Chapter 6 - Granny's Intuition
Granny "Little Hawk" Hawkins lived on a large piece of land with copious beds of wild rose bushes, extensive patches of swampy bog and gigantic cottonwood trees. From her back porch huge cypresses, their limbs laden with Spanish moss, stretched out into the swamp as far as the eye could see.
Granny had never done much yard work before, as far as Rob knew, but when she heard about their summer business project she was one of the first to sign up for their services. She claimed she was "too old to do that kind of work." That seemed strange to Rob, since he had seen her riding one of her Palomino ponies more than once that spring, hardly an activity for the wheelchair crowd. Even though she was almost seventy, Granny still had amazingly few wrinkles and mostly black hair tied back in a pony tail, and her dark brown eyes still had a sparkle to them. Rob's grandmother on his father's side, she owed the nickname "Little Hawk" to the fact that she was one quarter Ouachita Indian. Her grandmother's Indian name had been "White Hawk."
Granny and Bobbel seemed to hit it off immediately. Granny sat with Hope on a stump in front of her low, ranch-style house fussing and talking with the little donkey the whole time Rob and Sam were working. Both of the kids kept one eye on them, but the roar of the lawn mower made it impossible to understand what was going on.
Finally, Rob and Sam took a break and went to sit in the shade and enjoy the fresh lemonade Granny brought them. As she sat down lightly on her stump opposite the children, Rob noticed that her eyes twinkled even brighter than usual.
"Your ma told me that you all had joined up with a donkey," Granny said. "But I didn' know you got yourselves such a smart one."
"Why? What'd he say?" Sam said, leaning forward.
Rob's grandmother threw back her head and laughed heartily. Rob always thought he could hear the melodious tones of an Indian chant in that laugh.
"Well, he didn' actually say anything you two'd understand, little sparrow." Sam looked disappointed. "But we understood each other all right, and I could tell -- he knew exactly what I was talkin' about, even when I spoke in the old language. Oh, that's one special animal you got there. Where'd he come from, anyway?"
"I found him," Hope said. "Or more like he found me -- kinda by accident. He was --."
Rob squeezed Hope's shoulder to be quiet. "Uhh, Hope found him over in Wheeler Woods."
Granny gave Rob a piercing look. "Uhhh-huh. I see. Well, he ain't the sort o' creature you can really own, you know. You got to be more like partners with him 'cause he's got a mind of his own. But you know what? I don't think it was really an accident that he showed up. Mark my words, there's a reason for it."
Rob looked over at Bobbel. His eyes met the donkey's intense, unblinking gaze -- and he almost believed Granny Little Hawk was right.
After a lunch of bacon and tomato sandwiches and ice tea, Rob and Sam allowed themselves a little siesta in the rockers on Rob's front porch. They awakened when Rob's mom returned from the college.
Sam stretched and gave Rob a purposeful look. "You about ready for me to whip your heiny over at Patoma?"
"You? Beat me? You sure got a big mouth for a sawed-off little girl!"
"We'll see about that." She stood up and gave Rob's rocker a shove. "Come on. I need something to take my mind off this tea with Fleetag. I'm about to die of curiosity."
Rob just nodded. He didn't want to admit to Sam he was curious, too. But it wasn't exactly curiosity, more like the perverse, fearful anticipation you might have before going to a public execution.
"Boy, if anybody's at the courts, they'll think we've flipped, bringing a donkey with us," Rob said, looking back sternly at Bobbel as they left the driveway. Since his mother was home Rob had hoped Bobbel would stay there with Hope. Not so.
"Oh, Roo-oob," Sam said, running to Bobbel and hugging him around his neck. "Look at him. He's very sensitive and you're hurting his feelings. Remember what Granny Little Hawk said, Bobbel is a very special animal and we've got to take good care of him."
Bobbel stuck out his chest and looked smugly down his muzzle at Rob.
Rob sighed. It looked like he was going to be stuck babysitting not only his sister all summer but also this little four-legged nuisance. "OK, OK, I just don't see what he's going to do at a basketball court."
They dropped the subject and walked in silence the rest of the way to the park, Bobbel sampling any flowers they passed along the way.
Patoma Park boasted two full-sized basketball courts laid out side by side, and they were in pretty good shape, considering their age. When they arrived Rob was relieved to see that no one was on the courts, just a man in an odd-looking suit sitting on a park bench nearby, immersed in his newspaper.
"OK, now stay on the grass there out of the way, Bobbel," Rob said, "and we'll show you how they play basketball in Misty Grove." He tossed the ball to Sam. "Here you go, Miss Falcon. Ladies first."
"Your first mistake, Mr. Hawkins, was being so cocky," Sam said. "Your second mistake was letting me have the ball first."
Before she finished the sentence, she had darted around Rob. All he could do was follow her to the goal and watch her lay it up.
"Two -- zip, Mr. Hawkins, ladies leading," Sam said in her best southern belle drawl, batting her eyelashes at him.
"Hee-hee-haw!" Rob heard from the sidelines.
It might just turn out to be one of those days, he thought, looking over at Sam's one-donkey cheering section.
And it was. At 20-20, they stopped to catch their breath. It was Sam's ball. Their unwritten rule was always to play to 22.
"So -- Chief Red Face," Sam said, taking a drink from their water bottle, "ready to get beat?"
"Does your grandmother have a crew-cut?" Rob said. "Just give me that water for a second."
Rob took a giant swig and then motioned at Sam.
"Come on, little girl, let's see what you've got!"
Sam dribbled leisurely back and forth for a few seconds, then made a sudden move to drive right. As Rob struggled to block her path, she cut like lightning to the left and bounced the ball directly between his legs. While Rob's momentum was still carrying him to the right, she slipped around him on the other side, picked up the ball and laid it lightly in the basket. Rob sat down hard on the pavement in disgust.
"Heeeee-hee-hee-haw!" The cheering section was ecstatic.
"That's what you call threadin' the needle, Mr. Hawkins," Sam drawled sweetly. "I don't see why you white boys even keep tryin'."
Before Rob could think up a good comeback he heard another voice from across the park, a voice that made him think of dripping oil. He turned and saw Lance and Stan Cradder and another of their buddies, Bruce Butchman, strutting across the other court.
Chapter 7 - A Dangerous Game
"Well, if it ain't the odd couple," Lance said, "tryin' to play basketball again. Didn't I tell y'all you better plan on a good beatin' if you showed up here? This is a man's sport. It's not for
skinny white boys and scrawny black girls."
All three hooted and "high-fived" each other. Rob felt the heat rising up the back of his neck.
"I don't see anybody around here that's man enough to give us a beatin'," Sam said. "You sure don't mean you three wet noodles. Y'all couldn't beat your way out of a wet paper bag!"
Rob didn't like the Cradders' insults any better than Sam, but returning them in this situation was kind of like the goldfish taunting the shark.
