Taïga is really grateful for her bike. The distance to the treehouse would make it impossible to visit every day if she were on foot.
Mrs. Brown usually prepares something healthy, but tasty, for the little girl to bring with her as she most of the time spends the whole day in the woods. The old housekeeper hates junk food and prefers knowing they all get something consistent in their stomachs to keep them going. So she spoil them rotten with homemade goodies, packing a cooler with English cucumber sandwiches, pies, mixed salads and cold chicken. And she never forgets to throw in her famous cookies and her specialty – strawberry lemonade.
Derek and Teddy awaits Taïga and her cooler with impatience. They sometimes spend the night and are ravenous. Taïga would love to spend the night too, but Granny is adamant, refusing to even talk about it. So she goes to their treehouse early, even though it’s a little scary to be on her own when she’s the first one to get there, and she stays longer and longer, pushing her curfew a tiny bit every time the Vargas boys do a sleep over.
Granny grumbles, but is kept in check by Mrs. Brown, who arguments in Taïga’s favor, trying to convince Granny to trust the little girl.
‘Trust goes both ways. If you want her to trust you, you have to trust her. She doesn’t do anything wrong, and after what I’ve heard, both boys are serious students and good athletes. At least Derek is, and sport is important…’
Yada yada, Granny thinks, drawing the line at 9 p.m. and keeping an anxious eye on the clock. But Taïga is always home on time, making Granny sigh with relief about not having to punish her…
But the kids don’t just play, paint and decorate their treehouse, they have many other projects. One of them is digging a fire pit so they can roast marshmallows and hot dogs. It’s finally finished and is being inaugurated tonight. Taïga looks longingly at the boys unpacking their sleeping bags and other gear, happy when Teddy proposes a game of hide and go.
Taïga starts, leaning in towards a huge boulder that is also base, she covers her eyes and starts counting. She can hear the rustle of footsteps, and she tries to locate the direction of the sound without breaking her stride counting.
‘Ready or not, here I come!’ She pushes away from the rock, setting out towards where she had heard the noise.
She finds Teddy first. He’s hiding behind a tree that’s not large enough to cover his bulk. She chases after him, trying to tag him before he touches base…
Teddy is confident, Taïga will never catch him before-
Derek jumps down from his position crouching on the boulder, right in front of Teddy who scared shies away before he has the time to reach base.
Taïga runs screaming the other way, buts stops as she realizes who it was. Frustrated she turns back yelling at a laughing Derek, ‘I hate you!’
She runs back, aiming Derek who sidesteps and she falls on his brother instead.
‘Gotcha! You’re IT!’ She gets to her feet, pulling Teddy up with her.
‘It doesn’t count.’
‘Oh, yes it does!’
‘Derek helped you!’
‘He didn’t! He scared the Hell out of me! Oups!’ She slaps a hand over her mouth, knowing what Granny thinks about using bad language.
Derek laughs. ‘You scared me – screaming your head off like a banshee!’
Derek and Taïga scurries off in opposite directions while Teddy grudgingly takes up position counting to twenty very fast.
‘Ready or not… Here I come!’ he yells, confidently stepping back and trying to get a sight of what’s up on the boulder. Nothing. He systematically goes through all the known hiding places, but there’s no sign of the other kids.
‘OK. Where are you guys?’
Taïga and Derek don’t answer, they have both found the perfect place to hide in the underbrush. Thing is, they’ve aimed for the same spot.
‘I got here first.’ Taïga whispers angrily, but Derek hushes her, hearing his brother count.
‘It’s too late now, he’s coming.’
‘He isn’t. He’s-’ She’s interrupted by Teddy screaming that he’s coming.
Derek looks at her with his Told ya’ expression. Taïga just glares angrily at him, trying to see what’s happening through the dense branches. The leaves surround them, forming a cave big enough for them to stand up.
‘I see you!’
Taïga sighs, but Derek holds her back with a hand on her arm, motioning her to be silent.
‘It’s a trick?’
He nods. ‘Don’t move,’ he mouths, as they can hear Teddy getting closer, roaming about just inches from them. Taïga closes her eyes, hoping that the old saying “If you can’t see them they can’t see you” is true.
Teddy moves away, and opening her eyes, Taïga realizes she had also held her breath. She exhales slowly, trying to get her heartbeat down, but she understands it has nothing to do with the excitement of being found. She catches Derek looking at her with a strange expression on his face, and she blushes, stifling a nervous giggle. She avoids looking at him again, stubbornly staring at the leaves in front of her, trying to glimpse Teddy who’s getting more desperate by the minute.
‘It’s not funny, guys! Where are you?’
They finally let Teddy off the hook, coming out of hiding. But there’s no sign of him.
