Aphelion Issue 272, Volume 26
May 2022
 
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Locker 49, or the Volunteers


by David Rogers




Charlie looked at his card. Locker 48, it said. He glanced at Lana's card. Locker 50. "I wonder who's got forty-nine," he said.

"Kimmy Sargent, probably," Lana said. "You know, alphabetical order. Because all we are here is just letters and numbers to be kept in line. Charlie Samuels, Lana Smith. What comes between those?"

Principal Fred Ferguson, referred to by students as Fred the Dead for his perpetually expressionless demeanor, dismissed the year's first junior class assembly with all the enthusiasm of a janitor emptying a dustpan. Charlie and Lana went to find their lockers on the first floor hall. They were right across from the art room, which doubled as the yearbook staff's workspace, according to the sign on the door. Charlie spun the dial on his combination lock to the numbers on the card: 13, 21, 34.

"Hey, this is weird," he said. "My combination is part of the Fibonacci sequence. What's yours?"

"Didn't you hear the principal?" Lana asked. "We're not supposed to tell anyone our combinations."

"Thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four, There—I told you mine, so now you have to tell me yours. No choice!"

"That's not a rule, but okay, fine. It's oh eight, oh five, oh three. Happy now?"

"Can't be. Let me see that," Charlie said, peering over her shoulder at the card.

"What's the big deal? They're just numbers."

"Not just numbers. Fibonacci numbers. Yours and mine. Except yours go from largest to smallest. What are the odds?"

"I have no idea, but I bet you can calculate them. Instead of telling me what Fibonacci numbers are. You know, because I'm just a girl, and we can't do math."

"Did I say that? I didn't say that."

"Add the two numbers beside each other together, you get the next number. Five plus three equals eight," she said.

"Show off. Nobody likes a know-it-all."

All the while, locker 49 remained closed, untouched. "There's Kimmy, way down at the end," Charlie said. "Which is also weird."

"See, numbers don't explain everything," Lana said.

"No, but they can give you big clues. What's your first class?"

"English. Yours?"

"Math," Charlie said.

"Figures. See you at lunch."

***

Mr. Ross wrote on the white board: Fibonacci numbers. "Who can tell me what those are?"

No hands went up. Not surprising, thought Charlie. Who wants to be slapped with a teacher's pet label on the first day?

Finally, Jeremy Olson raised his hand. Charlie knew his name because they went to the same middle school. Jeremy was the only kid in the class whose name he did know. Mr. Ross nodded in Jeremy's direction.

"They were Hitler's favorite numbers." Jeremy waited til just the right amount of confusion and impatience registered on every face, and added, "You know, Fibbing Nazis?"

"An early contender emerges for the role of class comedian. Anyone else want to take a stab at the real definition?" Mr. Ross had smiled a little, then clinched his teeth and held a hand on his stomach as he spoke. The gesture took only an instant, and then the look of friendly teacher who encourages curiosity was back. But the moment registered in Charlie's memory. Seeing no one else was volunteering, he raised his hand.

"Fibonacci numbers are like a ladder. One step leads to another. You add a number to the one that came before to get the next. Add one plus two, and you get three, two plus three and you get five. Five and three make eight, and so on."

"Somebody's been reading Dan Brown novels," Jeremy said.

Mr. Ross nodded. "But there's the basic idea. Add up the two previous numbers to get the next in the sequence. And the interesting thing about these numbers is, they're useful not just for people writing fantasy novels, but they can be used to describe a lot of patterns in nature …"

***

"I think I'm going to love my math class," Charlie said, speaking loudly over the din of the lunchroom.

Lana put her palm against his forehead. "How odd. You don't feel hot enough to be delirious with fever."

"No, seriously. Mr. Ross talked about Fibonacci numbers today. And about how they relate to things in nature. I thought math this year would be all just empty calculations unrelated to anything in the real world. Probably not even challenging. Like Miss Tyler and her fifty long division problems every day, remember? But it's not like that. I think Mr. Ross may be my favorite teacher this year."

"Oh, but wait, you haven't had PE yet. I hear the teacher is cute, and everybody loves the PE shorts." Lana dipped a french fry in ketchup and said, "Guess what we talked about in English?"

"Dan Brown novels and how he uses numbers as plot elements?"

"Better. Synchronicity. It means things happening at the same time, or one right after another. Not just random events, but weird connections. Like if you dream about Batman eating donuts, and then you see someone in a Batman shirt eating a donut the next day. Or Fibonacci numbers keep coming up."

"Those are called coincidences. You have ketchup on your nose," Charlie said. "Just like I dreamed last night."

"We're also reading this book by some famously reclusive author," Lana said. "I forget his name. The book's about a woman who gets put in charge of a dead rich guy's will. She had an affair with him a long time ago, so she feels like she ought to take care of the estate, settle the legal affairs and all, even though she's not too thrilled with the job. Then she starts seeing odd symbols everywhere and meeting strange people. They believe in a conspiracy involving a secret postal service. It's all pretty weird. You'd like it."

***

After lunch Charlie and Lana went to their lockers to exchange morning books for afternoon books.

"Look, still no one at locker forty-nine," Charlie said.

"So? Lots of people are at lunch."

"But it looks empty." Charlie peered through the vent holes. "Nothing in there."

"My question is, why do you even care? It's just a locker."

"It's a mystery, that's why. Why would they skip one when lockers are assigned?"

"You know what happened to the last kid who was assigned locker forty-nine?" a voice behind them said.

Charlie and Lana turned to see an old man in an engineer's cap. A few gray hairs amid the brown under the cap. The man leaned on the handle of a wide push broom. Must be the janitor. Looks about fifty years old, Charlie thought. People call fifty middle-aged, not old, but it's true only for someone who lives to be a hundred. He immediately heard his mother's voice: Not everything is a math problem, Charlie. He was not quite convinced she was right.

"Disappeared," the old man said. "People said he got lost in the woods. The ones they tried to turn into a park. Other people said he just ran away from home. Might be so, but if I were you kids, I'd keep my distance from locker forty-nine, all the same."

"Why?" Lana said. "It's only an empty locker."

"You sure it's nothing more?" the janitor said.

"Actually, I am. I looked through the vents. Nothing there," Charlie said. "I guess nobody's using it."

"Like I said, I wouldn't get so close," the janitor said. "Name's Austin, by the way."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Austin," Lana said. "This is Charlie."

"And you're Lana," Austin said. "Sure, it's an empty locker, but is that all it is? What's a doorway?"

"It's a rectangular piece of of wood or metal, maybe glass. But what's that got to do with locker forty-nine?" Charlie asked.

"You answered the wrong question. I asked, what's a doorway? The wood or glass or metal is just what people use to frame or block the doorway. To keep things in or out."

"Okay …" Charlie said, baffled.

"We really have to get to class, Mr. Austin," Lana said.

"A doorway is nothing," Austin said, seeming not to hear Lana. "What did you say was in locker forty-nine?"

"Nothing," Charlie said.

Austin nodded. "Exactly." He turned to look at Lana. "Any empty space can be a doorway, if something wants to go through it. And it's just Austin. Not 'Mister.' I'm only the janitor."

Saying nothing more, Austin turned and began pushing his broom back down the hall, navigating around the feet of the occasional student or teacher and humming a tune that sounded like Mozart.

"That was weird. How did he know my name?" Lana said.

"Maybe he's in charge of assigning lockers. Puts names on cards."

"And memorizes them all? It's just very odd, that's all. Strange janitor."

"I think he was trying to tell us locker forty-nine is a door, a portal," Charlie said.

"What, like on Rick and Morty? Or the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis?"