Stan's red eyebrow (he only had one big one straight across his forehead) furrowed threaten-ingly. He smashed a huge fist against his other hand and took a step forward. But Lance smiled cunningly and held up his hand to Stan's chest.
"So, you think you could beat us, do you, lady," he said in his greasiest voice. "Well, here comes another one of your wimpo buddies. We could have ourselves a nice little game of three-on-three and settle the matter."
Rob and Sam turned to see Hamp Stallings walking haltingly toward the court from the other direction. Hamp was tall and a pretty good basketball player, but definitely not in a league with the Cradders.
"What do you say, Hampster?" Lance said. "How 'bout a little three-on-three? We promise to take it easy on you."
Hamp hated to be called "Hampster." He scowled and then looked questioningly at Rob and Sam.
"It's up to you, Hamp," Rob said. "Do you wanna play?"
"Yeah, come on, Hampster boy," Lance and Stan teased in falsetto voices.
Hamp's eyes narrowed, "Yeah, why not?"
"Cool! This ought to be really fun," Lance said with a sadistic grin. Then he looked for the first time over at Bobbel. "And I see you've got your pet jackass with you. I'm glad to see you found a new friend who's on your own intelligence level!" Lance, Stan and Butch again burst into scornful laughter, going through another round of high-fives.
"He's probably got a higher IQ than the three of you put together," Sam said.
Bobbel, who had been observing all this very keenly from the grass behind the nearest goal, now laid back his ears and bared his teeth, like a wolf getting ready to attack.
"Bobbel, you stay out of this," Rob said.
"Oh no! Don't let the mean ol' donkey get me," Lance said, and the three howled again.
Bobbel started forward, but Rob met him at the goal, "I mean it, Bobbel. Go back to the side-line."
Reluctantly Bobbel turned and walked back off the court.
"Hey, are you two jackasses going to stand around talking all day?" Lance said. "Or are we gonna play some basketball?"
"Let's do it. Your ball!" Sam threw the ball as hard as she could at Lance. It hit him squarely in the stomach, but he still managed to hold onto it.
"We're usin' our ball," he said, tossing the ball off in the grass. "First team to 20 wins."
Butch passed their ball to Lance. Rob guarded him, while Hamp matched up with Stan and Sam took Bruce. Lance dribbled lazily from side to side, making little fakes now and again. Then he suddenly lobbed the ball high in the air toward the goal. Hamp and Stan both moved under it, but Stan gave Hamp an elbow to the stomach at the last second, nonchalantly caught the ball and banked it in.
"Hee-haaaaaaw!" Bobbel obviously wasn't cheering now.
"That was a dirty foul!" Sam said.
"I didn't see no foul," Stan said.
"Me neither," Lance said. "Two -- nothin'."
Rob glared at the Cradders. "You all right, Hamp?"
"Yeah, OK," Hamp said, rubbing his stomach.
Rob took the ball and walked to mid-court. He dribbled inbounds and passed the ball to Sam, who bounce-passed inside to Hamp. After faking a move to the right, Rob broke to the left, leav-ing Lance standing flat-footed. Hamp hit Rob with a perfect pass and he was set up for an easy 15-foot jump shot. Lance made no pretense of trying to block his shot legally, but lunged into Rob, knocking him back several feet. The shot went down anyway.
"Great shot, Rob!" Sam shouted. Then, looking at Lance, "Great foul, Lance! Free throw for Rob."
"What?" Lance shouted. "No way! I barely touched him!"
"That was a flagrant shooting foul, Lance!" Rob yelled.
"Oh yeah?" Lance said. He got right in Rob's face. "Who made you head referee?"
"Well, I used to be a referee," a deep voice said from the side of the court. "And that was a foul, if I ever saw one."
All of the kids looked to see who was speaking and discovered that the man who had been sit-ting on the park bench was now on the court. Rob had forgotten he was even there. Now, stand-ing there in an old-fashioned brown vest over a shirt with ruffles at the collar and cuffs, he made quite an eccentric-looking figure. He would have appeared pretty comical if his green eyes hadn't been trained on Lance with ferocious intensity and his angular jaw hadn't been set like concrete.
Lance was taken aback at first, but quickly recovered. "Who asked you? This is our game. You stay out of it!"
"I'll be glad to if you play fairly," the man said. His accent sounded faintly British to Rob, definitely not from these parts. "But if you don't, I may just have to have a talk with your father."
"My father? What have you got to do with my father?"
"Oh, Mr. Cradder and I have had some business dealings. The point is, I don't think your fa-ther would be too happy to know you took his new sports car out joy riding last week."
"What? How did you --?" Lance looked at Stan, uncertainty now in his eyes. "That's a lie. You can't prove it."
"Are you willing to take that chance? I hear your father can be pretty nasty when he gets an-gry." The man folded his arms and gazed at Lance, unblinking. "You see, son, there's nothing in the world I hate worse than a cheater, except maybe a bully."
Rob's jaw dropped another inch. Who was this guy?
Lance couldn't hold eye contact with the man's piercing gaze, and turned aside. "Awwh, what's the difference? We could beat these bozos playing with one arm anyway. Shoot your stu-pid free shot, Hawkins."
Rob stepped up to the foul line and sank the free throw. Then he made a "T" shape with his hands. "Timeout!" he said.
Lance shook his head. "Come on, Frog Eyes, you bringing out the cheerleaders next?"
Rob gave Lance a monkey smile and motioned Sam and Hamp over.
"Listen, if they play halfway fair, we can take them," he whispered. "We're quicker than they are by a long shot!"
The game started again, and, under the watchful eye of the stranger, Lance's team did indeed begin playing much cleaner. The presence of the strange man seemed to inspire Rob's team as much as it de-motivated Lance's. Hamp played better than Rob could remember, Rob hardly missed a shot, and Sam swiped the ball and scored no less than three times.
Then there was Bobbel, who gave new meaning to the term 'sixth man'. He paced up and down behind the goal, harassing Lance and his buddies whenever they came near. And he punc-tuated every score by Rob's team an earsplitting "heee-haaaw."
After 15 furious minutes, it was tied 18 to 18, and Rob, Sam and Hamp had possession of the ball. As Rob handed Sam the ball out of bounds so they could start play again, he whispered, "How about threadin' the needle?"
Sam winked. "You got it, my man." Then she looked at Lance and batted her eyelashes. "Tak-ing any bets on who's gonna win now, Lancey-Smancey?" she asked, provocatively spinning the ball on her finger.
"Yeah, you little twerp," Lance said, spitting on the pavement in front of her. "The only way you're winnin' is over my dead body!"
She shrugged and bounce-passed the ball in to Rob. "Have it your way."
Rob dribbled to the other side of the court with Lance leaning on his hip and swatting him fu-riously on the arms in an attempt to get at the ball.
"You're fouling, Mr. Cradder!" the self-appointed referee said, pointing a finger at Lance.