‘Don’t worry, he’s probably just cross. You know, not finding us.’
‘But what if he’s left?’
‘I don’t think so. We’re grilling tonight, remember?’
He’s right. Teddy is ruled by his stomach, and there’s no way he would leave with the perspective of a nice meal.
They finally find him in the tree house, reading old comics on the couch.
‘I’m hungry.’ He states, not looking up from his Flash Gordon adventure on planet Mongo.
‘You’re always hungry, Ted. And tonight we’re having hotdogs.’
‘Yeah but I’m hungry now.’
‘Have some cookies.’ Taïga proposes, but Teddy looks at her shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
‘Don’t say you’ve eaten them all?’ she asks, the crumbles surrounding him giving him away. ‘What about us?’
‘I guess we’ll just have to get that fire going. Are you up for a hot dog or two? Or five?’ Derek looks expectantly at her, lips twitching.
‘It’s not a contest, right?’ Taïga shudders, goosebumps on her arms. The temperature falls as soon as the sun starts its way down.
‘Here. Take this.’ Derek says curtly, handing her his black Adidas tracksuit jacket.
‘Cool! I’ll take care of the food – you just sit down and enjoy the warmth of the fire.’ Teddy says, his spirits rising again.
Derek starts the fire and goes to fetch some more firewood. Laden with heavy branches, he comes back just to find Teddy who has succeeded in putting all the hot dogs on his stick, holding them precariously over the fire.
‘Can’t I leave you guys for five minutes? If they fall off they’re wasted!’
Teddy draws his breath to say something, but when he sees Taïga also watching him with that look on her face, he gives up and hands over some sausages to them both.
The hot dogs taste so much better when you grill them yourself. Scraping away the black, burnt skin, Taïga almost forgets she had sworn never to touch a hot dog again in her life.
Teddy wolfs down the better part of their stock, and lies down to digest. It doesn’t take long before he’s promptly asleep on the ground.
‘Don’t you think we’ve got enough wood now?’ Taïga is a little worried at the sight of Derek adding more wood and poking the fire.
‘Are you sure? It has to keep going the whole night, you know.’
‘To keep the beasts away, of course.’
Taïga laughs. ‘The only beasts here are the mosquitos! But yeah, you’re right, the fire sure seems to keep them at bay.’
They sit on the ground and starts roasting the marshmallows.
‘Tell me a story, Derek.’
‘I dunno. Something scary!’
‘Are you sure?’
‘OK. But I gotta check if Teddy’s asleep first.’
Derek glances up at her from his position over his sleeping brother, his eyes mirroring the flames making them seem to glow from within. ‘Err… Because he’s so easily scared. Don’t want him to spoil the fun.’
Satisfied Teddy’s sound asleep, he sits down next to Taïga. He pokes the fire again, making the flames dance and she follows the tiny yellow specks with her eyes until they disappear.
‘Once upon a time -actually it was not that long ago– this family went for a vacation to Egypt.’
‘I wish I could go there one day…’ Taïga adds wistfully.
‘Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. I mean, I think it is. Back to the story. The family was there on a special occasion. It was a kinda late honeymoon, you see. They hired a Land Rover and followed the Nile south.’
‘Did they visit the pyramids?’
‘Yeah, sure. And the Abou Simbel and the Sphinx and lots of boring museums stuffed with masks and mummies.’
‘Wow, I love stories about mummies!’
‘Well, this is not a story about mummies.’
‘But I wanted scary!’
‘Be quiet and listen, and I’ll give you scary!’
Taïga frowns but is quiet.
‘Err… They had saved up for this trip a long time, but they didn’t have too much money to spend… So, they checked in to small, cheap hotels in the villages they passed through.
They bought takeaway food and picnicked a lot, too. Once they settled in the shadows of an olive grove when a young boy passed with at least a hundred sheep! They almost got trampled.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘You don’t have to.’ He throws a small twig into the fire. ‘The dad got lots of nice pics, but the mother was upset because he picked up his camera instead of protecting their son and her.’
Taïga pouts, she can feel he is a bit offended. ‘So what happened? Anyone got killed?’
Derek just stares at her. ‘Anyway, they decided to splurge out on something else than museums, so they went for an outing in the desert, with grilled meat over a fire –just like ours- and they rode on camels and watched the nomads hunt with hawks…
‘There were about ten other people, but not many kids, just two other boys and a little girl who had just learnt to walk.
The parents got friends with some doctor from Falls Harbor and his wife. I- the boy- would have preferred that they socialized with the other family because the redhead boy was so much more fun than the stuck up Malcolm, but I guess mom liked to talk about her work. She was a nurse, you see.’ Derek glances quickly at Taïga, but she doesn’t seem to have noticed his mistake.