"No. Maybe. I was thinking more like the tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time."

"So if it's a portal, where does it go?" Lana asked. "The Isle of Crazy Janitors?"

"How would I know?"

The bell rang. They were late for class.

***

Not til they were walking home did Charlie remember the first question Austin had asked. What happened to the last kid who had locker 49?

"Those woods give me the creeps," Lana said, just as Charlie was about to mention the janitor.

They were passing a small block of trees and overgrown clearings off Woodbury Street, where there once had been fields and gardens and houses.

"Still belongs to the city, according to my mom," Charlie said. "Or maybe the county. At one time, there were plans to turn it into a public park. But something bad happened there, years ago. Houses kept burning down, way back. A long time afterward, when nobody would even build a house there, someone was killed, or got lost in the woods, and it was just shut down. Not even maintained. Homeless people camp there, I heard."

"How could anyone get lost in those woods? The whole thing is not much more than a block. You can walk all the way around it in five minutes."

"Maybe it's like the TARDIS. Bigger on the inside than on the outside."

"Wouldn't it offend your mathematical principles, if something were actually bigger on the inside?" Lana asked.

"Only if you take a narrow view of math. And the science math describes. Take the Big Bang, for instance, which basically says something came out of nothing. Everything came from nothing, in fact. Or maybe it all came from somewhere, but nobody has any idea where. All the matter and energy in the universe packed into a space too small to conceive. Or think about particle physics, which says particles are not really what they are or where they are til somebody observes them. It's a weird world."
"If you say so. Physics or no physics, those woods still creep me out."

***

Late summer drifted into fall. Leaves began to turn, and Halloween was in the air. Scarecrows and carved pumpkins appeared.

Still no one used locker 49. Charlie looked through the vents at the darkness inside at least once a week and saw nothing.

So time passed.

***

Wednesday of the second week in October, Mr. Ross, the math teacher, passed out during class. "One minute he was explaining what the hypotenuse is, and why geometry is necessary for analyzing what all right triangles have in common, no matter the lengths of their sides, and the next, he sat down at his desk. He looked very shaky," Charlie told Lana, as they were walking home. "Then he just put his head down, like he was going to sleep."

"I know. I heard," she said. "Some of the gossip says he was on meth. Or heroin."

"Well, that's just stupid. Nobody as smart as Mr. Ross is on drugs."

"Addiction is a disease," Lana said. "Having a high IQ provides no immunity. Some people even think smart people are more prone to addictions. They over think things, so they worry too much, and they also assume they are too smart to become addicts."

"Sounds like a bad stereotype to me, " Charlie said. "Anyway, I know it's not true about Mr. Ross. He's no addict. But now we have this substitute. All we do is long division problems. All period long. It's like being back in sixth grade. I hope Mr. Ross gets well soon."

***

Later in the week, Principal Ferguson made the morning announcements over the intercom himself, which was unusual. He said, last, in his most serious tone of voice, that Mr. Ross had been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. The prognosis was unclear but everyone should hope for the best.

***

"Really sad to hear about Mr. Ross," Austin said, when Charlie and Lana stopped by their lockers after lunch on Monday of the next week. He leaned his customary push broom against locker 49 and shoved his hands in his coverall pockets. "Sure hope he gets better. I know all the kids love him. I hear what people say. Never a bad word about him."

"Yeah," Charlie said, "his class is my favorite. Was my favorite, I mean."

"Reminds me of the old guy who ran the gas station, years ago, " Austin said. "Before your time. Prince of a man. He would fix kids' bike tires, just for taking out the trash. Or maybe do it for free, if he was in a good mood. Or had already had a couple of belts from the bottle under the counter. Sold things on credit to people with no money, no jobs, no prospects. 'Pay when you can,' he said."

"Did they pay?" Lana asked. "Sounds like the kind of person people take advantage of."

"Usually they did pay. Because everybody liked George. Which was not his real name, or birth name. The business license on the wall by the cash register said Gerald. He hated that name, though. But nobody wanted to be the one who cheated George. So they paid, eventually. Most, people, anyway."

Austin paused as Evan Conroy passed.

"Probably looking for Pence and Carlson," Charlie said.

"Then I hope they all get lost together," Lana said. "Wouldn't it be great if they did, Austin?"

"Well, I wouldn't rightly know about that," Austin said. "Rotten apple or two in every bunch, I guess, but they don't usually spoil the rest. Even the rotten ones might turn out to be useful for something. No matter what people say. Anyway, George smoked like a chimney. Even when he pumped gas. Never without the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Lucky he never burned the place to the ground. People didn't know as much, then, about how bad smoking is for a person's health, either. Anyway, he had a heart attack one day. Filling up the police chief's car. Chief Winston looked in the side mirror, saw gas running across the parking lot toward the sewer drain. George was flat on the pavement, clutching his chest. Nearly died." Austin paused, as if waiting for the idea of death to take effect.

"Heart attacks are bad," Lana said, just to fill the awkward silence. "My grandpa had one. He didn't die, though."

Austin nodded. "George got out of the hospital, went right back to work. Still kept a cigarette handy, too, though you never saw it lit. The next summer, he told me the strangest story about a dream he had. Couldn't remember any of the details, he said, but when he woke up, he had a feeling he had to go to the woods. That patch of trees, off Woodbury Street, where they tried to make a park, a while back. A compulsion, it sounded like. Couldn't help himself. 'Something real curious happened to me in those woods,' he said. 'Heart runs like a brand new Buick, now.' He wouldn't be any more specific. Ran the gas station for another twenty-five years, and lived to be ninety-five."

"So the woods healed him? Or something in the woods?" Lana asked.

"Well, it would be pretty strange if they did, wouldn't it? Downright hard to credit," Austin answered. "But there are lots of mysteries in the world."

"So what made you think about him now?" Charlie asked.

"I don't know. Just an old memory. Mr. Ross getting sick and everybody pretty much giving up on him—maybe that reminded me."

"We haven't all given up on him, Mr. Austin," Lana said.

"It's just Austin, not Mister. Thought I told you that."

"Sorry. Force of habit," she said.

"I'm still hoping Mr. Ross comes back," Charlie said. "One more mindless set of long division problems and easy square roots, and I'm going to be sick."

Austin nodded and looked down the hall, which was now nearly empty. He reached for the broom. "What a mess. I'd better get to work." He steered the broom toward an empty plastic bottle. "Lot of mysteries in the world," he said again.

***

On a Tuesday morning, the third week of October, Lana said, "Bobby Vincent asked me to the Fall Dance." She sat down beside Charlie on the bench across from the art room. A mural of a field of giant sunflowers decorated the walls on either side of the door.

"What did you tell him?" Charlie asked.

"Told him I'm not attracted to guys like him. Not the way he was obviously thinking about. What else would I tell him?"

"What did he say?"

"He looked offended and went, Whaddaya mean, guys like me? I said, guys with penises."

"Good answer. Simple, direct."

"So then he gets all confused and says, Oh. In fact, he said it twice. Oh oh. Then he got embarrassed. Either that, or he was having an orgasm. Hard to tell." She giggled. "Either way, it was cute."

"You're not the only heartbreaker," Charlie said. "I think Deanna Oakes wants me to ask her out. She keeps giving me this dreamy-eyed look during history class."

"You should tell her, then. My mom says it's not nice to lead people on."

"Tell her what?"

"Tell her you're not attracted to her type."

"You mean, the type with a, um, you know?"

"Jeez, Charlie, don't be such a prude. Tell her you don't go for vaginas. It's not a dirty word. And everybody knows you're gay, anyway."

"Apparently not her. I mean, how dense can she be?"

