, my husband was gone, and there was only an ape left. So I let him go be with the other animals.”
The first Oreo was gone, and he had just started separating the second one when he asked, “Did that make you sad?”
“Of course! I was very sad to lose my husband, but you can’t stay married to an ape, you know. It isn’t right. But I found him once, much later. I drove to that part of town, and I saw him with all the other animals. He’s much happier now that he lives with his own kind.”
“What part of town has all the animals?”
He had never seen an ape in person before, and a whole neighborhood of animals sounded like fun. The rain plinking off the awning slowed.
“Oh, I can’t tell you that. You’d want to take your mom there, and that’d be very bad.” Miss Becky said, pointing her index finger at him. “They’d hurt her! You must protect her and keep her away from there. Don’t tell her about it either. She’d be unhappy that you won’t let her go. It’s our secret, ok?”
A secret with Miss Becky! The apes could wait. “Ok.”
He munched the last of his cookie in silence as they stared at the bamboo forest. The rain died down to a gentle mist, and the bamboo waved in the steamy breeze.
After several minutes, Miss Becky grinned at him and said, “I have something for you. It’s too magical for me to keep it here anymore. Hold on and I’ll fetch it for you.”
She slowly rose from the swing and shuffled to the door. She disappeared between the treasure columns. After an eternity, she returned, carrying a small silver box no larger than a robin’s egg.
She placed it in his open palm, and he stared down at it, wondering about its magical powers. Tiny pink and yellow flowers covered the lid, and a small latch kept it shut. He immediately tried to open it, but the box was locked.
“You must never open it,” she said gravely. “I keep the key in a little blue bowl on my kitchen counter, but I don’t use it. The box and the key can never be together.”
“What’s in it?”
“The sadness that comes from knowing more than you should. Once you open it, you can never forget.”
Confused, he slipped it in his pocket and said the only thing he could think of, “I’ll keep it safe for you.”
“I knew I could count on you,” she smiled. “Now run home. The rain stopped. Your mother is probably looking for you.”
He hopped down from the swing and walked carefully towards the gravel driveway. Muddy gray pools lined the street, and all of Miss Becky’s flowers had bowed over in the rain. He paused at the end of her driveway to study the box again. Holding it up at eye level, he stared into the little keyhole. Then he slid his pinky fingernail in the thin crease that separated the top and bottom. No use. Whatever was in there was locked up too tight to see without opening it. He shoved it back into his pocket. Anyway, Miss Becky had said not to open it.
He was about to turn towards home when he was startled by the phlegm-choked cough of his fiercest enemy. Mr. Gerald lumbered towards him. His tan Postal Service poncho tented over his enormous frame. When he was not wearing the poncho, Mr. Gerald’s mail uniform stretched tight over his bulging belly. His four chins jiggled with every step. He kept a wad of something in his cheek, and every so often he spit a long brown stream into someone’s yard. On the best days, he smelled like bad cheese, but most of the time, he smelled like a dirty bathroom.
Every kid in the neighborhood knew that Mr. Gerald’s sweat was made of acid. When it poured from his arms and legs as he walked the hot neighborhood streets, the boys would dare each other to touch the little puddles before they evaporated. No one ever took up the dare because they knew that if you so much as touched it with the tip of your finger, your whole hand would burn right off.
Brendan knew why Mr. Gerald was so ugly and mean and had acid sweat. Obviously, he was an ogre. When he told this to the neighborhood boys, Quentin and James readily agreed. Several of the other boys shook their heads but were unable to come up with a better explanation for Mr. Gerald’s general foulness.
Brendan, Quentin, and James had done everything they could to stop Mr. Gerald’s daily rounds. Quentin had lined the sidewalk with marbles and rocks. James had filled his mailbox with sticks. But Mr. Gerald kept coming. Their traps only made him angry, and he yelled at them whenever he saw them. And now he was approaching Miss Becky’s house. Brendan was not going to allow him to get anywhere near her.
Posted in front of her mailbox, Brendan faced his enemy. There was no time to make a booby trap, so he just stood there with his arms crossed and his best tough guy face.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Gerald growled.
“I’m keeping Miss Becky safe.”
Mr. Gerald roared with laughter. “From me? Oh yes, you’re doing a fine job! Go home, kid! You’re soaked.”
Brendan shook his head and straightened up, meeting Mr. Gerald’s eyes with an icy stare. Mr. Gerald’s laughter turned into a snarl, and he reached past Brendan to slide Miss Becky’s mail into the box. Then, with an exasperated sigh, Mr. Gerald shook his head and plodded on to the next house.
He watched to make sure the ogre didn’t double back to get to Miss Becky. Once her safety was assured, he continued his victory march home. He had escaped the ogre’s wrath and saved Miss Becky from his evil intentions. The castles were secure, the kingdom was well fortified with GI Joe soldiers, and now he was hungry.
“Stop!” Mom shouted as he entered the house. “Take everything off, and go straight to the bathtub. You’re covered in mud! And where have you been? There was lightning.”
“I’m fine, Mom. I stayed on Miss Becky’s porch until the rain stopped.”