‘Anyway-’ he continues, ‘-at their campsite later that night, they started talking to one of the guides. He said that he had lived in Bridgeport for several years and he quickly became friends with mo- Err… The parents. He told them about a nice place to stay, owned by his wife’s cousin’s uncle or something. The dad was enthusiastic even if the mom was reticent. The way he described it, it sounded more than good – some kind of palace at an oasis in the desert. And best of all, he’d get them a good price as they were practically compatriots.’
Taïga giggles. ‘Compatriots, duh!’
‘He was curious about their son, and asked a lot of questions about him.’
‘Does it have to be a boy? The hero is always a boy,’ Taïga whines. ‘Couldn’t it be a girl?’
‘OK. How old was he?’
‘Who? The guide? I don’t know. Adult.’
‘No, the boy.’
‘Oh, he was just a kid, about your age.’ He glances quickly at Taïga who seems about to say something, but doesn’t.
‘Some of the people they had met stayed at the same hotel and they were very enthusiastic about it, so they decided to trust the guide. When they left the day after, the guide rode with them.
After having stopped for lunch, he decided to ride in the back seat – he said it was to let the mother take pictures, but in reality it was to get to know the boy. He was nice, but you could feel he made an effort making small talk…
They arrived at the desert palace in the early afternoon and it was even nicer than he had told them. It was so big it seemed like a whole village – square sand colored buildings with doomed roofs. You’ve seen Aladdin?’
‘Well, it was a lot like the sultan’s palace.’
Taïga widens her eyes and her mouth forms a silent “o”. Derek feels a little bad about exaggerating, so he quickly continues.
‘The driveway up to the main entrance was lined with palm trees and all the cars parked alongside it were fancy SUVs. The doctor’s Porche Cayenne was already parked at the closest spot to the entrance.’
He waits for Taïga to react to the fancy car, but she doesn’t.
‘Mom -the mother- was excited to live in such a luxurious place but she worried about the clothes she had brought with her. She was certain they weren’t fancy enough. I mean, the dad hadn’t even brought a tie! The guide assured them there were tons to borrow for dinner… The boy, he was most interested in knowing if there were a swimming pool!’
‘Sure! A huge one, with a slide and a waterfall!’
‘Wow! I’ve never been to a place with a waterslide. Tell me!’
Derek tries to describe best he can the afternoon at the poolside in the middle of the desert.
‘I don’t remember the redhead boy’s name, it was Lucas something… We- They had a waterslide competition, trying to slide as fast and land as far away as possible – on their backs, head first or on their knees. Malcolm was too scared to join them. You should have seen him – He was totally kited out to go scuba diving! He even had assorted palms in blue and yellow. The other boys laughed at him, but at the same time he was the only one whose eyes didn’t burn from the chlorine.’
Derek chuckles, but Taïga frowns at him. ‘I don’t want the hero to be a bully with other kids,’ she admonishes and Derek answers her curtly, ‘Who said he was? They played with him the whole afternoon. Even though he got stuck in the slide with his ducky bath ring!’
Taïga tries her best not to laugh at the image Derek has conjured up, to no avail. Spluttering she holds back her mirth. Derek snorts and soon they are both giggling, hugging their sides.
Derek catches his breath, continuing. ‘Malcolm’s dad was napping in the shadows under a parasol, only opening his eyes to sip at his cold beer. His mom didn’t leave her son with her eyes, regularly calling him over to douse him with sunscreen. Geez. Poor guy. He wanted so badly to have a go at being thrown by the boy’s father, but his mom wouldn’t let him.’
‘Yeah. The boy’s dad had joined in the fun. He propelled the boy into the pool, using his hands as a lever. Really cool.’
‘The boy felt like flying. But that was before he came crashing into the water… You know it felt kinda strange. All that water to splash around in surrounded by sand dunes.’
‘Just like in Lucky Palms!’
‘Yeah, probably. You’ve been there?’
‘Uh-huh. We stayed there on our way here with mom,’ Taïga says, her eyes staring into space.
Derek can feel her sudden sadness and tries to draw her attention back to the fun in the pool. ‘He was so proud of his dad and how the other kids lined up to be next. Of course, Malcolm’s mother screamed “NO” from the poolside. Poor boy.’
‘Poor boy,’ Taïga echoes.
‘Lucky was jealous of his little sister, anyway, and would have loved to have his own dad throw him in the air the way he did with his little sister, whose happy screams and laughter echoed across the huge swimming pool…
… but his parents only had eyes for his cute little sister, not even seeing him being the first one to succeed an almost perfect dive.’
‘Lucky? You said his name was Lucas.’
‘Lucky. Lucas. Whatever… He’s not the hero anyway.’