"Maybe she knows, and she sees you as a challenge. Or she just thinks her charms are irresistible. I'd ask her to the dance myself if she weren't so stuck-up."

***

"There's something in locker forty-nine," Charlie said, his eye to the vent hole, the afternoon of the same Tuesday.

"What is it?" Lana asked.

"Looks like a piece of paper."

"Well, how astonishing. A piece of paper in a school locker. Who'd'a' thunk it?"

"No, I mean, it's new. The locker was completely empty before. Somebody just put it there."

"Somebody stuck it through the vents. Big deal," Lana said. "On second thought, maybe it's a letter from your secret admirer, and they accidentally put it in the wrong locker."

"Or your secret admirer, by the same logic. Or lack of logic. But it's not even creased or folded. Doesn't look like it was squeezed through the holes."

"Okay, Charlie, I'll add it to my list of unsolved mysteries. Right below 'What really landed at Roswell?' and 'What happens to planes and ships in the Bermuda Triangle?' Meanwhile, I have a sonnet by Shakespeare to memorize for English."

"What's it called?"

"Number one-oh-four."

"What an informative title. But I like it. It's clean, mathematical, unambiguous. What's it about?"

"Friendship. Beauty. Here," Lana said, handing Charlie a sheet of paper with the poem copied in her neat handwriting. "I think I have it down. Check to see if I leave anything out." She recited:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eyed,

Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold

Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,

Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned

In process of the seasons have I seen,

Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,

Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.

Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,

Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;

So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,

Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:

For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:

Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

"You nailed it," Charlie said. "Sounds like it's also about time, and the woods."

"Woods are just a metaphor. For how time is always passing and things always change."

"Then why doesn't it just say so? That would be a lot easier. Fewer words."

"Not really," Lana said. "What does the Pythagorean Theorem mean?"

"It means the length of the hypotenuse always has a certain relationship to the length of the other two sides in a right triangle. If you know any two sides, you can figure out the length of the third side."

"What's a hypotenuse?"

"It's the side opposite the right angle," Charlie said.

"'Right angle'—as opposed to the wrong angle?"

"No, a right angle is—"

"Yeah," Lana said. "I know what a right angle is. Also what the hypotenuse is. I took geometry. I'm trying to make a point."
Charlie stared blankly.

"Isn't it easier just to say A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared, instead of having to give wordy explanations every time you need to know how long a line is?" Lana continued.

After another moment, Charlie said, "I think I get it. You're implying the way the sonnet works is a kind of language of its own. Similar to how math has a language of its own. You can say a lot more in a few words, for those who grok it."

"The boy catches on fast. And reads Heinlein. Explains why we're friends, I guess."

***

The next afternoon, Charlie heard a squeak-squeak as he was getting the books for his last two classes of the day from his locker. He turned and saw Austin rolling a mop bucket down the hall. When the janitor was closer, Charlie said, "Hey, Mr. Austin, do you know the combination to locker forty-nine?"

"Not without looking it up. And like I told you before, it's just Austin, not Mister."

"Sorry. Austin. I think there's something in the locker, but it's not assigned to anyone, is it?"

An odd look flashed across the janitor's face. Almost a look of fear, Charlie thought, later.

"No," Austin said, "it's unassigned. And it should be empty."

"Well, it's not. If you look through the vent—"

"I thought I told you to stay away from locker forty-nine," Austin said. This time there was no mistaking the look on his face. He was angry.

"But my locker is right beside it. I can't really—" Charlie began, but the janitor cut him off.

"It's not your locker, so it's not your business." Austin resumed pushing his mop and bucket down the hall.

***

Walking to school the next morning, Charlie turned the corner onto Woodbury Street at the same time as Lana. There was a chill in the air. She wore a thick sweater. Charlie wore a denim jacket with a fleecy lining. "You're early this morning," she said. "Nice jacket. You trying out for the Sears catalogue?"

"I love this jacket. It's warm," Charlie said. "What's a Sears catalogue?"

"It was how you bought stuff, before Amazon. My grandpa has a bunch of them in his garage."

"Oh. I want to get to school in time to try out what I learned. It turns out ordinary combination locks are not very hard to open, even if you don't already know the numbers," Charlie said.

"You're still obsessing about locker forty-nine?" Lana speculated.

"Obsessing—I guess I am. But aren't you curious? I bet it really is a love letter from your secret admirer, accidentally dropped in the wrong locker."

"Then they can work up the nerve to talk to me, like a real person, or they can forget it. How you plan to open the lock is more intriguing. You probably listen for pins or tumblers or something, like the guys in old safe-cracker movies. Where's your stethoscope?"

"Opening a cheap, ordinary lock is not too complicated," Charlie said. "No special equipment required. At least, not according to what I read on Google. First, I started to do the math. How many possible combinations are there? Because it's a finite number, and if you try the combinations one at a time, you would eventually get it. But these locks have numbers up to 40, and you have three numbers to make the right combination. So there are thousands and thousands of possible three-number combinations. It could take weeks."

"That's what I love about you math nerds. You have to do the arithmetic to know what everyone else knows—the odds of someone just getting lucky and opening your lock on the first or second guess are, like, don't even worry about it. Which is why combination locks are wildly popular."

"Well, yeah, it would be like waiting for the hypothetical hundred monkeys banging away randomly at a hundred typewriters to type Hamlet. Or even a sonnet. The lock would not take as long, probably, because even a sonnet has a lot more possible combinations. But you get the idea."

"Or I guess you could hope the monkeys get lucky, and do it on the first day," Lana said.

"Brilliant point, because they have as good a chance of typing a sonnet the first day as the thousandth or ten-thousandth day. Still, trying combinations one at a time would likely take way too long. So I googled the next question—just how to open the lock, and it's simple."

"Of course. Bolt cutters."

"I guess, if you're a caveman. Or caveperson. Also if you want it to be obvious how the door was opened. But there's a stealthy way. Basically, you just pull on the lock a little while you turn the dial, and when it passes one of the magic numbers, it gets a little harder to turn, and then easier. Most regular locks you can apparently open in five minutes or less. They would probably be less popular if everyone knew how insecure they really are."

"Just like that, Google turns you into a criminal mastermind," Lana said. "Maybe my grandmother was right, and the Internet is evil."

"Knowledge is never good or evil. What you do with it might be, but not the knowledge."

***

They arrived at school with fifteen minutes to spare before homeroom.

When they got to their section of lockers, Charlie looked around nervously. "Would you stand on this side, in case Austin comes along?" he said.

"Why do you care?" Lana replied. "In fact, he probably has the combination. You should just ask him for it."

"I did. Yesterday afternoon. Or I was going to, but when I mentioned the locker, he got all squirrely and told me to mind my own business. It was weird. So I know he's not going to give us the numbers."

Charlie followed the process he'd read about and watched on YouTube, pulling on the lock while turning the dial. "Feels like the first number is one." He turned the dial the other way. "Second feels like … thirty-two. Weird."

"Why's it weird? They're just numbers."

"Numbers are all special in their own ways," Charlie said, still slowly rotating the dial on the lock. "And the third is … yep. Thirteen. Definite weirdness afoot."

"Okay, math genius, spill. Why are these numbers special?"

"What's five plus eight?"

"Thirteen." Lana sighed.

"And thirteen plus eight?"

"Okay, I get it, Fibonacci again. But thirty-two doesn't fit."

"Yes, it does," Charlie said. "Thirty-two is not a Fibonacci number, but think about the individual digits. The combination is one, thirty-two, thirteen. Compare those numbers to the Fibonaccis: thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four. Drop the four off thirty-four and look at the digits one at a time."

