The Ancient One Excerpt


Audio Excerpt

  

Chapter Excerpt

the-ancient-one_thumbFirst, God created Rain. Then Drizzle. Then Mist, then Fog. And then: More Rain.

Kate smiled soggily at her own adaptation of the story of creation, Oregon style. Her sneakers were wet enough that they squelched like sponges as she walked. She could feel the warmish water sloshing between her toes. No use even trying to stay dry anymore.

She stepped deliberately into a muddy puddle that nearly filled the heavily rutted street. The splash of water slapped against her lower leg, pressing jeans against shin, as brown circles spread outward from her submerged sneaker. Only Aunt Melanie’s bright green shoelaces, reluctantly accepted by Kate when her own ones broke, remained visible in the muddy water.

Water everywhere. At this very moment, she could be curled up by the fireplace, stroking the shaggy gray cat Atha. But Aunt Melanie, usually delighted to spend a rainy afternoon warmed by fire coals, quilts, and homemade spice tea, was in no mood for such things just now. Something was troubling her, something serious. So serious she didn’t want to talk about it, even to Kate.

She had thought about calling her parents. They’d know what to do, what to make of all this. But they were on that ship, with only a radio telephone on board. Her mother had given her the number in case of an emergency, but Kate did not want to use it. She knew better than anyone how much they needed a few days together without telephone calls, faculty meetings, or research projects that kept them working until all hours. Besides, this was not an emergency, not yet anyway. She had to work this thing out on her own, without any help from Mom and Dad. And, she thought with a sigh, without any help from Grandfather.

A lone hound, squatting beneath a dripping wooden bench, shook himself vigorously. As Kate turned toward him, the dog ceased shaking and gazed back at her, watching her pass with expressionless eyes.

Just a few minutes ago, when Aunt Melanie had checked her watch and realized it was nearly five o’clock, she had beseeched Kate to run to the post office before it closed. Never mind the downpour, or the fact that Kate was warm and dry for the first time since arriving at the cottage five days ago. Muttering something about an important telephone call she had been waiting for all day, Aunt Melanie said she could not go herself. With an edge of urgency, she described the envelope she was expecting: long and brown, pretty thick, the kind lawyers like to use.

Why lawyers? Kate had asked, but her great-aunt didn’t answer. She merely ran a hand through her curls of white hair and glanced out the window toward the dark reaches of forest beyond, where the whine of distant chain saws mingled with the sound of swishing branches. Then she had handed Kate her rain jacket and pulled open the cottage door.

Kate leaped across a small stream flowing through a rut, only to land with a splash in another puddle. Without the slightest pause, she continued walking. Her many visits to Aunt Melanie over the years had developed in her a grudging appreciation for the gentle rains of this land. There was something she had come to expect and even, at rare moments, enjoy about the sound of soft rain on the old cottage roof, the awareness of lush greenery all around, the mist against her cheeks. So much rain back home would have depressed her thoroughly, especially if it meant canceling an after-school softball game. But here in the forest country of southwestern Oregon, the rain felt no worse than a nuisance. It was part of the landscape, just as much as the trees.

Trudging onward, Kate surveyed the scene on Main Street even as her mind played over and over again Aunt Melanie’s words. Long and brown, pretty thick, the kind lawyers like to use. Although Blade, Oregon, didn’t pretend to be a booming metropolis, it could claim most of life’s necessities. Blurred by mud and mist, the storefronts seemed to run together like an oversized watercolor painting. She passed the local laundromat, right next to the Texaco station, where townspeople often gathered for good conversation. This afternoon, though, it was deserted. The street itself was strangely empty, nothing but a string of connected puddles.

As she turned the corner, the scene swiftly changed. A jumble of cars, Jeeps, and mud-splattered pickups lined the street outside of Cary’s Tavern. There was even a logging truck, bearing emblems of snarling tigers on its mud flaps, double parked near the entrance. Of course, thought Kate. It’s Saturday afternoon. She had seen Cary’s Tavern once before on a Saturday—packed to the rafters with loggers, fifty percent sober and one hundred percent boisterous, celebrating the end of another hard week’s work. Or, as Aunt Melanie had told her was the case more and more, mourning the end of another week without work.

As she approached the tavern, she could tell today’s mood was not one of celebration. She heard several angry voices rising above the downpour. Several loggers, wearing gray and yellow rain jackets, milled around outside in the parking lot despite the wetness. One pair sat behind slashing windshield wipers, engaged in heated conversation. But she had no time to investigate. It was five minutes to five.