Lance gave the man a contemptuous glance but backed off, if only a few inches. Rob passed the ball into Sam, and she was immediately on the move -- with Bruce trailing her. When Lance came over to help cover her it left Rob wide open. Sam passed him the ball on the baseline just ten feet from the goal, an easy shot. This would do it, Rob thought. I can win it with this one!
But when he raised the ball to shoot, he found his knees had turned to silly putty and his pounding heart had lurched up into this throat. The ball felt like a lop-sided watermelon in his hands as he let it go toward the goal. It hit the edge of the backboard and ricocheted out of bounds.
"Ha-haaaa!" Lance grabbed the ball and passed it back in. "'Mr. Choke' strikes again!"
Rob wanted to sink through the asphalt.
Bruce dribbled to the center of the court and passed to Lance, who headed toward the base-line. Sam, however, slipped up from behind and swatted the ball toward Hamp, who bounced it back to her. A fake to the left, a switch to the right, another zag left again, and Sam had Bruce in big trouble. "Threading the needle," she bounced the ball between his legs and, without breaking the rhythm of her dribble, headed for the goal. When Stan blocked her path, she pulled up short to shoot her deadly 12-foot jumper, a shot she hadn't missed all day. However, Lance came out of nowhere to take a flying leap at her just as she reached the top of her jump. At that moment Rob heard a strange, gravelly voice.
Sammy, watch oouut!
But Lance bull-dozed into Sam, knocking her flat on the ground. He also got a piece of the ball, and it ricocheted off the rim.
Rob dashed to Sam's side. "Sam, are you OK?"
Sam gave him a dazed look, blood dripping from her nose.
Later, Rob couldn't exactly remember what he did next. He just knew that he was suddenly on top of Lance with one thought in his mind -- to make his face look even worse than Sam's. But he only got in one punch before he felt something like a giant vice encircle his midsection and yank him away from Lance. Stan bear hugged him so tightly he had to gasp for air. Lance got up and strolled toward him.
"You shouldn't oughta done that, Robby boy," he said.
Lance had already drawn back his fist when Rob heard the rapid-fire pounding of hooves coming from the opposite direction. Looking past Lance at what was approaching him from be-hind, Stan's face took on an odd expression of fear and disbelief.
"Lance! Behind y--!"
Charging at full gallop, his head bowed, ears laid back and neck stretched straight like a an overweight ram, Bobbel connected with Lance's backside with such force that he was lifted off the ground and literally flew over Rob's head. He landed with his legs wrapped around Stan's neck and his belt buckle jammed directly into Stan's nose, tipping him over like a giant bowling pin. The three boys hit the ground with a heavy thud; both Lance and Stan then lay very still while Rob untangled himself from Stan's gorilla-like arms and stood up.
The strange gentleman rushed over to the scene and bent over to examine the Cradders for a few seconds, who were now showing signs of life, groaning and moaning softly. Bobbel was standing over them on the other side, still glaring at them with a look that could kill.
"They'll be all right," the man said, straightening up. "Just got a little sense knocked into them, hopefully." Then he turned toward Sam, who Rob and Hamp had helped up and were sup-porting on either arm. Her nose was still bleeding slightly and the man offered her a large, green handkerchief from his pocket.
"And how about you, miss? Are you going to be OK? You took a pretty good shot to the nose."
"I'm all right," Sam answered, attempting a smile.
"Do you mind if I take a look? I've had some experience with these things."
Sam nodded. The man stepped over and gently placed his index and third fingers on either side of her nose for a few seconds.
"No, it's not broken," he said, shaking his head. "You'll be fine."
Sam's eyes widened. "Wow, what did you do? It doesn't hurt hardly at all now!"
"Do? Em -- why nothing, my dear." He cleared his throat softly. "That was some display you put on out here, little lady. That goes for all of you. And I don't mean just the ball playing -- which, by the way, I really don't have the faintest idea about. No, I mean you showed a lot of courage and determination against these bullies. Don't see that too often these days, no sir."
"Well, we sure appreciate you helping us out, Mr. ... ?" Rob said awkwardly.
The man hesitated. "Uhh...Snodgrass. Oh, don't mention it. I just couldn't sit around and watch the way these three hoodlums were trying to manhandle you all."
He turned to Lance and Stan, who Bruce was now helping get up. They were still slightly dazed. Lance had a nasty bump on his forehead where he had hit the pavement when they fell, and Stan's nose, which was wide and flat anyway, had already turned the color of an unripe plum, showing the distinct impression of Lance's buckle.
"And you three," Mr. Snodgrass said, with a reproving glare, "you should be ashamed of yourselves. I guess I'll have to have that talk with Mr. Cradder after all. In the meantime, I sug-gest you stay clear of this donkey and his friends unless you want your backsides kicked even worse the next time."
With a pregnant glance in Rob's direction, he said, "I think it's time everybody went home now. Goodbye."
Without another word, he turned and walked briskly toward the parking lot. Rob almost called after him, but the tone in his voice had been final. Besides, it was probably not smart to hang around any longer with the Cradders regaining their senses. They were already looking dag-gers at Rob and Sam, but had apparently gained too much respect for Bobbel's forehead to try anything else at the moment, especially with Mr. Snodgrass still nearby.
"Come on guys, let's go," Rob said, without even looking at the Cradders and Bruce. "Bobbel, you too."
Bobbel still stood between the two groups, glowering at Lance and Stan. Grudgingly, he also turned and followed.
"We'll catch you sometime without your flea-bitten body guard, Robby boy," Lance called af-ter them.
At this, Bobbel stopped and whipped around again. He showed his teeth and made a noise that sounded like a bear with a head cold. That was enough to send the Cradder team scurrying.
Sam ran to Bobbel and hugged him around the neck.
"Don't worry any more about those jerks," she said loud enough for the Cradders to hear. "We beat the socks off of 'em today in more ways than one."
That seemed to satisfy Bobbel, and he turned back to join the others.
Rob slapped Sam and Hamp on the back. "Y'all were great out there today!" he said. "If I'd just done my share we'd have beaten them."
"What're you talkin' about?" Hamp said. "You played a super game."
"Yeah, like that super last shot of mine," Rob said, shaking his head.
"Oh, come on, Rob," Sam said. "Nobody can hit all their shots."
Rob tagged her on the shoulder. "I think you did, Miss Falcon. You were fantastic!"
Sam grinned her 'get-real' grin and crooked her arms around the two boys' necks, pulling them to her. "We was just plain baaad, today!" she sang. "And Bobbel – unbelievable!"
Rob patted him hard around his midsection. "Boy, that's for sure! You were a one-donkey demolition team!"
If donkeys can blush, Bobbel did then.
By the time they reached Sam's house, they had replayed the whole game, including the fight. "Y'all stay put and I'll go get some ice tea," Sam told the boys. "And a bucket of cold water for you," she added, smiling at Bobbel.