Charlie pulled a piece of paper from his locker and wrote the numbers down, without commas or spaces: 13213. "Rearrange the commas, and you can see one, thirty-two, and thirteen."

"Seems like cheating—dropping the four just because you don't want it to be there. And you double-dipped on the one. Also, they are not in sequence, from largest to smallest. But I get it. Three locks in a row—mine, yours, and number forty-nine—with Fibonacci or Fibonacciesque-numbers as combinations. Wonder what the odds of that happening are?"

"Interesting question. I'll work on it."

"Meanwhile, the mystery prize just looks like a doodle," Lana said. She took an ordinary sheet of ragged-edged notebook paper out of the locker.

"Yeah. What a disappointment. Not as much fun as getting it in the first place."

"Wait. Maybe it's more than a doodle. See?" She pointed to the corner of the paper. "Looks like a compass rose. You know, the mark that tells you which way is north. Maybe it's a map."

"Map of what, though? And why would it be in this locker?"

"There are words here, too," she said, squinting at the doodles. "Antlers, tree house, pond, well, Statue, bridge, and the giant oak.'

"They could be landmarks, if it really is a map," Charlie said.

"Map of what?"

"I don't know. But this line is a spiral." He pointed. "You know what numbers are used to describe a spiral?"

"Let me guess—the Fibonaccis?"

Charlie nodded. "Things like pine cones or the pattern of seeds on sunflowers relate to the Fibonacci sequence," he said, staring at the map. "What's there at the bottom, under your thumb?"

"Another word." Lana squinted at the cursive scrawl. "Jabberwocky."

"What does 'Jabberwocky' mean?" Charlie asked.

"Nothing. It's the title of a poem by Lewis Carroll. But the poem is all nonsense words."

"Figures. Lewis Carroll was also a mathematician. He worked with the Fibonacci series, too."

"More synchronicity," Lana said.

***

"Volunteer day is one of the proud traditions of our school," Principal Ferguson told the assembly. "Every semester, each student is asked to help out in a department where faculty and staff could use assistance. At least one afternoon a week, perhaps more, if you aspire to be a leader, not just a follower. A winner, not just a hanger-on. It makes no difference what area you are assigned—mowing grass, serving in the cafeteria, organizing surplus textbooks and supplies, or lending a hand in the library. The point is for you to give something back to the school that gives you so much, just as adult citizens are expected to contribute to society. Because when we help our communities, we help ourselves."

"Fred the Dead is starting to sound like a recruiting poster for the Marines," Lana whispered.

"The few, the proud, the volunteers," Charlie agreed.

"… and maybe, just maybe, you learn something in the process," Ferguson finished. Sensing restlessness in the back-benchers, whence it would quickly spread across the auditorium, he nodded for Miss Kay to hand out the forms.

"Since you cannot all volunteer to be french fry testers in the cafeteria, decisions have been made for you—if your name begins with A through D, you will accompany Groundskeeper Leach out to the athletic field …"

Lana and Charlie were volunteered to work in the library.

***

The librarian, Miss Rowan, a tall, statuesque woman of indeterminate age, took them down to the basement. "We mostly use this for storage, things nobody checks out. Or we used to. Now nobody checks out anything if they've got their phones handy." She sighed. "But contrary to popular opinion, not everything important is on the Internet. At least not yet."

She pointed to some boxes stacked in the corner. "The older yearbooks, for instance. They go back to the 1930s. My predecessor felt they were unimportant and moved them down here, but they're just the sort of things we still need libraries to preserve. Most of the books have call numbers, and I've cleared a space, so you can bring them up and start putting them on shelves. Unless they don't have numbers. Give those to me."

They hauled a couple of heavy, dusty boxes up the steps. Charlie unfolded the flaps on the box he carried and took out a yearbook. "This one has a call number," he said. "Guess what it is."

Lana was breathing hard and brushing dust off her sleeves. "Not the time for guessing games. What is it?"

"He turned the book to display the tag on its spine: 4949.L49.

"So?"

Charlie waited a moment. "It'll come to you."

"Oh. L for locker. Locker forty-nine."

"We have a winner."

When they had finished their volunteer tasks for the day, Charlie checked out the yearbook with the surprising call number. He and Lana went to their lockers to get their jackets and the right books for doing homework.

"There's something else in locker forty-nine," Charlie said, peering in the vent hole.

"What is it?"

"Looks like a hat."

"Let me see." Lana put her eye to the vent Charlie had looked through. "It looks like the hat Evan Conroy wears," she said.

"Yep. The one that says 'Make mine a double' and shows a pair of hands reaching for a girl's breasts. No overcompensation there."

"Open it and let's see."

Charlie spun the dial and opened the door. He took out the hat and immediately dropped it back in the locker. "Ick," he said. "There's something sticky on it. Looks like blood."

"Well, the blood's actually not as surprising as its being in this locker. Evan's obnoxious enough to get in a fight every week. I wonder how he would get the combination."

"Same way I did."

"Yeah, maybe," Lana said. "He probably can't even spell combination, though, much less figure out how to look it up. On the other hand, Evan getting in a fight is not far-fetched at all. Just what you'd expect. But, still, why would he put the hat here? If he wanted to conceal evidence, he'd just shove it in the bottom of a trash can and forget it."

"No idea. Maybe he had a rare flash of insight—what's on the bottom turns up on top when trash is emptied. Anyway, I'm going to wash my hands. No telling what diseases are swimming in that bloodstream."

***

Lana's phone rang. She answered.

"You won't believe what I just found out," Charlie said.

"It's 11:30 p.m. Whatever it is better be good," Lana said.

"Remember what Austin said, way back on the first day of school? About what happened to the last kid who had locker forty-nine?"

"Vaguely. Got lost in the woods, or something."

"People said he got lost, but nobody really knew," Charlie said. "But get this—Austin is the last kid who had locker forty-nine."

"Austin …" but he's no kid. Oh, you mean a long time ago."

"Yes. Longer than you'd think, in fact."

"He looks about fifty, now, so thirty-five years or so ago, he could've gone to our school. Thirty-five years ago would have been sometime in the 1980s," Lana said.

"Yes, but here's the freaky part. He didn't go there in the 1980s. It was the 1960s."

"So he's seventy-ish? Can't be."

"No, I think the answer is even weirder."

"Okay, Charlie. It's almost midnight. Past my bedtime. Way too late for math. Especially weird math. And I'll bet it's a long story. Tell me in the morning."

"Oh. Sorry. I guess I got excited and lost track of time. Which is ironic, actually, because—but okay, I'll tell you tomorrow. Usual route to school?"

"Right. 'Bye."

***

Turning the corner onto Woodbury Street at 7:25 a.m. the next morning, Lana said, "Okay, Charlie, spill. I was awake til one, thinking about what you said."

"Should've let me explain. It's pretty incredible."

"Well? Quit trying to build suspense and just tell me."

"Okay, here's the deal. I think Austin went somewhere else, to a place where time moves more slowly. Or across a gap in time. I don't know the details, but he went in the 1960s, and came back expecting the late 1980s or '90s. Instead he got 2017. Which was why nobody recognized him."

"Wait. We're talking about Austin the janitor, right? You're saying he's some kind of time traveler?"
"Told you it was weird. But I was looking through the yearbook, the old one from 1960, with forty-nines in the call number, and guess whose picture I saw? Austin Freeman."

"It's probably just someone with the same name. Or the old guy was Austin Freeman, Sr., and the one we know is Junior."

"No, look, it's the same person," Charlie said. He stopped and put his backpack on the ground and took out the yearbook. "See," he said, opening the book to a page marked with a slip of paper. "He's younger, obviously, but you can tell it's him."