Breaking into a jog, she splashed down the remaining block to the old brick building sporting a white cardboard sign in the window with the words Post Office. She scampered up the moss-coated wooden steps, slowing only to reach for the rusted door handle. At that instant, the door flung wide open and a lean, red-haired boy not much older than Kate’s thirteen years darted out, clutching a parcel of some sort under his arm.

They plowed straight into each other. Kate tumbled backward down the slippery steps, landing on her back in the muddy street. The boy cried out in surprise, almost landing on top of her.

“Hey, watch where you’re going,” he said accusingly, wiping some mud from his cheek with the sleeve of his yellow rain jacket.

“Watch yourself,” Kate retorted. Suddenly her eyes fell upon the parcel the boy had been carrying, now resting on the street only an arm’s length away. It was an envelope, brown and shaped like a long rectangle. She caught her breath as she read the name clearly typed on the mailing label: Melanie Prancer.

The boy snatched up the brown envelope, rose quickly, and started running down the street in the direction of Cary’s Tavern.

“Hey, come back,” Kate shouted. She leaped to her feet and flew after him with the speed of a shortstop dashing to snag a line drive. They raced past the buildings of the town, their feet pounding through the puddles. Kate gained on him, but slowly. Just before the parking lot outside the tavern, the boy swerved toward the assembled vehicles.

Kate stretched out an arm and barely caught him by the collar of his rain jacket. She pulled, and the boy lurched backward, his feet sliding out from under him. Before he had even hit the ground, she was on top of him.

“Give me that,” she demanded, pulling at the brown envelope.

“No way,” answered the boy, struggling to hang on. He kicked at her savagely, spraying mud into the air.

Finally, Kate loosened his grip enough to yank the envelope away. Just then the boy rolled to his knees and butted against her with such force that she fell back into a deep puddle. The brown envelope skidded across the muddy street, coming to rest at the edge of a rut just outside the tavern. Kate crawled madly after it.

As her fingers started to close on the edge of the envelope, a heavy boot slammed down on top of it. At once, Kate knew it was the boot of a logger-beat-up brown leather, without steel toes because if a tree trunk falls on a logger’s foot he prefers to have his toes crushed rather than sliced off by the steel lining. She raised her head, seeing the heavy denim pants, the burly chest wearing a yellow slicker over a white T-shirt saying I love spotted owls—for dinner, and the grinning face looking down on her from under a weather-beaten hard hat.

She tugged on the brown envelope. “It’s mine,” she said.

The boot did not budge. For a moment, nothing seemed to move but the grin, which widened slightly.

“Mine,” repeated Kate, tugging unsuccessfully. “The envelope’s mine.”

The man, whose brown eyes watched the girl at his feet with amusement, spoke gruffly. “What envelope?”

Kate furrowed her brow. “This one, here. You’re standing on it.”

“I don’t see any envelope,” he answered. He turned toward an older boy standing nearby, as burly as himself but not as tall. “Sly, do you see any envelope?”

“No,” the older boy answered, himself grinning. “All I see is my brother Billy, and some girl who likes to crawl around in mud puddles.”

At that moment, the red-haired boy, his yellow slicker splattered with mud, moved to Billy’s side. “Well,” he said, eyeing Kate hatefully. “I brought you the envelope.”

“Yeah,” answered Sly, stepping closer to them. “But you brought her too.”

“I couldn’t help it,” protested the red-haired boy, bending his lean frame to retrieve the brown envelope. Billy lifted his boot just enough to let him slide it out. “She chased me here from the post office.”

The big logger gave him a teasing shove on the shoulder. “That’s a new experience for you, getting chased by a girl.” He winked at Sly. “He’s so excited, he’s still puffing like a bay steer.”

Even in the rain, the boy’s blush was clearly visible. “Look,” he said, waving the envelope. “You asked me to get it, and I did. It wasn’t so easy, either.”

“You’re a thief,” declared Kate.

Billy’s grin disappeared as he concentrated his gaze on her. “Go home now and there won’t be any trouble.”

Kate pushed herself to her feet. Her heart pounded, but she made herself look the broad-shouldered man directly in the eye. “That’s not your envelope. It’s not. It’s addressed to my Aunt Melanie.”

“Aunt Melanie?” asked Billy, his eyebrows lifting. “So you’re related to the old schoolteacher?”

“Yes. And that envelope belongs to her.”

Billy scowled at the red-haired boy. “You really botched this one, Jody.” He stepped toward Kate, so that his ample chest almost touched her chin. “You’ve got five seconds to disappear, kid. Are you gonna go all by yourself, or do I have to chase you from here to hell’s half acre?”