"Thanks, Sam, but I gotta get home," Hamp said. "Promised my dad I'd help him get the boat ready for that fishin' trip. But call me anytime you're ready to whip the Cradders again."
The two boys high-fived one more time. "Thanks for helping us out of that jam," Rob said.
After Hamp left, Sam brought the refreshments out and she and Rob sat down on the wooden front steps. With a wide, lop-sided grin, she raised her glass. "Here's to beating the pants off those bums!"
Rob stared absently at the ice cubes floating in his tea.
"Something wrong, Rob?".
"The game ended in a tie, remember?" he said. "Thanks to me, we didn't really beat them."
"Oh Rob, you're not still worried about that last shot you took, are you?"
"It was an easy shot -- and I blew it. Just like I always do. Good ol' 'Mr. Choke'."
Sam gave him a slap on the thigh. "Would you stop it! You played the best game of your life today. Otherwise, we wouldn't even have been close to winning."
Sam was probably right, Rob had to admit to himself. But he still had a faintly sick feeling in his gut when he thought about that last shot. Why did he always have to lose his nerve at the cru-cial moment?
He decided to change the subject. "Hey, what's that sticking out of your pocket, anyway?"
Sam glanced down at her jeans pocket and pulled out a deep green-colored cloth. It was the slightly blood-stained handkerchief Mr. Snodgrass had given her.
"I forgot to give that man his handkerchief back," she said, examining the fancy, embroidered material. "Boy, lucky for us he happened to be there today."
"I'm not so sure it was just luck."
"You mean -- you think he was following us?"
"But why? Who is he anyway?"
"No idea, but he sure took a lot of interest in us for a complete stranger."
"Hey look. Here are some initials or somethin' in the corner of this handkerchief. It looks like 'S.S.' And here's some sort of funny symbol."
Rob took the handkerchief. The symbol on it was three interlinking 'O's inside a larger circle. "Well, if his name is really 'Snodgrass', then these could be his initials."
"Yeah, on the other hand, they could mean anything."
The two kids fell silent. Rob watched Bobbel slurping up the water under the shade of a large sycamore tree at the edge of the yard.
"Rob, what are you thinking?" Sam asked.
"Come on, what is it?"
Rob studied his tennis shoes. "Well -- you know -- just before you got blind-sided by Lance -- did you, umm, hear anything -- I mean, hear someone say something?"
"Now that you mention it, I did, yeah. I think somebody yelled for me to watch out. What with getting my bell rung and all, I'd forgotten all about that."
Rob grabbed Sam by the shoulder. "You really heard somebody? Really?"
"Yeah, sure. Why? Was it Hamp?"
"Did it sound like Hamp to you?"
Sam thought a moment. "No, not really. It didn't sound like you either. It was a sort of a scratchy voice."
"It wasn't me, and I don't think it was Hamp, and it didn't sound like Mr. Snodgrass."
Gradual recognition spread over Sam's face. "Oh my God, Bobbel!"
"I was hoping you'd come up with another idea," Rob said, picking at his shoelaces.
"Do you think the others heard it, or are we the only ones going batty?"
"Don't know, but nobody said anything."
Both Rob and Sam watched Bobbel as he finished off some wild daisies growing beside the old sycamore.
"Well, we could always ask him," Sam said, squinting into the afternoon sun.
They looked at each other and shook their heads.
On the way home, Rob didn't notice Bobbel munching on a whole row of Mrs. Pimperton's gladiolas as they walked past her yard. He kept picturing the basketball leaving his hands and ricocheting off the backboard out of bounds. His one big chance to shut up Lance Cradder's grea-sy mouth for good -- and he blew it.
Rob kicked a squashed cola can with all his might. Why did he let that jerk Lance get to him anyway? Was he envious of the fact that Lance was a big-shot, varsity basketball player, and he had barely made the junior varsity ((seventh grade)) team this year? Did it bother him that Lance was part of the "in" crowd and he was pretty much "out"? It was true, after all, that he didn't really seem to fit in with most of the kids at school. And being good in math didn't help much -- it got him branded as one of the geeks.
As they passed Charlie's Bait Shop, Rob stared distractedly into the glass of the display win-dow. In the reflection, he could clearly see his own tall, gangly form, his straight black hair hang-ing almost down to his collar, and of course, those "frog" eyes.
Sometimes he wondered if it was his eyes that were really the cause of his being different, as if they set him apart from the rest of the kids at school. He had definitely never seen anyone else with such shockingly, vivid blue-green eyes. Certainly no one else in his family had them. His mother said that one of his ancestors probably had such eyes and the gene was passed passively through the generations before it emerged in him. Lucky Rob. He got to put up with the stares and comments of strangers: "Oh, what...uh ...unusual eyes you've got," as if one was twice as big as the other.
Turning onto Grizzle Road, Rob let out a long sigh. As big an oddball as he was, he was probably lucky to have any friends at all.
At least there was Sam. Good ol' Sam.
But what did she see in a freak like him, anyway? What did they have in common, besides a love for basketball? Was it that she was kind of an outsider herself? She wasn't really on the same wavelength with most of the other girls at school -- to her credit in Rob's opinion. A history and literature buff, she could often be found reading some historical novel or biography at break times while the other girls were comparing the shape of the fade on their new jeans. They could-n't understand how she could actually be more interested in American history than the dating his-tory of the cute boys in school.
Rob smiled to himself and thought how lucky he really was to have a friend like Sam, a friend who didn't care whether his eyes were blue-green or orange -- a friend who honestly didn't care whether he could hit that last big shot, or not.
Chapter 8 - Much Ado About Bobbel
The Rebels were behind by one point with only twelve seconds left on the clock. Rob looked up from the team huddle and searched the bleachers for his mom and little sister. There they were, waving like idiots. His clenched jaw relaxed.
The coach jabbed his pointed nose in Rob's face like a spear. "OK, Hawkins, we're going with you! Take that jump shot from the baseline!"
Rob could only nod. He, Rob Hawkins, was going to get the last shot in the biggest game of the year.
The buzzer sounded, ending the timeout. Rob scarcely felt the hardwood under his feet. Lance Cradder was hanging on him so tight he could smell the lasagna he had eaten for lunch. Rob would love to put this last shot in the jerk's face.
But to do that, he first had to get open.
The clock ticked down, ten seconds...nine.... Rob brushed by the center's screen, scraping Cradder off like dog doo off a shoe and emerged alone on the other side of the basket. The point guard zipped him a pass, and he wheeled around just twelve feet from the goal. He glanced at the clock, five...four...he jumped. Suspended in air he glimpsed someone standing right behind the goal...his father...motioning for him to come! ...three...two...the ball left Rob's fingers, looped toward the goal...then...
...everything went dark. The air was clammy and foul. Rob's eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light, and he saw a huge wheel laying flat and turning slowly. Strapped to the wheel was his father, eyes wild and wide. Rob heard his voice in a strained whisper, though his mouth didn't move.
"Find the Gatekeeper...Rob, the Gatekeeper!"