"But if he was a student, in the sixties, he would have to be …"

"Yeah. Way older than he is now. Unless time was different wherever he went. He'd be like 70-something. Told you it was weird. No way he's more than early 50s now. But look—the yearbook has another photo, too." Austin turned to another page marked with a slip of paper. "It's the "Memories" section, for people who moved or died or whatever. This page is about Austin Freeman disappearing, and there's a pic of flowers and teddy bears and stuff left at his locker. If you look close, you can just barely make out the number." He held the book out for Lana to take.

"Okay, someone named Austin had locker forty-nine," Lana said, squinting at the photo. "Like I said, there must be two of them, Junior and Senior."

"But if he disappeared when he was in high school, how could he have a kid?"

"The birds and the bees, Charlie. Fourteen-year-olds can have kids."

"Okay, they can, theoretically, but I don't think that's what happened."

"It also says no one else will be assigned the locker til he returns," Lana said. "Because giving the locker to someone else would be like giving up on him. Someone named Austin really was the last kid to have locker forty-nine. But wouldn't we have heard about him? If our Austin disappeared, came back twenty or twenty-five years later, looking pretty much the same as when he left, it would be the most incredible thing to ever happen here. People would still be talking about it."

"Not if he didn't tell anybody. And what would he say? 'I discovered my school locker is really a portal in space-time, through another dimension where time flows differently, and even though this is the 1980s, yesterday was just the 1960s for me.' That wouldn't go over too well."
"He wouldn't need to tell. Surely somebody would have noticed. Friends, acquaintances, teachers."

"Maybe people did notice a resemblance," Charlie said. "People look like other people. You hear someone say, 'Doesn't she look like so-and-so used to look?' But they don't jump to the conclusion that somebody went through a time warp."

"Aren't you the one jumping to conclusions? Everybody has to have documents—birth certificate, social security number, and so on. Those would show he's twenty-some years older than he looks."

"So he looks young for his age. It happens. People see what they want to see, ignore the strange stuff they can't explain."

"What about Austin's family?" Lana asked. "Wouldn't they at least recognize him? And wouldn't he find them and tell them what happened? Imagine if it happened to you—you'd want to tell somebody, even if they didn't believe you. And you'd want to be with your family."

"He had no family left. Maybe still has no family."

"You got all this from a yearbook?"

"No. I found an archive on the Historical Society website," Charlie said. "They have old newspaper clippings somebody scanned and put online. Lot of obituaries and family trees, too. Austin's dad was in the army. He died in Vietnam. In the war. Mom died in childbirth. Austin was raised by his grandma, who was also dead by the time he turned up again."

"That's so sad. How do you live without a family?" Lana wondered aloud. "I guess that's why his job seems like it's his whole life. The school is his family."

"There are more old newspapers in the basement of the library at school. We should check them, too."

***

"I wonder who put the map in the locker," Charlie said. It was pizza day in the cafeteria. He watched Lana picking pepperoni off her slice.

"An equally important question is why," she said. "As for who, it was probably Austin, but who knows? Maybe he wanted you to find it."

"No idea why," Charlie said. "Locks are math problems. Human motives are a whole other game. Too many unknown variables. You have to know something as a starting point to solve the equation. But Austin was pretty clear about wanting me—us—to not bother locker forty-nine. He wouldn't put something there for us to find. Especially since our lockers are right beside it. Anything he wanted us to see, he would know where to put it."

"Beats me. I guess it's a mystery. You want the pepperoni?" Lana asked. "My hands are clean."

"You can wash your hands all you want, but that stuff still looks like it came out of the devil's butt." Charlie took a bite of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "Smells like it, too."

"How would you know what the devil's butt smells like?"

"I don't. But I'm guessing it can't be good. Trusting my mathematician's intuition."

***

According to one popular theory, bullies are themselves often the current or former victims of bullying, damaged souls who act out learned behaviors that distorted their own sense of self-worth. No doubt, this notion provides an accurate description of many bullies' origins. Often, but not universally so.

Some monsters are born, not made.

Consider the case of Evan Conroy, for example. The only child of two doting parents, little Evan never once felt the sting of harsh words or hands raised in anger. Never, that is, until he provoked a fight with a smaller, weaker child on his second day in preschool. He was rewarded with his one and only mild spanking for bloodying the other child's nose. This method of discipline, predictably, proved unavailing. Others were tried, also without success. A dozen years later, he had learned little about respect or human dignity.

***

On a Thursday morning in mid-October, Principal Ferguson updated the school about Mr. Ross's illness. He struggled mightily to make no news of any change sound like good news.

That afternoon, fifteen minutes after the day's final class, Evan and his pals Donnie Pence and Steve Carlson leaned on the trunk of Evan's car—a dangerous and expensive bright red hot-rod Mustang his still-doting parents had given him for his sixteenth birthday—and surveyed the emptying parking lot for victims. The cloud of smoke around them might have been mistaken for halos of angels to an observer who did not look closely at the sneering faces. Cigarettes were forbidden on school grounds, but Carlson's dad was the mayor, and Pence's mom was invariably the biggest donor to numerous school fund drives. Misdemeanors far more serious than use of tobacco were routinely overlooked.

Charlie was still worried about the prognosis for Mr. Ross. "He's my favorite teacher of my favorite class. Used to be my favorite class, anyway," he said to Lana, as they passed within coughing range of the cloud of smoke.

"Aww, does teacher's pet miss his sugar daddy?" Evan called out. Pence and Carlson laughed as if the question were hilarious.

"Ignore them," Lana advised.

Charlie would ordinarily have done so. He kept walking without so much as a glance at Evan, who tried a different tack.

"Hey, sissy boy. I'm talking to you. You hoping butch girl will drop her panties for you? Not gonna happen."

Charlie stopped.

"Let it go," Lana said. They're just proving what idiots they are." She tugged at Charlie's arm.

Charlie stepped along with her. There it might have ended, if not for Pence. "Hey, Ev, I think she just called you an idiot. You gonna let a dyke talk to you that way?"

"No, dumbass, she called us all idiots," Evan said, pushing off the car and walking toward Charlie and Lana. He wore the hat that said "Make mine a double." He spun the hat around so the bill faced backwards. "You better apologize, babe, or I might teach you a thing or two. Like what a real man feels like." Evan grabbed his crotch suggestively.

Charlie felt his heart begin to pound like an earthquake. A surge of adrenaline set fire to his sense of restraint. "You wanna try to make her, you big ape?" he said, stepping in front of Evan before he could get to Lana. He was only vaguely aware (though he would be painfully so later) how juvenile his words sounded.

Evan shoved him aside and stepped closer to Lana.

"Stop it, Charlie! I don't need you to fight my battles for me," she said, as she pointed the small canister of pepper spray in Evan's face and pushed the button.

Evan's knees crumpled to the pavement, hands to his face. Pence and Carlson started to run to his side, as if to lend aid, but stopped, taking care to stay out of range of the spray.

"Let's go," Lana said, and this time Charlie listened.

"You're dead! You're both dead!" Evan screamed at their backs as they turned the corner of the building.

"He'll find a new victim within a week and forget all about us," Lana said.

"Maybe so. But do you have an extra can of pepper spray I can borrow, just in case?" Charlie asked.

"Sure," she said, unzipping a pocket on her book bag. "Here you go. Don't leave home without it."

"Did you see the hat?"

"Looked just like the one we saw in locker forty-nine. Except no bloodstains."

"Let's take the shortcut," Charlie said. "Evan won't drive his fancy car through the dust and potholes. Or if they do follow us, we can always duck into the woods."