‘What about the boy’s mom? Had she been captured by mummies?’
‘No. She was floating around on a mattress, totally oblivious to the ruckus around her. And I told you it’s not a story about mummies.’
‘Oh, yeah? You also told me you were gonna tell me a scary story, and you’re just gushing about an old swimming pool.’
‘You asked me to develop!’
‘I asked you for a scary story!’
Derek glares at her, crossing his arms.
They sit in silence for a minute or two. Taïga is the first to give in. ‘Please continue your story.’ She bites her cheek. ‘Pretty please?
‘OK. But don’t interrupt all the time or I’ll never get to the scary part.’
Taïga nods. ‘Promise.’
‘Everybody was busy having fun, so nobody noticed the guide watching them from a window overlooking the pool…’ Derek says ominously.
‘After spending the afternoon at the pool, it was time to eat. It was a fancy hotel, so they had to change for dinner. All men had to wear ties and the women something dressed up. Even the boys had to wear shirts.
They ate some kind of meat in a spicy sauce and lots of rice to help them put up with the fiery taste. The boy drank tons of water, but it didn’t help much. The rice did, though.
The German tourist took pictures of everything – the decoration, the food, even the empty plates. Dad, the boy’s dad, said she was married to her camera.
Malcolm refused to eat what the waiter brought in. He insisted on a steak, and he got one, but boy, were the parents ashamed of his behavior.
He and the little girl were the only ones who didn’t eat the stew. She had some green goo the waiter warmed up in a microwave as her parents were afraid she would get sick with the local food, and I guess they were right.’
‘I told you it was incredibly spicy. Full of Jalapeños, but stronger!’
‘Yeah. Head-turning-and-fire-sprouting-out-of-your-nose kind of strong.’ He puts his hands around his neck and gags, rolling his eyes. Taïga giggles.
‘Anyway, his newfound friend had dinner with his parents at another table, but they had made up their minds about exploring the compound later. They talked to each other across the room until their parents had had enough and let them leave the table. But they had dessert first, ice-cream and some super delicious pastries.’ He licks his lips as if he could taste them.
‘Oh. I almost forgot. The guides didn’t eat that night, they didn’t touch heir Hrira-’
‘Vegetable soup, it was the Ramadan. Now do you want me to continue or what?’
Taïga doesn’t know what the Ramadan is, but she doesn’t dare ask Derek again, or he’d stop telling his story.
‘Where were I?’
‘Right. Ahem. They hovered in the doorway leading to the rooms, watching the guests…
… The parents were so excited about the palace and what with Malcolm acting up that they didn’t notice they were being watched or how the guides concentrated on observing their son…
After dinner, the parents disappeared outside to “discover the site” as they said… But they just wanted to get romantic in the hot tub…’
‘Yeah. The other men went to the hammam, it’s a kind of sauna. Very warm with lots of steam. Adults seem to enjoy it.
The boys had better things to do. They had already checked out their rooms and the corridors leading to different lounges, disturbing the personnel who kindly made them understand they were not supposed to wreak havoc indoors.’
‘They got scolded?’
‘Sort of. They decided to continue their exploring outdoors and as the evening was fresh compared to the hot day, they hurried back upstairs to pick up their sweaters before meeting out by the pool again…
… but Lucky never showed. The boy ran into one of the guides who was smoking on the parking. Not the Bridgeport one who had ridden in their car but the other, Saïd…
The guide asked him what he was doing outside by himself…
“Hmm… So, you like to explore, huh?”
The boy nodded.
“Well, then. I won’t tell your parents that you were playing among the expensive cars…” He glanced at the boy who didn’t see the calculating glint in his eyes because of the dark shadows hiding his face.
“Thanks. I should better get back in, then.”
“Maybe you’d like to go on a real quest.” When the boy didn’t answer, the guide added, “A treasure hunt.” The boy drew his breath.’ Derek glances at Taïga’s rapt face. Good, he’s got her full attention again.
‘The guide told him about a treasure guarded by an ice gnome and an army of stone soldiers. Many men had died trying to retrieve the gnome’s secret, but Saïd was sure Derek could do it.
The son was a tough little boy, thirsty for adventure, so he followed Saïd without saying goodbye to his parents. It was already dark -the sun sets at around 6 pm the whole year- but the stars lit their way to an isolated place behind the palace… Saïd explained in detail how to get to the treasure room on their way to the entrance to the-’
‘What was his name?’
‘Der- Dirk. His name was Dirk. Now could you please be quiet?’
Taïga nods eagerly and Derek continues, ‘OK. The guide unlocked the padlock and preceded Dirk through the door. The two of them went through a lot of corridors and stairs, until finally the guide stopped on top of some steep stairs.