The wheel spun faster. Rob thought his head would split. There was a scream -- Rob couldn't tell if it was his own or his father's. The room went black but the scream kept going, only now it sounded almost like a train whistle. The world shook and rumbled; the smell of axle grease, iron and coal smoke was so strong he thought he would throw up.
Rob bolted upright with the metallic taste of bile in his mouth. It took him a few seconds to realize he was in his own bedroom. Cold sweat covered his face. The eastern horizon was turning a tinge of salmon pink. His nightstand clock glowed a ghostly blue: 5:21 a.m.
Once again the Poltergeist Express had rolled through the Hawkins house.
He wondered which was more bizarre: Rob Hawkins winning a basketball game or his father screaming at him from the grave.
Getting back to sleep was hopeless. Rob forced himself to stay in bed until seven-thirty, then got dressed and killed time surfing the internet for an hour before going down to breakfast. He and Sam had agreed to meet at nine to do Mr. Pummerbun's yard.
After breakfast Rob went out to the lean-to to check on Bobbel. As he came around the corner of the house, he saw the donkey's dark, fuzzy muzzle sticking out of the open window. Bobbel greeted him with droopy eyelids, lazily chewing the remnants of yesterday's supper.
"Slept late, huh, Bobbel?" Rob said, rubbing his soft nose. "I wish I had."
Rob was almost finished loading up the tools in the "Red Flyer" when Sam ambled into the back yard, letting out a huge yawn.
"And hello to you, too," Rob said. "I think everybody's dragging today."
"I stayed up late reading a cool biography of Joan of Arc," Sam said, stretching. "Did you know she led that army in France when she was only 17?"
"Oh, really," Rob said. He dropped a rake into the old wagon.
"Yeah, she must have been a real trip. But, of course, she got a really raw deal in the end. You saw that TV movie about her a couple of weeks ago, didn't you?"
Sam rolled her eyes. "I told you about it and you said you'd watch!"
Rob gave a jaw-dislocating yawn. "Sorry."
"Boy, you're worse off than I am. What did you do last night?"
"Oh, had a nightmare, among other things."
"You're kidding. Was your dad in it?"
"Oh, Rob! And what did he say?"
"Just some gibberish. I don't know."
"I bet you do, too!"
"Ok, I think he said something about a...ummm...a gatekeeper."
"Sam, it was just dream. Don't worry about it."
The rumble of a powerful engine interrupted her. It was followed by the crunching sound of tires skidding on gravel -- something big had stopped in front of the house.
"Could be Mr. Smidgens' truck," Rob said.
The three of them walked around the house and saw that it was not Mr. Smidgens's truck, but a huge double-cab pick-up with a glistening red and black finish, lots of chrome and over-sized tires. It was pulling a small horse trailer.
"Who the heck is that?" Sam asked.
Rob shrugged. Out of the cab emerged a tall figure with slightly bowed shoulders and long, greasy, red hair. The man glanced disdainfully at Rob's house and then turned his cold, gray eyes on Rob, Sam and Bobbel. Meanwhile, another man had gotten out of the truck from the other side carrying a large coil of rope. He was completely bald and so huge Rob immediately imagined a half-grown hippopotamus on two legs. Bobbel's ears already lay flat against his head.
"You, boy, I want to talk to you," the tall man said in a strangely familiar, oily voice. He had directed his command at Rob, but now was glaring at Bobbel.
Rob felt his throat tighten up. Simon Cradder. He had only seen him a few times at school or public events, but was well aware of his reputation as a ruthless businessman -- someone you didn't want to cross.
After clearing his throat Rob managed to speak, but his voice was slightly higher than normal, "What can I do for you, sir?"
"My two sons made a trip to the hospital yesterday. Did you know that, boy?" Mr. Cradder said, his eyes still set on Bobbel.
Rob glanced at Sam. She looked as shocked as he felt.
"Well, they did. And they informed me that they had played basketball with you and this...," he paused to look condescendingly at Sam, "... girl. Is that right?
"Yes, sir, we did play one game, but --"
"And they also told me there was an incident during the game," Mr. Cradder said with the tone of a prosecuting attorney. "Simply because their team was beating yours so badly, you set this treacherous jackass on them, who attacked them from behind."
At the words "treacherous jackass" a snigger escaped from the hippo man. Rob looked at Mr. Cradder open-mouthed, but as usual, Sam's outrage loosened her tongue.
"Say what? Those two weren't beating us. They were beating up on us 'cause we were whipping their tails in that game. Bobbel just came to our rescue."
"Little girl," said Mr. Cradder, his eyes narrowing threateningly, "do you really think I'm going to take your word over that of my two boys? Besides, the reason doesn't really matter. The fact is, that donkey of yours attacked and injured them. You've already admitted that."
"It was self-defense! They were going to kill Rob!"
"That's a lie. Lance and Stan are good boys." His voice took on a poisonous edge as he looked at Bobbel. "But that jackass is obviously a menace and has to be locked up. Now, get out of the way. We're taking it with us."
"What?!" Rob cried. "You can't do that!"
"Oh, yes, boy, we can and we will!"
"Not without a warrant from the authorities, Mr. Cradder."
Mrs. Hawkins had come out on the porch unnoticed during the confrontation. Hope peeked out from behind her. Rob saw a glint in her eyes that he had only seen a few times in his life.
With a slimy, reptilian smile, Mr. Cradder turned toward Mrs. Hawkins. "Ah, good morning, Mrs. Hawkins. I'm afraid you may not be informed about the facts here. This animal," he nodded at Bobbel, "attacked my sons yesterday -- they had to have professional medical care. Obviously, he's out of control and may even be rabid. It's our duty to see that he's destroyed."
"I'm glad you came by, Mr. Cradder," Mrs. Hawkins said, her eyes locked with Cradder's, "because I was thinking about coming to see you about that incident yesterday afternoon. Rob told me what happened, and it seems to be a clear case of self-defense. Your two boys made an unprovoked attack on Rob and Sam. If the donkey hadn't intervened, Lance and Stan, being older and stronger, would have surely caused further bodily harm to my son and his friends. I was sure, if you knew the true story, you would see to it that your boys got a fitting punishment."
Mr. Cradder stood speechless for a moment. His face remained expressionless, but Rob could see the veins in his neck bulging. His skin took on a red tinge.
"Mrs. Hawkins, I think it is you who should examine the truth of your son's tale. To put it bluntly, he's lying. Or maybe the 'haunted Hawkins' family has gotten so out of touch with reality they can't tell truth from fiction any longer."
Mrs. Hawkins marched off the porch and stepped between Mr. Cradder and the hippo man on the one side, and Rob, Sam and Bobbel on the other, all of whom were gaping at her in amazement.
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it, Mr. Cradder, you'd better get off our property -- and fast, before we get out our magic wands and turn you into a sack of cow manure, which wouldn't take much magic, by the way. And if that doesn't work, I'll just have to call the police. At any rate, you're not touching that donkey."