She groaned as he walked naked through the kitchen. Was the groan was directed at him or the muddy clothes he had left by the door? All he knew for sure was that he needed to get past his brother Jacob as quickly as possible.
He passed through the house, concealing the silver box in his fist as he made the perilous journey to the bathroom. He tiptoed quietly past Jacob, who was frozen in front of a video game where everything blows up and everyone gets shot.
Jacob loved nothing more than destroying things other people had built. He must never find out about Brendan’s kingdom by the river or Miss Becky’s bamboo forest. If Jacob turned and saw how vulnerable Brendan was at this moment, it would go very badly for him. Many of the castle guards were Jacob’s GI Joes, which he’d discovered missing this morning.
All that stood between Brendan and safety were ten steps: four past the couch, one to the hall, and five down the hall to the bathroom. He inhaled deeply and took the first step. Halfway there, Jacob saw Brendan’s reflection in the television screen.
“You’re dead,” Jacob shouted.
Brendan sprinted. He made it to the bathroom just in time to twist the lock on the knob and lean against the door. It shuddered against Jacob’s furious blows.
When Jacob started fiddling with the doorknob, Mom shouted, “Jacob, get in here and set the table.”
“I’ll get you later,” Jacob growled, and he stomped off to the kitchen.
Safe at last, Brendan filled the tub, pouring a generous amount of bubble bath into the steaming water. On land, he might be the ruler of a sizeable kingdom by the river, but in the bathtub, he was Poseidon. Rubber ducks and plastic boats despaired beneath his triton, sinking under fragrant bubbly waves. A Lego man clutched for dear life to the side of his foundering boat. Would Poseidon show mercy? He stroked his bubble beard. Yes, Poseidon would be generous today. He lifted the Lego man to the side of the tub.
He had kept his kraken brother out of the bathroom, saved Miss Becky from an ogre, and secured the kingdom by the river, so mercy for the Lego man was the only suitable course. When his fingers wrinkled like raisins and the water stopped steaming, he hopped out and toweled dry. Though Poseidon does not stop his mighty work for the pleas of mere mortals, Mom had already called him to dinner twice.
Once Brendan was in bed, Dad came to the bedroom door, glasses in hand.
“What should I tell you about tonight? Would you like to hear about politics or business news? I can get the Times if you want.” He pretended to step away to get the paper.
Brendan wrinkled his nose and shouted, “No, please, no! Tell me how Odysseus beats Circe!”
Dad grinned and pulled A Child’s Treasury of Stories from the shelf next to his bed. Even though Brendan had been able to read for years, he still loved to hear Dad’s dramatic readings of his favorite stories. As much as he wanted to know how Odysseus made it home, Brendan fell asleep before Odysseus saw the outline of his native shores.
It was still dark when he woke up. Everyone else was still asleep. The only thing on his mind was the box. How could such a small thing contain the sadness from knowing too much? How could knowing things make you sad? It was sadder not to know things! In fact, it was sad that he couldn’t open the box.
He turned it over and over in his palm. It was strangely heavy for its size, and the keyhole was tiny. There was only one way to solve the mystery, but he would have to be quick.
He crept barefoot through the house, sneakers in hand, careful not to bump into anything. He twisted the doorknob gently, and stepped out onto the patio. The humid morning air clung to him. The street lights were still on. Crickets were still chirping. A few stars were still twinkling in the clear sky. But the eastern horizon was just beginning to lighten when he set out. Stealth was of the utmost importance. He couldn’t risk dogs barking as they smelled him pass, so he took the long way to Miss Becky’s house.
Mom said that Miss Becky’s back door was always unlocked so that emergency crews could get to her if one of the towers fell on her, but he knew better. She kept the door unlocked because she was always ready to welcome visitors, especially him.
He approached Miss Becky’s house through the yard because crunching the driveway gravel might wake her. She didn’t need to know what he was going to do. The silver box began to feel like an anchor in his pocket. Perhaps he shouldn’t do this. It wasn’t too late to pass the house and journey onwards to the kingdom. Miss Becky had warned him after all, but her warning didn’t make sense. He had to see its contents for himself.
The back door didn’t make a sound as he eased it open. The kitchen lights were off. Deep snoring thundered somewhere beyond the shadowy columns. The sun was starting to peek above the horizon, and the room had just enough light for him to see the little blue bowl on the counter.
He tiptoed over and peeked inside. Pennies and nickels mingled with trinkets. A gold watch snaked through the change and candy wrappers. A small skeleton key rested atop a pile in the center of the bowl. He picked it up and held it toward the rising sun. It glowed in the red light. The box seemed to sink lower in his pocket.
The box and the key can never be together rang in his ears. But the memory was hollow compared to the temptation of finding magic.
Without another thought, he extracted it from his pocket and inserted the key. A miniature spring inside it popped, and the lid snapped loose. He pulled the lid back and was shocked at what he saw, which was nothing. Empty! Empty? Was this some sort of cheat? A trick from Miss Becky? It didn’t make sense.