‘The guide told me…err, the boy, that he needed him to fulfill something important, but also that it would be painful.’
‘OMG! A predator!’
Derek glances at Taïga’s devastated expression. How could she know?
‘Nonono. I don’t want to hear about it! You promised me scary, not… not pedophiliwhatever!’
‘Oh, no! Not that kind of predator. Wait, you’ll be surprised.’
Relieved, Taïga fiddles a little with the zipper on her jacket. ‘Sorry… Please continue, Derek.’
‘The boy looked bravely at the guide, taking a step backwards. “I’m not scared of you!” I– err, the boy – said, sounding more self-assessed than he really was. The guide didn’t say anything, just let the torch fall on the floor.
Scared, Dirk took another step backwards and fell down the stairs and landed on the hard stone floor. The air went out of his lungs and he couldn’t move. He could hear the guide swear in Arabic and then everything went pitch black when Saïd slammed the door shut.
The boy scrambled up to a sitting position and tried to scream, but he hadn’t recovered his voice just yet. He fumbled up the stairs, but the heavy wooden door was locked from the outside. He sat for a while on top of the stairs, trying not to give in to the fright of the darkness surrounding him. Saïd must have ran for help. He would surely come back. Soon. That’s when he heard something.’ Derek pauses for effect. ‘A regular banging came from downstairs, so Dirk went once again down the steep stairs, letting his hand against the rough stone wall guide him.’
He turned the corner and at the end of a long passageway he saw the flickering light from a torch. He ran towards it but slowed down when he came nearer. The banging had stopped, but he preferred being cautious. Peeking around the corner, he saw a little room lit by a single torch on the wall. There was no one in sight, three of the walls were empty, but by the fourth wall two marble heads of some Egyptian Pharao or God on heavy stone pedestals guarded a door locked with chains and a padlock. The sound must have come from there. He stepped into the light and took a closer look around him in the light of the torch, and almost stopped breathing…’
‘There were bones on the floor…’
Taïga moves closer to Derek.
‘The boy squatted next to a skeleton to have a closer look, but jumped almost out of his skin when the banging started again. Now he was sure that it came from the other side of the door.
“Hello! Is there anybody out there?”
Dirk didn’t answer right away. He rose silently to his feet and approached the door, leaning his head against the carved surface.
“Who are you?” he ventured.
“It’s Hassen. Saïd locked me in here. Please help me out again.” The banging on the door started again and Dirk jumped back. Hassen. Their guide.
“There’s a chain and a padlock. Is there a key somewhere?” he asked.
The guide told him to look behind the statues, and he found a big, rusty key that fit perfectly into the lock. The chain rattled to the floor and he pushed up the door.
The guide stood up, holding on to one of the wooden barrels that filled the cramped space. He seemed to have trouble keeping his balance and his face scrunched as if in pain…
“Are you all right?” Dirk asked, stopping a little hesitantly. He had been relieved to find an adult, but suddenly he felt uneasy.
The guide swayed and fell to his knees and Dirk took a step forward to help him up from his position on all fours. The man crouched, staring at the boy who stopped in his tracks, hypnotized by the gleaming eyes lit from within that gave a demonic look to the guide. The guide rose to his feet, focusing his yellow eyes on the terrified boy, his mouth grimacing in a grotesque snarl. Dirk started to back away from him begging for his life.’ Derek stares into the fire.
‘The guide shivered, and suddenly started contorting himself, horrible gargling noises escaping his twisting mouth. The boy watched in horror the guide fall to his knees, his moans transforming into animal growls.’
‘Did he run?’ Taïga whispers.
‘Err… No, he couldn’t move. He was paralyzed with fear… And it was justified. Hair began to grow from the guide’s skin, claws pushed forward from his fingers and bulging muscles tore the clothes apart. His body snapped and contorted, horrible sounds of bone breaking and setting washed over Dirk, making him cover his ears. When the werewolf -because that’s what the guide truly was- finally raised his head and opened his mouth in a terrifying roar, the young boy could see how his teeth were now sharp fangs…
… and then, unexpectedly, adrenalin kicked in! Dirk turned on his heels and ran for his life life – straight into the darkness.’
‘What happened? Did he get away? Did the werewolf chase him?’
‘Not right away. He got an advance on the werewolf, as the transformation wasn’t quite finished yet. That probably saved his life.
The crypt was a real labyrinth. The boy ran blindly in the dark, stumbling on the remnants of the werewolf’s victims.
Every time he stopped to catch his breath, he could hear the low growl of the beast in pursuit…’
Taïga fumbles for Derek’s hand. He catches his breath but continues.
‘The boy understood he couldn’t outrun the beast, especially not in the dark. He had to find a hiding place. But where? The creature was coming closer, he could hear the claws on the cold stone. Quickly he stepped behind one of the many statues and held his breath.
