She kept about a half-block distance between them as she followed him. Easy enough on the busy after-school streets, when there were plenty of people to slip in and out of, but harder as the streets took off towards the outskirts of town, and she had to duck behind buildings or fences to avoid his turning around and seeing her.
If anyone had asked Cassie right at that moment why she was following Gideon Gunther, of all people, she would had to have stopped and taken a moment, taken a breath, had a think about it. It wasn’t because she liked him. She was pretty sure of that. She didn’t think she even liked boys at all yet. Samantha Dunhold had paid Jimmy Drake two dollars to kiss her out behind the PE shed last week, and she’d insisted to all the leering, giggling girls that it’d been worth the expense. But Cassie wasn’t convinced. And anyway, if she was going to fancy some boy, she would pick one a head taller, a couple of years older, copper-blond and with a firm shape to his face. Yes, Dion Cooper. She would probably have set her sights on Dion. If it was going to be anybody. Which it wasn’t. And surely not Gideon Gunther.
And yet, here she was. Ducking behind a car in a half empty carpark, and leaning to see what Gideon was doing right now.
Perhaps it was the marbles. That made a sort of sense. Because ever since Gideon had noticed her walking a few hundred metres behind him he had started dropping marbles into the gutter, and into tufts of grass, or beneath flowering bushes. And it seemed to Cassie as if he was doing this somewhat deliberately. He’d all but placed that first one so neatly down on the ground for her to find. And Gideon had the weirdest collection of marbles, all full of swirly designs, or complex, pixelated images, some of those images, frozen in glass, depicting faces, or animals. There was one that looked exactly like the moon, another that looked like mars. She had no idea where he got the things from, some kids said he made them himself. Tilly Luxmore said his mother was a witch and she cast spells that trapped children in glass if they snuck onto her property without permission; but Tilly Luxmore really wasn’t all there, and nobody paid much attention to the stories she told.
So yes, maybe the marbles. Since he was leaving them for her, and they were just so cool. It’d be worth playing his game just to be able to show them to the other kids at school the next morning. Pass them around, get the little chorus of ooohs and aaahs.
Gideon was crossing a field now. Maybe testing her. Cassie cracked a little bit of a smile. She liked a challenge. And since they seemed to be playing with this fiction that he didn’t see her – though he was laying marbles for her to follow like breadcrumbs – and that she wasn’t following him, she kept up the game. She couldn’t cross the field without being in plain view. But there were cars parked along the side of it, and she could weave along between those without the risk of being obvious.
As for the why of it, what Gideon was up to: well, he was a strange boy. He was supposedly twelve, though he looked ten, and just had this kind of weirdness about him that wasn’t old or young. It just kind of sat off to the side and didn’t really fit in anywhere. He was a quiet kid, who mostly kept to himself, but wasn’t too much of a target because he wasn’t timid, he could fight back, he did, on occasion, and when he did, he had this feral anger about him that made you wonder if he was abused at home or something. And if anybody talked to him, he’d reply with something that mostly only sort of made sense:
“Hey, Giddy,” – some of the kids called him that – “did you finish Ms Sanderson’s homework?”
“The moon was full last night, but anybody notice that it was crooked?”
“The moon. It was round, but… crooked. Did anyone else notice?”
“Short dumpling punctured with chopsticks and garlanded in noodles.”
“One insult for another. Mine are just better.”
She guessed, for the right sort of girl, it might be possible to be charmed by that nonsense. Maybe some girls could like him. Maybe even have a crush of sorts. But not her. Cassie didn’t see herself that way. An impressive boy maybe. An athlete. Yes, Dion Cooper did fit that bill. Yes, maybe Dion. If she was going to like any boy at all. And she wasn’t saying she was going to. She wasn’t a teenager and yet and so she didn’t have to. End of story.
Cassie was doing this for the marbles.
But it looked as if Gideon might be ramping up the challenge, choosing to take a little path through the woods, where either one of them might loose the other, and where a girl would have to stay close to see where he dropped a marble if she didn’t want to miss out on one.
No problem though. Cassie liked a challenge.
But the woods sure were weird today, weren’t they? She couldn’t help but notice a strange hue to the sunlight that made its way past the canopy, a syrupy, citrussy quality to it, and a little bit more of a sparkle. She noticed that there were some odd-looking flowers and some weird-shaped leaves dotted throughout the foliage. She stooped to pick one of the flowers – pink and multi-layered, with a mirror-glass, polished silver centre that actually reflected her face. She slid that behind her ear. What a find. And a marble right next to it with all the same colours. Was Gideon trying to show her these?
A rustling in the undergrowth.
Hedgehogs and bunny rabbits, rats and mice, all made their homes in this woodland near the park; there were birds nesting, insects flitting and chirping. She sometimes walked home this way, despite it being the long way, because she liked the wildlife. But this was something else, a strange snuffling sound coupled with a growl, and she was sure it was following her, sure it was getting closer. But there, right ahead, Gideon had dropped such a pure, golden marble. It looked like it was made of actual, high-polished gold. She had to have that. She crouched for it.
And the dog sprang.
It was like no dog she’d ever seen before, big and black and shaggy, but with wild, red eyes; and most telling was the faint, lava glow that exuded from its skin, shining faintly past its fur, while its mouth open to reveal that same glow, red-gold amidst a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth.
Cassie didn’t know where she found her voice. Where she found a steady nerve. But she stood her ground, she held her hands out. “Good doggy. Good doggy.” And just like that the dog wasn’t so scary any more. It was smaller and its fur was less ragged, and that lamp-like glow had faded from inside it. It was leaning in and sniffing with a friendly curiosity. “Nice doggy. Nice doggy.” She reached to pat it, and the dog acquiesced, it snuffled at her cheek, licked her, put its paw up on her shoulder in greeting.