His head began to whirl, and the tilted towers of junk seemed to impose on the kitchen. A familiar choke stopped the distant snoring. Phlegm. Coughing. A man yawned loudly, and bedsprings groaned under a heavy weight.
“Mornin’, Becky,” a deep, gravelly voice said.
Brendan’s heart leapt into his throat. Unmistakable. That voice, which had so often yelled at him and taunted him, here in this sanctuary was a punch in the gut. Not him! Not Mr. Gerald! Miss Becky was supposed to be Brendan’s princess in the towers, but she had taken in an ogre.
“Morning,” she replied sleepily.
It was too much! Just yesterday Brendan had saved her from this awful man, and now here he was waking up with her! Nothing made sense. The mysterious treasure pillars morphed into rubbish heaps, filthy and useless.
He began to feel queasy. The open pill box thudded to the floor.
“What was that?” Miss Becky said through a yawn.
The bed groaned again, and Mr. Gerald said, “I’ll go see.”
Brendan’s mind snapped. He couldn’t see Mr. Gerald in this house. Hearing him was already too much. There was no saving Miss Becky now, and maybe there never had been.
He bolted out the screen door, forgetting it would slam behind him. The only safe place was his castle by the river. He sprinted across the yard, not caring if Mr. Gerald saw him through the kitchen window. That fat man could never move fast enough to catch him.
At the tree line, the stiff bamboo refused to part, and he trampled some of it as he ran, inadvertently banishing himself from Miss Becky’s yard. Mud collected on the bottoms of his sneakers as he tromped down the well-worn path in the woods.
The sunrise was now in full effect. Shafts of light pierced through oak and maple leaves, dappling the path and blinding him to roots and rocks which obstructed his race to the castle. Underbrush and briars scratched his legs. His face became a palette of mud, blood, and tears from using the same hand to wipe his scratches and leaking eyes.
If he could make it to the river, he could climb into the safety of his castle keep. The GI Joe guards were waiting for him. They would protect him, but he needed to hurry. The sound of gurgling water signaled the end of his race. Maybe he wasn’t too late, and all would still be well.
When he finally reached the riverbanks, he shouted and fell to his knees in tears. He was too late. The river was just dirty water flowing over litter and refuse. What once had been a glorious castle was now a mud hovel. His kingdom was nothing more than a wasteland of garbage washed ashore by the polluted river. Quentin and James’ castles were gone as well, replaced by soggy cardboard and rotten plywood heaped all askew and fastened by crooked rusty nails.
The sadness that comes from knowing more than you should. The curse had worked. He was no longer a mighty king, just a muddy kid.
When he arrived back home, his Mom tried to interrogate him about where he’d been, but all of her questions sounded like they came from the other side of the wall. How could he tell her what happened? Where should he even begin? Finally, she cleaned his face and hands, and allowed him to sit mud-caked at the kitchen table for breakfast.
When he ate, he did not try to sink the banana slices floating among the Cheerios. He stared at the wood grain on the table as he mindlessly moved the spoon to and from the bowl, eating without play. Eventually, Mom dropped the questions and sent him to change clothes.
A few hours later, Quentin and James knocked on the back door, calling his name. They had brown bag lunches, pilfered tools, and a sack of plastic green army men. They were heading to their junk heaps by the dirty riverbanks.
“Come on,” said Quentin. “Our guys need backup. And dragons are coming later, so we gotta build fire-proof roofs.”
“Yeah,” said James. “Plus, there should be new stuff washed up from the storm, and I borrowed my Dad’s tools.”
“You guys go ahead. I’m staying here.”
Brendan started to close the door when Quentin said, “What gives? I know you went yesterday. Why won’t you come with us now?”
“Because I just don’t want to,” he snarled, slamming the door in their faces.
They didn’t deserve that. Maybe he should explain, but what could he say? They were on a journey to an enchanted forest that he could no longer see. Once you open it, you can never forget.
He returned to the living room, where Jacob sat cross-legged on the couch waiting for the console to launch his game. Brendan had returned Jacob’s GI Joes, and to pay for the theft, he took a hard punch in the arm. It was a fair exchange, and Brendan did not fight back, sealing the new peace between them.
He watched the opening credits of the game. Soldiers embedded in an enemy city searched for terrorists and fought rebel insurgents. The game did not allow you to choose an adventure. You must fight, you must destroy enemy hideouts, and you must follow orders given by an invisible commander. There was nothing to risk, nothing delicate to protect, nothing to trust that could betray you without warning. Allies remained allies, and the enemies were clearly marked.
Jacob’s mouth was already agape. A grape soda stood nearby to quench the thirst that ensued after hours of slack-jawed mouth-breathing. He had no cares, nothing to worry about except what to blow up first. Through the back door window, Brendan watched his friends disappear around the bend. He could still catch up to them if he wanted. A gun cocked in the game, and Jacob took his first shot.
“Pass me the other controller. I’ll help you destroy this city,” Brendan said.
Sarah Hogg lives in South Texas and writes fiction. Her work has been published in The Colored Lens and Three Rivers Review.