Snarling and growling with rage, the powerful beast started to push the statues in fury. Soon it would turn over the one that sheltered the boy! I had to think fast.
Quickly I- err, the boy – scooped up a small stone from the ground and threw it through an open door on the opposite wall.
The werewolf’s head snapped round towards the sound, and cautiously it moved away, towards the door. But it stopped before entering the other room, snarling and sniffing the air… If it had turned around at that moment, the young boy would surely have died…’
Taïga holds on to Derek’s hand, hard.
‘It was now or never – the boy pushed away from his shelter and ran like a madman!
But he didn’t get very far. The floor was uneven and littered with mortar, stones and bones. He soon stumbled and fell. Scrambling to a sitting position, he stared into the dark. He didn’t have to wait long.
A dark shadow filled the narrow passage. It didn’t attack right away. It just hunched there, staring with unblinking yellow eyes at the boy. Calm in its knowledge it could leap and kill in an instant.
Slowly Dirk got to his feet, not leaving the beast with his eyes. He backed one step. Nothing happened. Another step. The beast snarled, baring its teeth. Yet another step. His foot was still in midair when the beast leapt.
Fangs tore into his raised arm, the searing pain blinding him, and he felt more than saw the great paws lashing out when suddenly the floor gave way beneath him and they both fell, tumbling, flailing into darkness.
He woke up disoriented. Faint moonlight filtered through a gaping hole in the wall high above. His arm pulsated with a dull pain and his back and legs hurt, too. His eyes, caked with fine dust, burned at his attempts at blinking. He succeeded in freeing his left arm and passed his hand over his face, spitting grime. He could see rubble strewn all over the floor, but where was the werewolf. He almost stopped breathing when he realized he was lying in its arms, as if it had tried to protect him during the long fall. He pushed and shoved to get out from under the layer of old wooden planks and stones. The werewolf lay stock still, half buried under the rumble that must have smashed its head to pulp.’
‘Yuk. Are you sure it was dead?’
‘Positive. Its head was smashed in.’
‘In horror movies the bad ones never die that easily. They raise as soon as the hero turns his back.’
‘Yeah, well, this one didn’t.’
‘How did he get out? Dirk?’
‘He climbed the rubble up to the hole. He was on the other side of the mountain and had no clue how to get back to the hotel. He just staggered straight on towards a cluster of palms, hoping to find some water.
He lost consciousness next to a well, too faint to be able to hoist up the bucket. The last thing he heard was the lonely howling of a wolf.’
‘Please, don’t let the hero die like that.’
‘Who said he died?’
‘He was lucky. Military found him when they were looking for a sheep they had run over.
They took him in their convoy to their desert base. From there a military helicopter flew him to a hospital in Cairo. It was the first – and only – time he had ever flewn in a helicopter, and he could not remember it!’
The story seems to be over and reluctantly she lets go of Derek’s hand. ‘That’s too bad.’
‘The werewolf had been tricked, but it didn’t give up. As soon as it had succeeded in getting out from under the rubble, it took up the chase following the trail of blood…’
‘Yeah, it had bitten the boy’s arm. Remember? A nasty gash, it was very painful. And the boy had lots of cuts and bruises from the fall, too.’
‘Ahem… The werewolf couldn’t follow the trail into the camp. It gave up a bloodcurdling howl in frustration, echoing around the sand dunes. Really terrifying. Somebody started shouting orders in Arabic and the whole camp went mad – there were military everywhere, running around with their loaded guns, just like in a movie.’
‘What happened to Dirk?’
Derek hesitates, looking at her from the corner of his eye. Then he seems to make a decision. ‘They had first taken him to a paramedic who tended to his arm and asked a lot of questions about the gash, but he couldn’t stay focused long enough to explain to them. Remember, he was only a kid and the paramedic only spoke Arabic and some French. They finally left him alone, and he fell asleep in the tent right where they had stitched his wounds.’
‘At dawn he woke up dizzy and disoriented. It was dark outside and the camp was still quiet, the only sounds were the snoring from the other tents and the guards calling to each other. He stayed in bed watching the dawn gradually light up the darkness around him, until he could hear activity from outside. A company was walking past, the rhythmic sound of marching reassuring the scared boy. He carefully sneaked out of the tent. He didn’t know where he was, except that he saw a village minaret behind the dunes and he thought the call to prayer must have come from there. He was hungry, the smell of grilled meat made his stomach growl so he started towards where he could see smoke rising behind one of the many identical tents.