Before Kate could reply, a heavily laden logging truck rumbled down the street. The noise drowned out the voices from Cary’s Tavern as it splashed past. Just as Billy, Sly, and Jody turned toward the sound, Kate lunged at the brown envelope, tearing it from Jody’s hand. She darted behind the logging truck and ran as fast as she could down an alley behind the tavern.

Leaping over a broken crate, Kate could hear the slapping sound of heavy boots behind her. She grasped the brown envelope as tightly as she could, determined not to lose it again. Not even when she stole home plate in the league softball tournament in May had she run so fast. Yet the heavy boots drew closer by the second, smacking against the mud.

She didn’t dare turn around. All her energy was focused on one thing and one thing only: running. For her life. Now she could hear someone’s breathing drawing nearer. Seeing a corner just ahead, she didn’t slow down even to make the turn.

As she rounded the corner, her foot suddenly slid out from under her. She lost her balance, flipping onto her back in a spray of brown water. Lifting her head, she saw Billy, followed by his brother and the red-haired boy, bearing down on her. Billy’s eyes glared angrily as he ran right at her, barreling ahead like a fully loaded logging truck.

Kate rolled to her hands and knees in the deep puddle, still clutching the envelope. She wanted to scream, but her throat released no sound. Water dripped down her back and across her abdomen. She stiffened, preparing to be caught.

Then, unaccountably, Billy and the others ran straight past her, as if she weren’t even there. The heavy boots slapped into the puddle, only inches from her submerged fingers, splashing muddy water in her eyes.

As she wiped her face with the inner collar of her jacket, she slowly lifted herself to her feet, panting heavily. Her pursuers turned a corner onto the next street, their pounding boots punctuating the steady sound of the rain. How? she asked in disbelief. How did they miss me?

At that instant, she heard a rustling sound behind her. Out from the shadows of the windowless building on the corner stepped a diminutive figure, whose curly white hair was visible at the edges of a tightly drawn hood. Holding in one hand a slender walking stick, the figure regarded her intently.

“Aunt Melanie,” cried Kate, stumbling toward her. “Did you see that? They—they were chasing me. But when—when I fell, they—”

“Easy, dear, easy,” said the woman in a soothing voice.

“Ran right on like—like they didn’t, didn’t even see me,” panted Kate. “I don’t get it. They were chasing me, I know it.”

Aunt Melanie merely nodded, her dark eyes glinting. She tapped her walking stick sharply against the side of her boot, as if trying to knock some mud off it.

Kate started to speak again, when her attention was caught by the walking stick. For a brief instant, the yellow eyes of the carved owl’s head on the handle seemed to glow strangely. Then, swiftly, the brightness faded.

Puzzled, Kate looked over her shoulder to see the sun trying to make a late-afternoon appearance through the slackening rain. Of course, she realized. It’s just catching the sunlight. She turned again to the stick, now looking like an ordinary piece of wood, its color and grain dulled by wetness. The owl’s head handle had no more life than the handle of an old umbrella.

She shook her head and focused once more on Aunt Melanie. “How could they have missed me?”

Blowing a drop of water from the tip of her nose, the woman examined Kate thoughtfully. Her white curls, studded with raindrops, framed her face like a fluffy cloud. “Heaven only knows. I daresay they were going awfully fast. Why were they chasing you?”

Proudly, Kate raised the brown envelope. Mud streaked its crumpled surface, obscuring the address label. But Aunt Melanie recognized it immediately, and her eyes opened wide.

“Good grief. You mean they tried to steal my mail?”

Kate nodded. “Came pretty close, too.”

Aunt Melanie took the brown envelope and stuffed it into the pocket of her blue rain jacket. “Never thought they’d stoop to such a thing, or I wouldn’t have sent you. Something told me I shouldn’t have let you go by yourself. I’m glad the phone call finally came, so I could come after you.” She pursed her lips. “This whole town is coming apart at the seams.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing. You’re all right, though?”

Refusing to let her change the subject, Kate asked, “Aren’t you going to see what’s in it? Must be pretty important.”

“It can wait till I get home.” With a tilt of her head, Aunt Melanie beckoned Kate to follow and started walking down the deserted street. “Let’s get moving before they decide to come back this way. Billy’s got a nasty temper.”

Kate frowned, reluctantly giving up for the moment. She trotted to her great-aunt’s side, musing, “Sure would be nice if we could make ourselves invisible any time we wanted.”

Aunt Melanie made no response. She merely hesitated slightly in her step, as if she had caught her foot on something, then resumed her normal pace. The walking stick continued to poke its way rhythmically through mud puddle after mud puddle.

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