Both sides stood motionless for a long moment. Rob could almost see the sparks flying out of his mother's eyes. Finally Cradder whipped around.
"Come on, Duddmann!" he snapped. "We'll get that warrant." Glaring back at Mrs. Hawkins over his shoulder, he added with a sneer. "And then we'll be back!"
Rob and the others watched Mr. Cradder and Duddmann get back in their shiny monster-truck and squeal away, throwing up dust and gravel and almost losing their trailer. Mrs. Hawkins turned to face the children and Bobbel, her eyes still blazing and her fists clenched.
"Wow, Mom!" Rob said.
"The nerve of that man!" Mrs. Hawkins fumed. "Thinks he can bully everybody in town and let his spoiled sons get away with anything. Well, not this time!"
"Yeah, just let him try and take Bobbel!" Hope had joined them in the yard and struck her most fearsome boxing pose.
Bobbel, who looked very pleased with the developments, walked over to Mrs. Hawkins and nuzzled her. Mrs. Hawkins rubbed his nose warmly, but she looked worried.
"The problem, kids, is that Mr. Cradder probably will get that warrant, and then we won't be able stop him from taking Bobbel."
"But we've got to stop him!" Rob said.
Sam stuck out her lower lip. "I've got an idea. Bobbel can go into hiding."
"Where are you going to hide a donkey in a small town like this?" Mrs. Hawkins asked.
"Oh, I think we know someone who'll help us." She looked knowingly at Rob.
"You do, do you?" Rob's mother folded her arms and looked from Sam to Rob with eyebrows raised.
What was Sam doing? Rob hadn't even told his mother about their meeting with Mr Fleetag. The less his mother knew about this whole thing, the better. He tried to give Sam the shut-your-face look.
But she plowed ahead. "You remember we said Mr. Fleetag helped us find Hope? Well, he invited us over to his place this afternoon for tea, and we think he knows something about Bobbel, maybe even where Bobbel came from. I'll bet anything he would keep Bobbel for us."
Rob's mother looked taken aback. "Mr. Fleetag invited you to his place -- for tea? Why didn't you tell me about this before, Rob?"
Oh, brother. "Well, I was going to, but I sort of hadn't gotten around to it yet."
"Uh-huh," Mrs. Hawkins said, looking hard at her son. "And you think he knows where Bobbel's home is, do you?"
"He didn't say that in so many words," Sam said, "but he hinted at it."
"Well, that'd be great if he could help get Bobbel back where he belongs." Rob's mother tapped her index finger on her chin. "You know, I was wanting to thank Mr. Fleetag for helping find Hope anyway, so this is a good opportunity. I just wish you'd let me in on your plans a little sooner. I'd like to make something for you to take to Mr. Fleetag. Let's see, I think I've still got time to bake some cookies this morning. What time are you supposed to be there?"
"At 2:30," Sam said. "Oh man, we'd better get moving if we're going to get Mr. Pummerbun's yard done before lunch."
While they worked Sam chattered continuously, mostly about the upcoming visit to Mr. Fleetag's. Bobbel was there, too, of course, edging the yard next to the street with his oversized teeth and getting a morning snack in the process. Rob tried to ignore Sam's chatter, but it wasn't working. He had been trying to play it down to himself, but the truth was, he was getting more and more worried about their visit to Mr. Fleetag's. It seemed to be hanging ominously over his head like a giant water balloon waiting to fall. Something bad was going to go down, he just knew it.
Sam noticed, of course. As they packed up their tools, she said, "Been awfully quiet over there. What's going on?"
Rob cleared his throat and looked intently at Mr. Pummerbun's geraniums. "I was just thinking that...well...there's really not much point in me going to Fleetag's today. I got some other stuff I want to take care of. You and Hope can go. If Fleetag's got some news on Bobbel, he can tell it to y'all."
"What?" Sam threw the grass clippers into the wagon. "Rob, what is wrong with you? I thought you really wanted to talk to Fleetag. What are you afraid of?"
"I'm not afraid of anything!" Rob said, his voice rising. "I just don't wanna go, that's all. The whole thing is stupid!"
Sam opened her mouth to yell something, then shut it and stared at her friend for a moment. "Rob, you've got to stop building up this wall around yourself. Some day you're going to close yourself completely in and you won't know how to get out."
Some part of Rob knew she was right, but he had pushed that part of himself into a tiny corner of his heart and was trying desparately to keep it there.
There ain't no helpin' it, Robster. Sometimes you just gotta believe!
The hoarse voice came from directly behind Rob. He dropped his hoe and spun around, looking wildly for the speaker, but there was nobody in sight -- except Bobbel, who was standing a few feet away with a sympathetic look on his furry face. Sam and Rob both stood transfixed, gaping at the little donkey.
"Did -- did you just hear something?" Rob murmured.
"Yeah, I -- thought I did."
Yeah, it's me. I warn't supposed to say nothin', but I just had to. Bobble's big head wagged from side to side. And they says mules is stubborn!
Rob squinted at Bobbel. The donkey seemed to be owner of the voice, but his mouth remained completely still.
"Shut up!" Sam said. "Is that you, Bobbel?"
Done said it were me. He cocked his head slightly sideways at Rob. Just remember: Sometimes believin' be everythin'. That's all I's goin' to say.
Rob felt giddy. His redneck cousin Freddy Ray could have been standing before him speaking those words -- same accent, same dialect -- but it wasn't his cousin, it was a three-and-a-half-foot tall donkey. Bobbel looked expectantly from Rob to Sam and back to Rob.
"Do you think maybe we could be having a heat stroke?" Rob hoped it was a heat stroke. He sat down unsteadily on the wagon. And didn't take his eyes off the donkey.
Sam shook her head almost imperceptibly. "Both of us at the same time? No way. We both heard him -- he must've really said something."
"But his mouth -- it didn't even move!"
"And since neither one of us are ventriloquists --"
"Think we're both crazy?"
Sam looked at Rob with eyes the size of peaches. "Rob, it must be some kind of telepathy! Bobble can really talk! And that means the girls really did go through that glowing doorway!"
Sam's voice sounded far way. Rob's brain seemed to be stuck in neutral. "Yeah, right."
"Come on." Sam picked up the hoe. "Get off your behind and let's go back to your house. I can't wait to get to Mr. Fleetag's!"
Rob stood up like a zombie. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion. They headed down Black Oak Street toward Grizzle Road, and his eyes kept wandering back to Bobbel. The donkey's simple advice continued to ring in his ears: Sometimes you just gotta believe.
Chapter 9 - Tales from Another Realm
At lunch Rob might as well have been miles away -- the conversation at the table sounded to him like the distant chatter of strangers. Then all at once, it seemed to him, he was standing on his front porch holding a tin of homemade oatmeal cookies for Mr. Fleetag, and he realized he had no idea what he had just eaten for lunch. Thoughts were swirling around in his head so fast he felt like he had just gotten off the "Twister" at the state fair.