The makeshift mess was busy, all the tables were occupied with soldiers eating, drinking coffee and discussing. Some soldiers were betting on two of their comrades doing chin-ups, their bulging muscles dripping sweat onto the sand. He stopped to watch them, wondering how many chin-ups they were supposed to do. He had counted to forty-eight when one of them with a grunt let go. Exhausted, he sat on his knees, recovering while his comrade athletically jumped down, bouncing around laughing and rolling his shoulders. Somebody threw him a towel and he reached out to help his friend get to his feet.
The boy’s eyes strayed to the food. He was just about to ask them if he could have some when a movement in the distance caught his eye.
The boy froze.
A familiar silhouette was approaching the campsite.’
‘OMG. The werewolf?’ Taïga whispers reverently.
‘Yeah… It had come looking for him!’
‘Wouldn’t the military shoot it down?’
‘It was human again… And the military would certainly deliver him to the Arabic speaking guide, so the boy didn’t have much of a choice. He sneaked behind the tents again, making his way around the guide…’
‘What happened then?’
‘While the guide was talking to the military, he ran. Like hell!
He had a good advance but the guide chased after him! When they sprinted into the little village, the guide was close enough to lounge.’ He looks at Taïga’s rapt face and continues, ‘But the boy turned into a backyard, so the guide went sprawling in the sand. Without looking behind him, Derek weaved through the cramped streets towards the marketplace, dodging under clothes lines, around people, breathing so hard he thought his chest would explode.’
‘Didn’t you say his name was Dirk?’
Derek looks irritably at her. ‘Dirk? Err… Dirk, Derek, whatever. It’s just a story, right?’ He grins smugly. ‘And… It was just a bad dream!’
Taïga squeals and lunges at him but grinning he leans out of reach of her hammering little hand.
‘Stop it, there’s more. As soon as they got the boy out of the truck, they got an IV going. He drifted in and out of consciousness while the soldiers carried him on a stretcher to the waiting helicopter, running fast through the frenzy the howling had caused. Somehow he felt utterly calm. Detached. He must have known he was in safety there. No way were these guys letting the beast close without taking it down! He had escaped from under the rubble, but the soldiers would terminate him.’
‘Does the Egyptian army have silver bullets?’ Taïga asks tartly.
‘Yeah, Granny said you need silver bullets to kill a werewolf.’
Derek frowns. It’s not the first time Taïga mentions her gram’s knowledge about the supernatural. Maybe he should try to talk to the old lady, steer the conversation onto werewolves somehow. It will be hard, as she usually leaves the room as soon as he arrives… He shrugs. ‘Well. I guess not. But they had bazookas and grenades and other impressive military stuff. There’s no way even a werewolf can heal after exploding.’
Taïga looks doubtful but doesn’t say anything more.
‘Meanwhile, his parents had spent the night at the police station in the nearby town. They had tried to convince the police to start searching for their son, but Egyptian administration is complicated. Especially when you don’t speak the language.
Going through the tedious administrative routine of reporting their son missing was both heartbreaking and frustrating.
They alerted the Embassy, too, and someone was immediately dispatched to help with the administrative work and to translate. But it was already morning when he showed up, and soon after his arrival the parents got the message that their son had been found, miles from there.
‘So he made it to the hospital!’
‘Uh-huh. When he woke up after surgery, his parents were there, right by his bed.’
‘What about his arm? Did he lose it?’
‘No. The doctors were amazed at how lucky he had been – nothing important was touched, the wolf’s teeth – because they said it was a wolf, even if it must have been very big, bordering on huge – had just pierced through the flesh, not teared it lose.
He got lots of shots though, and they took lots of blood samples.
His mom fainted when they came to change all the bandages and she saw how badly scratched he was.
Anyhow, he got well incredibly fast and they could drive up to Alexandria to catch their flight home again only a week after. Finally he was saved.’
Taïga lets out her breath. ‘What about the werewolf?’
‘I don’t know. I guess he couldn’t do anything, there were too many people around. They never saw him again…’
‘That’s a happy ending… I prefer that!’
Reluctantly she lets go of Derek’s hand.
‘But it’s not over yet… They had to see a doctor about the wound on the boy’s arm. It healed nicely, but it had triggered a lethal virus infection called Lycanthropy.’
‘Wow… That sounds bad?’
‘It is very bad… every full moon since, the boy transforms into… a WEREWOLF!’
‘ROAARRRRR…’ Derek bares his teeth and lashes out at her, making Taïga squeal with fright.
‘Stop it, Derek! It’s not funny!’
Derek laughs at her fear, ‘So that’s it. End of story. The boy became a werewolf too!’
Taïga watches him wide eyed. ‘You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?’ A slow smile spreads on her face. ‘Werewolves don’t exist! Let’s roast some more marshmallows!’
‘There’s no left. And you have curfew to respect.’