The shortcut, a dusty gravel-and-dirt road peppered with potholes, started on the other side of the parking lot, not far from Evan's Mustang. The shortcut took Lana and Charlie past the other side of the woods off Woodbury Street, before they parted ways to their homes on opposite ends of the block. The shortcut made for a leisurely walk home before dark and became more appealing in the short, dry fall days when it was not muddy.

Walking past the woods, Lana said, "I'd almost rather take my chances with Evan and his thugs."

***

"Look at this," Charlie said.

He and Lana were spending study hall period in the school library, organizing more of the old boxes in the basement.

"What did you find?" Lana asked.

"Old newspaper article. It's about some kids who volunteered to clean up trash and help clear brush. The library kept it because the kids were students here, I guess. Anyway, you know where they volunteered? The woods we pass every day, off Woodbury Street. The story says plans were made to build a mall there, and then a block of apartment buildings. The projects failed because of mysterious accidents. Trees fell on people trying to cut them. Bulldozers went out of control. All before they could even get very far in clearing the trees away. Then the town was going to turn it into a park, since nobody was using it for anything else."

"The same woods Austin was supposed to have gotten lost in. Interesting coincidence."

"Yes," Charlie said, still looking at the yellowed newspaper. "And it gets better. Guess what the park was going to be called."

"Mirkwood?"

"No. Why would they call it Mirkwood?"

"No reason," Lana shrugged, blowing the dust off a box of old Tom Swift novels. "But you asked me to guess. That's what I'd call it."

"Or Earthquake Island, like in Tom Swift and His Wireless Message," Charlie said, noticing what Lana had found. "I used to love these books."

"But the woods are not an island," she said. "And we don't have earthquakes here."

"It would be an ironic name. Or maybe just metaphorical. But earthquakes do happen here, and in lots of places not known for them. Tiny ones nobody much notices." Charlie pulled another book from the box. "These are the really old-fashioned ones, from the first half of the twentieth century."

"Lucky you grew out of them," Lana said. "Sexist drivel. The one I read, anyway. The girls are there just for decoration. My brother used to read them. One of the main themes was how technology will solve all humanity's problems. Fat chance. So what did they plan to call the park? Wonderland?"

"Jabberwocky. Jabberwocky Park. Says so right here," Charlie said, handing her the newspaper. "Also, the people who would talk about what happened there at all, by the 1980s, hinted the woods were cursed. There are stories about the woods being haunted that go back to the 1700s. Too many strange events, so businesses pretty much lost interest in the place."

"Jabberwocky," Lana read. "Like the Lewis Carroll poem. And the word on the map. Assuming it is a map, of course. Another remarkable coincidence."

"More than coincidence. I think it ranks as synchronicity," Charlie said. "But there's more. This article mentions plans for the park. A lot of trees would have been cut. But a pair of huge poplar trees would be spared, because they were considered historic landmarks. The shape of the poplars reminded people of antlers. Another tree was designated to have a tree house, a big one, where people could have picnics or birthday parties. There was a swamp, which was going to be dredged to make a pond, with a bridge over the creek that leads to the pond."

"Only things missing are the statue and the big oak."

"What statue?"

"Remember the list on the Jabberwocky map," Lana said. "The list must be the legend. The landmarks on the map: antlers, tree house,pond, well, Statue, bridge, and the giant oak. Now we know what it's a map of—the woods they were going to make into a park."

***
"So, what are you doing this Saturday?" Charlie asked, as he and Lana walked home.

"The usual. Daddy's letting me have the jet for the weekend. Thought I'd pop down to the Bahamas."

"Fabulous. I'd ask to join you, but I'm scheduled for Sunday brunch with the Queen."

"Why do you ask?"

"I think we should go exploring."

"Exploring where?" Lana saw the intense look in Charlie's eye and said, "Oh, no. I'm not going in those woods. Jabberwocky or not. Synchronicity or not. I don't even like walking past them."

"Yet you walk past them every day. Besides, what's the point of having a map if you don't use it?" Charlie said.

"You have a map of the Moon on the wall, in your room at home," Lana said. "Does that mean you're going to the Moon?"

"Would if I could," Charlie said. "I do use the map, too, when I look at the Moon with the telescope."

"I told you, those woods give me the creeps."

"Me, too. But what scares us is also what fascinates us. It's why people pay good money to watch horror movies. And we can use the shortcut, which looks like it's closer to what's on the map than the Woodbury Street side."

"But we don't even know where the map came from. Or if it's accurate. Besides, taking the shortcut doesn't help. It's not the road or street I find scary. It's the woods."

"No risk, no reward," Charlie said. "C'mon, it will be an adventure. I have a theory. I think Austin knows more than he lets on. But he drops clues. Maybe he didn't put the map in the locker, but I'll bet he still wants us to look in the woods. Remember the story he told us about George, the gas station guy? That was right after Mr. Ross got sick. There's something special about locker forty-nine, and something special about the woods, and he knows it."

"Yes, but special how?"

"I think there's a connection between the woods and locker forty-nine. I'll bet Austin disappeared in the woods and came back two decades later in time because he was the last one the have that locker. Can't be just a coincidence that we heard bad news about Mr. Ross, and then Austin told us the story about old George, the gas station guy, going to the woods and living a long and healthy life."

"Well, it's just a story. Why take it seriously?" Lana asked.

"I think he was trying to tell us something. The key to saving Mr. Ross is in the woods."

"You're making all kinds of assumptions. Mr. Ross getting sick just reminded him of other people getting sick. There's also still the question who put the bloodstained hat in the locker. The hat could seem like a warning. And if you assume a connection between the woods and the locker, it could mean, stay away from the woods, too."

"Maybe nobody put the things in the locker. maybe they just turned up there. Like leaves falling from a tree. But I still think Austin was trying to tell us something. Call it intuition. If he didn't put the things in the locker, maybe the woods put them there. The woods, or something in the woods."

"Well, suppose you're right. He was dropping a hint. Maybe Austin is using some sort of reverse psychology—tell the kids not to do the thing you want them to do, and they will try even harder to do it. But the key to saving Mr. Ross—what in the world would that be? A fountain of youth in the woods? Magical healing herbs, or a new Pool of Bethesda?"

"I don't know. This is why we need to explore. See what's in there."

"And come out twenty years later, like Rip Van Austin?"

"No risk, no reward."

"Wouldn't Mr. Ross need go to the woods for it to work, like George did in Austin's story?"

"Maybe." Charlie sighed. "Except he's in the hospital. Not going anywhere. Which is why Austin told us the story. We have to go into the woods, since Mr. Ross can't go for himself."

"Go in the woods and do what? Hold a seance?"

"I don't know. Which is another reason to go. We'll investigate. Like when Galileo pointed his telescope at Venus and Jupiter. He didn't know he was going to find proof to turn the whole world upside down. He just knew he had to look."

"Oh, so you're Galileo now? I love you, Charlie, but you're a little nuts, you know it?"

"No, we're Galileo. Come on, let's just look. See what we find. Be Galileo with me?"

"Didn't he almost get burned at the stake or something?"

"No. Giordano Bruno did, but Galileo only got put on house arrest. They did make him recant and say the Earth is not a planet and the Sun is not the center of the solar system. They might have done something worse if he didn't play nice, though."

"Oh, well, if house arrest is the worst that can happen, I guess I'm in. If we get burnt at the stake, though, I'm never speaking to you again."

***

Slanted late afternoon light filtered through treetops and turned the carpet of brown leaves burnt orange. Dry twigs popped underfoot.