"Rob? Did you hear anything I just said?" Sam was looking at him with her why-do-I-even-bother expression.
"What? Oh, sorry," Rob said, giving her a blank look. "I guess this whole thing has kinda messed with my head."
Sam's eyes softened. "I know it's hard for you. Maybe those walls are starting to crumble."
"You don't think that maybe there was a ventriloquist hiding in the bushes, do you?"
"Oh, Rob, would you stop it! Just hang loose until we talk to Mr. Fleetag. We don't know anything for sure yet." She paused and seemed to be studying an ant crawling across the porch at her feet. "But, just remember: I'm going to stick with you on this no matter what happens."
Rob glanced up at Sam and tried to clear the glob forming in his throat. "Thanks."
Sam walked over to one of the old, high-backed rocking chairs and picked up her small back-pack. "Like you didn't hear me say a moment ago, I'm going to run home and check on Josie. She's been feeling bad the last couple of days and Dad took her to the doc today. I'll be back at two. OK?"
"Yeah, fine," Rob said.
Sam darted over and gave Rob a quick hug, then jumped off the porch -- skipping all four steps -- and disappeared around the corner.
Startled, Rob stood up and looked after her for a moment. He stuck his hands in his pockets. There was something smooth and round in his left one. He drew out the little stone wheel from the graveyard and turned it over and over in his hand, staring at the enigmatic markings on the polished surface. Oddly, it felt warm to the touch. He had a sudden urge to throw the thing into the bushes and forget this whole crazy thing. But he knew it was too late for that now.
Sam arrived at Rob's a little early, unfortunately without Josie. The doctor had given her anti-biotics for a scratch on her foot that had gotten a little infected. Her foot was numb and swollen, and she had to stay off of it for now. Sam said they almost had to tie her to the bed posts, though, to keep her from dragging herself to Mr. Fleetag's tea party.
A little after 2 o'clock Hope, Sam, Rob and Bobbel turned down the road leading to Mr. Flee-tag's cottage. Now that they were alone, Sam gave Hope the news about Bobbel's sudden attack of speech. She squealed and parroted 'I told ya so!' a dozen times like only a little sister can. Then she turned her attention to Bobbel, jabbering at him non-stop in an attempt to get him to say something else. Bobbel, however, remained staunchly silent, and by the time they reached Mr. Fleetag's cottage he was beginning to look aggravated.
Rob stepped tentatively onto the tiny front porch, while the others crowded in beside and be-hind him. Bobbel couldn't quite fit his hindquarters on the porch, and nudged Rob ever closer to the pretty but thorny climbing, purple roses covering the columns and latticework.
Rob took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "Why don't you do the honors, Sam."
"There's a thingamajiggy here by the door you can turn," said Sam. "I'll try that."
She twisted a small brass handle beside the door with 'F. Fleetag, G.E.' engraved below it. At first, nothing happened. Rob was just about to tell her to knock when a small wooden flap above the door opened and an odd-looking green and red bird with a huge, black beak stuck its head out of the opening.
"You rung?" the bird said with a loud screech.
Everyone -- except Bobbel -- jumped. Hope giggled. Sam found her voice first. "We're here to see -- ,"
"Awwwk!" The bird swung its beak toward Bobbel, narrowly missing Rob's nose. "It be Bobbel and company a'ready. You're early."
Amazed, Rob looked from the bird to Bobbel. Sam said, "We know. Sorry, if it's an incon-venience."
"'Course it be!" the bird said. "Two-t'irty means two-t'irty, or even better, quarter to t'ree." Hope giggled again, louder.
"We're really sorry," Sam said, stifling a laugh herself. "But can you tell Mr. Fleetag we're here, anyway?"
"'Course I'll be telling 'im! That's me job!" the bird squawked and served her a bad-tempered glare. "When'll you Earth-dwellers learn manners? Wait 'ere."
The bird pulled in his long beak and the flap clapped shut.
"Turn the thingamajiggy again!" Hope said, jumping up and down. "I wanna see the bird!"
"Shhh," Rob said. "We can't do it now. The bird's getting Mr. Fleetag."
They waited for over a minute before finally hearing someone approaching the door with quick, light steps. The door swung open and a beaming Mr. Fleetag in his usual green vest and yellow checkered tie stood before them.
"Ahh, welcome, me little friends!" he said (although all of them except Hope towered over him). "Grand to see ya again. I'm afraid ya surprised Edgar, me cockatan, a bit, what with bein' a tad early, don't ya know. As ya can imagine, we don't get many visitors. To tell ya the truth, I think 'e resents me bringing 'im 'ere a bit, but a body's got to 'ave a few remembrances from the 'omeland, don't 'e now. Just listen to me, standin' 'ere gabbin'. Come in! Come in and take a seat!"
Sam led the way as they entered what must have been Mr. Fleetag's living room, an oval-shaped space with odd-looking, old-fashioned furnishings of indefinable origin (like Mr. Fleetag, Rob thought). It was painted a deep shade of green, and every nook and cranny held some sort of peculiar knick knack or trinket. The room seemed a good deal larger than he had imagined possi-ble, judging from the outside of the house. Mr. Fleetag gestured toward a much-smaller-than-normal bright yellow sofa and two matching chairs. An oval-shaped coffee table held a green and yellow polka-dotted china tea service from which a delicious but unfamiliar aroma wafted. The children took seats on the miniature furniture while Bobbel sat on his haunches near the door.
"But wait a minute," the tiny man said, pointing at each of them and counting under his breath. "We seem to be missin' somebody. Where's little Miss Josie?"
"She hurt her foot and couldn't come," Sam said. "Poor kid, she was really heartbroken."
"Sorry to 'ear that," Mr. Fleetag said. "Tell 'er I hope she get's in the pink real soon."
"Right!" Mr. Fleetag rubbed his hands together briskly. "Anybody like a spot o' tea?"
Rob only then remembered what he was holding. "Oh, here, Mr. Fleetag. They're cookies -- oatmeal raisin -- from my mom."
"Mmmm -- oatmeal raisin!" the little man said, taking the tin box from Rob and setting it on the coffee table. "They'll go grand with me bumbleberry tea. Best tea you ever tasted, I'll wager."
"Er -- we've never had bumbleberry tea, Mr. Fleetag," Sam said.
"Then I'm sure to win me bet!" Mr. Fleetag said, with a throaty laugh. He handed Sam the first cup. Then Rob and Hope took theirs, eagerly sniffing the delicious aroma.
Sam smacked her lips. "Great stuff! Like a cross between strawberry and blueberry."
"Mmmm!" Hope said. "But it tastes like banana and cherry."
"You're both wrong." Rob shook his head. "It's something like raspberry or blackberry."
"C'mere, that's the secret of bumbleberry tea, don't ya see?" Mr. Fleetag said, lowering his voice. "To the person drinkin' it, it always tastes like their favorite fruits."
