Chessboards

Chessboards

I know very little about wilderness survival, but my young companion artfully points out a nest of bamboo shoots and we have a small meal just before noon. The boy is generous and eats very little, insisting that I take the lion’s share so I will have the energy to guide us through the forest and into town. There is a small stream nearby and we have a nice drink together before moving on.

As we rest I catch Yumi peeking down from the clouds, watching, her furrowed eyebrows turning to a giant katana that breaks apart into millions of throwing stars that silently dissipate into space. She’s frustrated.

Suddenly the boy points out a Stellar’s sea eagle perched in a tree above our heads, an awesome (in the truest sense of the word), gigantic black and white raptor. Even at a distance I’m stunned by its size. His claws remind me of those giant orange-peel crane grabs they use to pick up massive piles of scrap metal. Claws that could latch on to puppies or toddlers, or the random unprotected adult-sized head.

I reach for a stone and hurl it at the bird.

“It’s not right to kill eagles,” the boy says, as my projectile falls so short of the Stellar that he doesn’t even flinch.

“That thing’s the size of a bus. What if he snagged you by the back of the head and dropped you into a giant nest full of hungry baby raptors?”

“I’m not scared of him. He looks like a nice bird.”

“Speak for yourself,” I say, and lob another rock into the trees.

“You know what frightens me?”

“What’s that, boy?”

“Him.” The boy points at the top of the tallest conifers in the forest. There, crouched on the very highest bough, the branch sagging under his weight, is our old friend, Spegg. When he sees us looking, he hisses, then leaps into a Mongolian oak, catapulting himself further along into the forest until he’s out of sight, the vanishing sound of snapping tree branches echoing in his wake.

“Oh, don’t worry about him,” I say, putting my arm around the boy. “He can’t hurt you. I’ve told him to stay away.

The boy frowns. “Do you think he’ll obey you?”

“He has to.”

“Why?”

I have to think about that one for a moment. It’s clearly a lie. Spegg does what he wants, but I haven’t known him to be dangerous. At least not this one. Real life Spegg is a different story. “I don’t know,” I tell the boy. “But you’re safe with me.”

The boy looks up at me and brushes away a tear. “Wayne?”

I crouch down and use my thumbs to wipe away his tears. “What’s wrong, buddy?”

“Please don’t make me go inside-out again.”

“Inside-out? You mean when I’m busy and you have to go away?”

“Yes. Please don’t make me go away again.”

“Oh, buddy, why not?” I brush the hair out of his face and soften my tone. “You know, we all have to go inside-out. I go to sleep, and you go to your place. It’s good for you.”

“It’s dark there.”

I smile. “It’s dark when I go to sleep, too.”

“But does the fish man scream at you when you go inside-out?”

“What?”

“The fish man in the trees. He’s always there when you send me away. He says mean things to me.”

“Wait, Spegg talks to you when you’re not here? What the hell does he say?”

“He says,” the boy sniffs, “he says that he’s going to hurt me bad. He says he’s going to kill me. Sometimes he doesn’t say anything at all. He just stands over me and screams.”

I pull the boy into my arms. How the fuck is that even possible?

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I’ll handle Spegg. He won’t hurt you, he can’t hurt you. I promise.”

“And he says that you told him to do it.”

“Oh God, no,” I say, shaking my head. I pull the boy closer. He whimpers and shakes. I pat him on the back, trying to comfort the boy. “Shhhh. It’s okay. It’s okay. Shhhh. I would never hurt you, Wayne.”