Curfew. Always when you’re having most fun… But she knows she has to hurry, it’s getting darker by the minute. ‘What about Teddy?’
‘I better get him up in the tree house, I can’t leave him out here the whole night.’
‘Yeah, the beasts will get him.’
‘Sure, effing mosquitos will be all over him as soon as the fire goes out…’
‘Can I keep your jacket? I’ll give it back tomorrow.’
‘No worries. Are you sure you’ll be OK riding all the way home on your own? It’s almost dark.’ Derek frowns at her, scrutinizing her face.
Taïga is scared, but she doesn’t want Derek to know. ‘Yeah. See you tomorrow!’ She unfolds the kickstand, straddling her bike.
Derek walks over to where his brother is soundly asleep, calling over his shoulder, ‘See you tomorrow then.’
She can see him shove Teddy with his foot as she pushes off, ‘Hey, bro. Wake up. It’s the tree house or under the stars – your choice. Just know I won’t carry you up that ladder…’
His voice tones out as she distances the treehouse, picking up speed, pedaling fast.
Taïga shudders from the sudden bite of the chill night air, or could it be from fright? She has about a half hour ride through the dark forest before getting home, and the moon is almost full tonight. What if the story Derek told her was true? Maybe there’s a horrible creature lurking behind a tree or a boulder, just waiting for his dinner. For her…
Taïga makes it safely through the woods, but is greeted at the door by a furious Granny. She was so relieved to see the flickering lights of Taïga’s bike that everything just burst inside her. Rushing down the stairs, she throws the door open, fighting between the urge to hold the little girl tight and tell her how worried she had been, or chew her out.
‘Taïga! I was- You are grounded!’
‘Taïga burst into tears, hiccupping, ‘I-I-I-I’m so so-sorry Granny. I-I just wanted so-so much to-to eat with Derek and Ted-Teddy in the t-t-treehouse, and then, then I-I was so scared of-of werewolves on the-the way home I-I thought I’d never make it!
Mrs. Brown pushes past a crestfallen Granny. ‘Come in little one, I’ll make you a nice cup of hot chocolate while you tell your grandmother all about it.’ She throws a meaningful glance at Granny who snorts, but nevertheless takes Taïga’s hand and leads her towards the dining room.
‘I thought I would serve the hot chocolate in the den. In front of the fireplace.’ Mrs. Brown adds pointedly, barring Granny’s route.
Granny doesn’t argue, just lifts her head and takes Taïga into the den where they settle in the comfortable armchairs in front of the fireplace.
‘Now… Ahem… Tell me what happened tonight…’
After making sure the fire is out, Derek follows his brother up in the treehouse. Teddy is already asleep, cozily snuggled up to his teddy bear in his sleeping bag. It’s warm and cozy up here – and no mosquitoes.
Derek slumps down on the makeshift sofa, sighing. He hopes Taïga will make it home alright, he’s got a case of bad consciousness about having scared her about werewolves. But then again she asked for it. And he so wants to tell her, but at the same time he’s terribly afraid of what her reaction would be. He lies awake, watching his brother sleep, thoughts running through his head…
He still can’t fathom why his father laughed at him when he told him about the werewolf. He, who had been abducted by aliens, didn’t believe his own son. It was kind of curious, though, how stubborn he was about not acknowledging the whole thing.
His mother believed him though. She took him in her arms and whispered that he mustn’t talk about what happened in the Egyptian tomb, because nobody would believe him, thinking he was crazy. She said his father would come around once he had had time to think it all over. It was quite an incredible story, after all.
He used to hear them talking about the Lycan curse late at night, when they thought he was asleep. He lied in his bed, trying to make sense out of their hushed voices, but the tone of despair in his mother’s voice is what marked him the most.
The first full moon after their return from Egypt, it happened to him. He almost fainted from the intense pain that seared through his body. He could hear the bones crack as they shifted, his head almost exploded from the feeling when the sharp canines pushed through his tender gums, making him bleed. He crashed the whole house and bit his own father before fainting. The only good thing is that his old man now believe in his story. But it’s strange that he never turned. Maybe he’s too young to turn people…
They moved from Bridgeport to Bigwood Falls shortly after. To their little house by the river, far away from other people. And they still lock him up once a month in the basement, but it gets better, even if it’s still very painful. The transformation is faster and he doesn’t thrash around as much. At least as long as they throw raw food at him.
Like a beast… Who’s he kidding here? He is a beast. No, he hates to think about this. And he can’t tell Taïga, or she’ll freak out totally. It’s already difficult to hide the whole thing from Teddy…
Part I – End of Chapter 13
Thank you, Mikezumi, for your Ian Somerhalder sim, who made a handsome doktor in this chapter. It is definitely not the last we’ve seen of him in this story!