"We've spotted four of the seven landmarks," Charlie said, looking at the map. "Antlers, tree house, pond, and well. Each of them right along the spiral path. The statue is next. Then the bridge, and we'll be almost there. The giant oak at the end of the spiral path."

"Yeah. If only we knew what's so special about there," Lana said. "At least the path is clear." She scuffed her foot on the hard-packed dirt. "It's like it gets a lot of use, but I don't see any footprints. Or litter."

Soon they came to a small clearing, two dozen feet wide.

"There's a tent. It's not on the map," Charlie said.

"We have company, too," Lana added.

The woman stood on the other side of the tent. She looked like a vagrant. Charlie's nose wrinkled a little, involuntarily. He noticed Lana's did, too. The not-a-restroom must be too close for comfort, Charlie thought. At least if you're used to indoor plumbing.

"My mom said there were homeless people living in these woods," Charlie said, whispering.

"I'm not homeless," the woman said, as if she had heard, even though she was at least twenty feet away. "This is my home." She gestured vaguely at the tent and the battered kitchen chair, the cooler with broken hinges. A small camp stove perched on a tree stump gone gray with age, wood the color of the woman's hair. She looked impossibly old. She must be a hundred if she's a day, thought Charlie.

"Sorry. No offense intended," he said.

"Not everything is a math problem," the woman said, as if she could read his thoughts. Her voice sounded raspy, rough as fingers rubbed on old tree bark.

"We know," Lana said. "We were just wondering what the woods were like."

"No, you weren't. You think I'm just some crazy old woman. Otherwise I'd live in a house. Or an apartment. Maybe a nursing home."

"No, really—" Charlie began, but she cut him off sharply. "Don't lie, boy. You're smart, but not a good liar. Lying well takes practice. Helps to have a very limited imagination. You have neither of those."

The old lady walked from behind the tent. She wore a long green skirt and denim jacket. A red tee shirt under the jacket was decorated with an image of a deer, surrounded by lightning bolts. Her feet were clad in very white running shoes. Spotless. Later, Charlie would wonder how she kept them so clean. At the moment, he assumed they must be new, until he noticed the edges of the soles looked well worn. The rest of her outfit was remarkably old but clean, too, worn but not worn out. She carried a walking stick made of a tree branch as tall as she was, stripped of bark and polished with age. She did not lean on it. Like a wizard's staff, Charlie thought. Her feet were steady as a squirrel's climbing the trunk of a tree.

"She changes," Lana said quietly. "The longer we're here, the less she looks like a refugee."

The woman also wore a necklace, a heavy chain with links each as thick as the second year's growth of a twig. It looked long enough to fit over her head comfortably without being unclasped. The chain looped through a silver pendant, an oval a couple of inches across, with a crooked bar, also silver, across the middle. The bar made a jagged S, a lightning bolt.

"It's the same pendant the librarian wears," Lana said. "That's why you look so familiar. You are Miss Rowan, except …"

"Except much older," the lady said. "Thank you for noticing. Librarian is one of my jobs, in your time. I have others. But you'd better go. Something wicked this way comes. They're looking for you."

"Who's looking for us?"Charlie asked.

"The sacrifices. The volunteers. They seek you out," the woman said.

"I don't know what you mean. Who are—"

But the lady was talking again. "You've come to feed the wishing tree. Someone you care for is sick."

"Wishing tree? No, really—"

"Why else would you be here? Or perhaps you are unaware, yourselves, of why you came. No matter. The tree calls to certain people. Certain very lucky people." She stepped closer. At first, Charlie had thought her hair was brown, streaked with gray, but now he could see the brown came from leaves and twigs woven throughout.

"Does it work?" Lana asked. "The wishing tree, I mean? Do the wishes come true?"

"Sometimes. If they make sense. If they are sincere. You can't ask to grow wings and fly."

"How do you know all this?" Charlie asked.

"Some call me the Guardian of the Tree," the woman said. "But you'd better move along. I told you. By the pricking of my thumbs, they're coming. The tree stirs. It hums." She turned abruptly and walked toward the other side of the clearing, where the path went on between two big walnut trees. Her feet were steady as a squirrel running along a branch.

Charlie and Lana started to follow. "I wonder if she's the Statue," Lana whispered.

"A living Statue? The rest have been pretty straightforward. The pond just looked like a pond. The tree house was just an old tree house. Or what was left of one. The well was a ring of stones around a shallow pit."

"Maybe it was shallow. We couldn't see very far down."

"Next weekend," Charlie said. "We'll bring flashlights. The Antlers—the poplar trees—are not really antlers, either."

"So maybe some of the names of the landmarks are proper nouns. Some of them, anyway. Or metaphors. Which would explain why Statue has a capital S on the map."

"Wait—where'd she go?" Charlie asked, stopping. They had reached the far side of the tree.

"I don't know. It's like she just stepped between those two trees and vanished."

"She must be somewhere down the path. Let's keep going."

"It's getting pretty dark," Lana said. "We'd better just do what we came here to do—follow the map and the path." A twig cracked behind them, sharp as a rifle shot. Looking over her shoulder, Lana whispered, "We've been followed. And it's not good news."

Charlie turned to look where she pointed.

"Stand still," she added. "Maybe they won't see us."

"Too late," Charlie said. "Here they come. "Got your pepper spray handy?" He reached in his pocket.

"Always."

Evan, Pence, and Carlson stopped, ten feet away. Then Evan gestured. "Spread out," he said. Pence and Carlson circled their intended victims, moving to either side of the clearing, beyond which the vines and briars were too thick to navigate.

Pence carried an aluminum softball bat, Carlson a battered wooden hockey stick.

"Don't come any closer," Charlie said. He pointed his canister in Carlson's direction.

"You idiots still think you're immune to basic chemistry?" Lana asked.

"I think there are three of us and two of you," Evan said, advancing. "I like those odds."

Even in the dim light of the woods, Charlie could see Evan's face was still covered with blotchy red marks from their last encounter. Charlie pushed the trigger. The stream from the canister dribbled, sputtered, and stopped. "Um, Lana, we have a problem. Out of gas," he said quietly, as the drops began to sting his finger.

"It's okay. Just stay close," Lana said, looking over her shoulder. She turned and pointed her canister at Evan. "Can't get enough, so you're going first, again?"

Evan took a very large knife out of a sheath at his side. Almost a machete.

Lana and Charlie stood back to back. Lana, shifting as Pence and Carlson circled, caught her foot on a tree root and stumbled. Instinctively, her right hand shot out to break her fall, and the canister in her hand rolled into the shadows. She looked around, to no avail, feeling with both hands.

Pence and Carlson stepped forward. Evan swung the knife inches from Charlie and Lana's heads. The other two raised their improvised clubs to strike.

"Run," Lana said, springing off her knees like a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks.

Ducking under the arc of bat and stick, she and Charlie darted into the woods. The path continued along the spiral shown on the map. For half a minute, which seemed like half an hour, they could hear the thugs behind them, out of sight around the curve.

The path led to the bridge over the creek. Lana paused, breathing hard. Charlie was also gasping for air. Looking back, they saw no sign of pursuit. After a few moments, Lana took a deep breath and held her finger to her lips. Charlie also held his breath. They listened in silence, leaning on the wooden rails of the small bridge. The stream below was a dark ribbon in the dim forest light.

Somewhere, impossibly deep in what should have been only a patch of woods a few hundred feet wide, they heard the raucous caw of a crow. Nothing else.

"Where are they?" Charlie whispered.

"Gone. They're gone," Lana said.

"How do you know?"

"I don't know how I know. I just do. Come on, let's go see."