"Awesome!" Sam said, sipping her tea again. "It's out of this world!"
Mr. Fleetag cleared his throat. "Yes, I reckon that's just the point."
A chill rippled down Rob's back. "What exactly is the point, Mr. Fleetag? We'd really like to know what's going on."
"Yeah, like how come Bobbel won't talk to us anymore," Hope said.
Sam looked sheepish. "What she means is...uhhh...Bobbel talked to us today."
"Oh, 'e did, did 'e?" Mr. Fleetag raised his bushy eyebrows and looked pointedly at Bobbel. "Been 'avin' an excitin' time, 'ave ya, Bobbelonius?"
The donkey seemed to be admiring the dark, polished floor.
"From what I've 'eard, all of ya 'ave," the little man said, with a twinkle in his eye. "Well, I suppose we can make a wee change now," he winked, "though ya might be askin' me to reverse this later."
Mr. Fleetag picked up the black cane that was leaning against the arm of his chair and pointed it at Bobbel for a few seconds, staring at him intensely, one eyebrow strangely arched. Bobbel went stiff and his eyes glazed over. Then he shook himself and flashed his toothy smile.
"Saints o' Hickelbury be praised!"
Bobbel's raspy voice sounded to Rob as if it were coming through earphones. His smile grew wider, but otherwise his lips didn't move.
Hope jumped up and clapped her hands. "Yahoo! I knew you could do it!"
"Yessir, glad that's over with. Had a bazillon things to say and couldn' say none of 'em!"
Smiling at the puzzled expressions Sam and Rob were wearing, Mr. Fleetag said, "Ya see, kiddies, we didn't know -- if you'll pardon me for saying so -- how much we could trust ya, and also didn't want to put too much on your plate to start with. On the other 'and, I did know 'ow much Bobbel likes to run 'is mouth. Therefore, as a precaution I put a wee charm on 'im that only let 'im talk to ya in an emergency. O' course, 'e wouldn' talk to ya at all anyway until he trusted ya completely, don't ya know. Got an instinct for judgin' character and integrity. I reckoned if Bob-bel could trust ya, then so could I."
"So that's why we could hear Bobbel during the basketball game," Rob said. "But why could he talk to us earlier today when we were doin' the yard?"
"Shoot, Robster," Bobbel said, "you needed a talkin' to! That were a e-mergerency if'n there ever was one."
Sam still looked puzzled. "And why doesn't Bobbel move his mouth when he talks?"
"Oh, that's a wee bit complicated, missy," Mr. Fleetag said. "Ya see, on Earth Bobbel can on-ly do what we call ''eart talk' -- talkin' directly from his 'eart to yours. He can talk like you and me in..." he cleared his throat, "the other Realm."
For a moment, no one moved, no one breathed. Sam finally whispered.
"So -- there really is -- another world?".
Mr. Fleetag lowered his voice. "Well, now we're gettin' down to the 'eart o' the matter, aren't we? Yes, there is another world, a different realm, just like 'ope and Josie said."
He paused, his deep green eyes glistening. "It's called Katarnum, and it's me 'omeland -- and Bobbel's."
Rob was glad he was sitting down, because he suddenly felt dizzy.
"Katarnum," Sam whispered. "Shut up!"
"I beg your pardon, lassie?"
"Sammy don't mean nothin' by it, Mr. F." Bobbel's voice, even in heart talk, broke like a teen-ager's when it's changing.
Mr. Fleetag looked intently at Rob and Sam. "We don't want too many Earth-dwellers knowin' about the other Realm, things could get real sticky. But you all are different. Ya see, we need your 'elp."
This was almost scarier than learning he lived next-door to another world. "You need our help?"
"Yes, Rob, most especially yours."
"What -- what do you mean?"
"Rob, it's about your father." Mr. Fleetag stroked his beard solemnly. "We think he's in Ka-tarnum."
A grapefruit seemed to be lodged in Rob's throat. He stared dumbly at the little man.
"You found Daddy?" Hope shrieked.
"Well, not exactly, little shamrock," Mr. Fleetag said.
"But you really know where my dad is?" Rob squeezed the words out past the grapefruit.
"Well, we 'ave a pretty good idea. 'E's most likely bein' 'eld at the Wheelmaster's castle."
"The Wheelmaster?" Sam repeated, her eyes riveted to the little man.
"Yes, o' course." Mr. Fleetag looked at Rob and the other children like a kindly, old school-teacher. "But then you've still got everythin' to learn about Katarnum, don't ya now? The Wheel-master is the most powerful man in Katarnum because he's got control o' the Wheel. To put it simply, he who controls the Wheel rules the whole Realm o' Katarnum."
"And why would this Wheelmaster want to hold my dad prisoner?" Rob asked.
"That's just the problem, lad. We think 'e wants to use Dr. Hawkins to expand 'is power into the Realm of Earth. Your papa is one smart lad and 'e could be a lot o' use to the Wheelmaster in his dastardly plans."
"This Wheelmaster guy sounds like a real sweet potato," Sam said.
"Oh, 'e wasn't always like that," Mr. Fleetag said with a sigh. "I remember many years ago when 'e first got to Katarnum, 'e was fair and good-hearted, don't ya know. But then something 'appened. 'E started getting power hungry. Ya see, the power of the Wheel is very great, but it's just power. It takes a soul to make it turn in a certain direction -- and sometimes ya can't tell ex-actly which direction it's turnin' until it's too late."
Hope jumped up and stamped her foot. "But Mr. Fleetag, if this mean ol' Wheelmaster's got Daddy, we've got to go get 'im out -- today!"
Mr. Fleetag shook his head. "O, lassie, I wish it was that simple. Ya see, the Wheelmaster would be usin' a very strong evil power on your father to hold 'im prisoner." He then turned his gaze on Rob. "A power that probably only 'is son can reverse. But we've got to do it pretty soon, you're right, because at some point your father's will to resist will certainly be broken -- and then 'e could get stuck turnin' the wrong way forever."
"What do you mean 'turnin' the wrong way'?" Sam asked.
"Well, don't ya see, in Katarnum, either your life is in sync with the positive, clockwise rota-tion -- we call it 'wheelwise'," the little man drew a circle to the right in the air with his stick, "or it's controlled by the negative, counter-clockwise rotation, 'counterwise'." He traced a circle in the other direction. "The Wheelmaster's consumed with the counterwise power -- that leads to greed, treachery, cruelty -- and is usin' it to control your pa. Once 'is life starts turning too fast counter-wise, it's virtually impossible to stop it."
Rob felt the walls in the little parlor closing in, the air thickening. Finally, he said, "So, what do you want me to do?"
Mr. Fleetag put his hand gently on Rob's arm. "You've got to get your pa turning the right way, lad, and get 'im out o' there. We'll do all we can to help ya find 'im, but you'll have to turn him around."