Cassie felt something click inside her.
And she watched as its fur changed colour. It was a subtle change of hue, the jet-black washing out as a dark blue seeped in. The colour had traces of black, was a mix of navy and a deep royal blue that bordered on purple. Patches of sunlight intensified the blue, which could still appear black in the shadow. Nevertheless, a blue doggy.
Cassie picked up the marble.
“Red marble,” she whispered, and she watched the colour change.
“Gold marble.” Since she liked that colour better.
The blue dog was slipping back into the woods. “Be good,” she called after it. “Don’t eat any of the bunnies, please.”
As she continued on the path, she noticed that some unexpected colours were showing up there two, little stripes of green and gold, then sparkly silver, then red, white, orange. And then she cleared the treeline and realised that she was somewhere she had never been before. Which made no sense, because she knew this area, she knew the woods around here, all the paths, where they went. She knew where this path should come out, so why didn’t it?
And it was strange here too. The sky was all dark-clouds and thunderous. It looked down on her with a wild malevolence. The grass was low and ragged, and the path descended over a little-too-perfectly rounded hilltop. There was a peal of thunder and a flash of light. But she realised that neither of these was coming from the sky. A bank of mist up ahead of her, along the path, was alive with electrical charge. Blasts of lightning and rumbles of deep thunder were coming from there.
On the ground was a beautiful, rainbow-coloured marble. And there were more up ahead. They were leading into that very same mist.
She should have thought: fuck no; and then blushed at thinking in language that would have got her mother slapping the back of her head in fury. But she didn’t. She’d come too far. She gritted her teeth and walked forward. She stopped for marbles, but she kept on going. It really did seem as if the mist opened up to let her in, that it invited her, and then it swallowed her.
Inside, it was quiet. Thunder and lightning still raced along its shell, but the inner mist muffled those sounds, it was thick, viscous, absorbing the noise and light, so that its murky interior had a stillness, a damped-down silence. It was thick, glowing with an eerie dark blue. A bright silver marble led the way. And then another. Okay, Gideon, let’s see what this is all about. Better be good though.
She thought she could hear his voice in her head: What? Weird flowers, transforming dogs, electrically charged mist. How much more good do you want me to get? Some girls are hard to impress but this is ridiculous.
Fine, Gideon. But this still better be going somewhere. Hey, wait. I’m not really talking to you.
No. No I’m not.
Look up ahead.
Looking up ahead would confirm – just a little bit – that his voice really was there, and it really was talking to her. But she did. She saw the path morph into a bridge. But the bridge was broken, fallen away, ragged-plank ends, as it floated off into the mist. And at the other end she could see - or she thought she could see - where its other half sat, shorn, sticking out of what seemed to be a cliff. Thick mist all but obscured it.
You’ve got to be kidding.
Gideon was suddenly not a bit telepathically talkative.
I’m not doing that.
She couldn’t help it. She was looking up ahead, calculating. Yes, if she got a decent run-up, yes, maybe she could jump from one broken end of that bridge to another. It would be crazy, of course, taking a risk like that, because she had no idea how deep the canyon was, and there was no guarantee she would make it. This was the real deal now, the real dangerous. And yet, anyway, she braced herself, she pounced, she took a run-up at that bridge. And although she could have thought better of it at any moment and turned aside, she didn’t. She ran, ran, ran, ran. Jumped. And she sailed through the air. But the bridge cheated. It moved further and further away, sliding backwards as fast as she flew towards it.
No, no it doesn’t. It’s right there. It’s right here.
And it was. A good doggy. A red marble.
Her feet landed, right on the end, and she wind-milled her arms and flung herself forward to keep from falling. It was a hard landing on timber, but it was a landing. And she was over.
Cassie picked herself up. Shook herself off. She was standing in front of a forest with the most massive, rough-barked trees. They were tall, pale, with thick bark, furry around its grooves. And there was moss and mushrooms growing up the massive trunks. A canopy of blue and green. A trail of marbles.
Oh come on! How much further.
Not far now my little smurf.
I guess you don’t watch retro cartoons.
Bite me. Where am I going? She stooped to pick up a red-and-white marble with a swirly pattern that seemed like it moved.
Look up, said a voice that might be Gideon talking in her head.
She did. She saw the platform that must be a treehouse. And the rope ladder hanging down. She put one hand on one of the rungs, finally hesitating. The full weirdness of it all catching up with her at last and kinda smacking her in the face.
You’ve come this far, said Gideon in her head.
And then you’ll come up?’
His head poked out over the top of the ladder. There was a grin on his face.
“What is all this?” she was bloody going to use her voice. He was within earshot.
“This is where I hang out.”
“You really can’t just be normal, can you?”
“No way, no how. Why would I want to?”
Cassie started climbing. He was right. She had come this far. And now, she was reaching the top and crawling into a well-constructed treehouse, with a doorway, and windows, and even a second room. There were a bunch of children already there. A couple of them she recognised from school. Another one she thought she’d seen around town. But then there was another one who was blue and green, had slit-like silver eyes, and tall ears, knife-pointing, sticking just a little higher than the top of his head. And a girl with soft, short fur, a colour like pale caramel, puppy-dog eyes, and puppy-dog ears.
“Welcome to the club,” Gideon spread his arms out expansively.
“If you want to join.”
Cassie hesitated for a moment. It was just a lot to take in. And her mouth was having trouble opening and producing any sound. When it finally did, she heard herself say: “Can I keep the marbles?”
She heard Gideon answer: “Sure, why not?”
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work