They backtracked fifty feet up the curving path. Saw nothing.

"Maybe they gave up and left," Charlie said.

"Maybe pigs fly, too."

"Yeah, I know. Now we can go back, where we last saw them, or go forward. I vote forward."

"Seconded."

A minute later the spiraling path ended in another clearing, perhaps fifteen yards in diameter. The trunk of a huge oak tree grew from the center of the clearing.

"We're there," Charlie said, studying the map. "The center of the spiral."

"We're not the only ones," Lana said, pointing.

Charlie looked up and saw where Pence hung from a twisted strand of wild vines and briars. The plants wrapped securely around his neck like a hangman's noose and looped over the branch of the tree, ten feet off the ground. His eyes bulged from his face.

Carlson was tangled in a net of thorny wild rose bushes that grew around the tree's lower branches. A set of antlers was thrust through his torso, belly to chest. He did not move. Blood soaked his shirt and ran in streams down his pants, turning them black in the dim light. The look of surprise and shock on his face would have been comical under other circumstances.

"Who did this?" Lana wondered. She and Charlie stood and stared in shocked silence.

"Should we try to save them?" Charlie finally asked.

"I think it's too late," Charlie said. "Besides, where's Evan?"

Footsteps sounded behind them.

Lana pointed. "Right there. He's late for the party."

Evan was seized by the lower branches of another oak tree. He screamed and struggled, but wild vines snaked around him and lifted him off the ground. Meanwhile, a branch three inches thick curled around and squirmed upwards into his backside. His screams were soon silenced as his mouth was gagged by branches and vines. The tree limb thrust its way up through his torso and emerged from his mouth, dripping blood and ropes of flesh. Vines curled around the back of his neck and over his head, knocking his hat to the ground and leaving a smear of blood on it. The branches lifted him over the jagged top of a wide, ancient, six-foot high rotting stump and dropped him inside it.

"The stump must be hollow. He just disappeared in there," Charlie said. "If we climbed up and looked in the stump, what do you suppose we would see?"

"Nothing I want to remember, I'm pretty sure. I'm going to have nightmares enough, just trying to process carnivorous trees with branches like pythons and boa constrictors," Lana said. "But those are the biggest roaches I've ever seen."

Charlie took a step closer. "Not roaches," he said. "Ants. Huge ones. There are hundreds of them. They must be hungry."

Troops of black ants, each at least three inches long, made their way up the foliage to Pence and Carlson's mortal remains and began to feed. The things hanging from the branches were soon unrecognizable.

Evan did not emerge from the stump.

"I wonder why we didn't hear the commotion sooner," Lana said. "How did these thugs get here? They were behind us, and even if they could have taken a shortcut through the woods without getting hopelessly tangled, they don't have a map."

"My guess is, the same way the hat got in the locker. Probably the same way the map got there too."

"That's not an answer."

"I know," Charlie said. "We probably wouldn't understand the answer. Clearly, we are dealing with forces that defy scientific explanation. Including anomalies in space-time."

"Anomalies. Nice word. Good shorthand for We do not have a clue what just happened, or why."

They stood in silence awhile longer. Charlie thought he could hear the mandibles of the ants at work. Surely just my imagination, he told himself.

"So, do you suppose that's the wishing tree?" Lana said, eventually, pointing at the oak that had lifted Evan into the stump. "It's certainly the biggest tree I've ever seen."

"Beats me," Charlie said. "But I guess it will do. The odd thing is, it looks so tall, you should be able to see it all over town. From miles away."

"A tree just fed a kid to a rotting stump. Your question is about how tall the tree is?"

"Yeah. I guess I'm saving the killer tree bit for my own nightmares. Denial, I think the psychology nerds call it."

"Okay. That's actually not a terrible plan. Denial it is."

"Should we report this?" Charlie asked.

"It night make more sense than doing tree-height geometry right now. But how would that call go? 'Hello, 911, we just saw the trees kill three people in the woods that used to be Jabberwocky Park. A rotting stump seems to have eaten one of them.' Best case scenario, nobody believes us and we barely escape getting locked up ourselves, either for homicide or for sounding like lunatics."

"So we tiptoe out of the woods and admit nothing," Charlie agreed. "Forces beyond our ken and beyond our control are at work here. Anybody asks, we saw nothing, heard nothing, know nothing. Even if somebody saw us come in or leave the wood, well, it's a big place."

"Sounds right," Lana said. "There's the hat," she added, pointing at the ground near the stump. "Now it's just like it was when we found it in the locker."

"Or maybe just one like it. He's probably got a closet full of them. Or he came back to the locker and got it."

"Yeah, Maybe. But you don't really think that's what happened. The stain's in the same place. Same shape. "

"No," Charlie said. "I think it's pretty obvious. Locker forty-nine has some kind of mysterious connection to these woods. A connection not just in space but also in time."

"This hat did not have blood on it. Not til a few minutes ago. The bloodstain looks the same, though. Exactly the same. So this really is a time-travelling hat?"

"I'm guessing there's nothing special about the hat, though," Charlie said. "The weird thing is the locker."

"I think you're right. The locker must be linked to this wood," Lana said. "It really is a portal, a door, like Austin tried to tell us that day. Or hinted. I guess he knows people sometimes just have to figure things out for themselves."

"A portal in time as well as space, but it doesn't always go to the same times. Austin came way forward in time. The hat went backwards. Almost like somebody wanted us to find it."

"One more reason we can't tell anyone what we saw here. Too much we can't explain. Not so anyone would believe us. But who or what would care if we found the hat?"

"Maybe it's better not to know," Charlie said.

"Must be the first time you ever didn't want to know."

"Oh, I want to know. I'm just saying it's maybe safer not to know." He looked around at the darkening shadows. "The Sun will set soon, if it hasn't already. We'd better get out of these woods while we can still see the way."

"I wonder if we should bring the hat?" Lana questioned.

"No, I think we must be supposed to leave it here so we can find it last week."

"Also, if we don't report what we saw here, it would be awkward if we turned out to have something with Evan's blood on it. Better not open locker forty-nine again."

"Or open it one more time, wipe it down for fingerprints, and then leave it alone," Charlie said.

"I wonder if the hat will still be there tomorrow. Or there again? What adverb do you even use when time refuses to play nice?" Lana wondered.

"If you're stumped, I'm sure I have no idea."

"Right. Though I think Evan is the one who's truly stumped. Now let's go see what year it is in the outside world."

***

A week passed. Evan, Pence, and Carlson were reported missing. Searches were carried out, including a cursory search of the woods. Nothing was found. No one bothered to ask Charlie and Lana a single question, as they were not in the missing boys' circle of associates and obnoxious acquaintances.

One afternoon, sorting through old boxes in the library, Charlie asked Miss Rowan if the library had any more information on Jabberwocky Wood, besides old yearbooks and newspapers.

She smiled and said, "I don't know." She touched her silver pendant and winked. "But if you keep looking, you might find more than you want to know."

***

Overshadowed by the search, and the attempts, especially by adults, to forget what troublemakers Evan and company had been, came the announcement that Mr. Ross was making a fantastic, almost miraculous recovery and was expected to return to school soon. Probably before Thanksgiving. Maybe as early as the next week.

Walking home that day, Charlie and Lana passed the Jabberwocky Park woods.

"Have your nightmares gone away?" she asked.

"No. I'm just sort of getting used to them. There's this one where I'm at the top of the big oak, the wishing tree. I can see for miles. Which ordinarily would be tremendously exciting, but in the dream it's terrifying. Like I'm about to fall, or be dropped …"

"Into a rotting stump, and eaten?" Lana suggested.

"Something like that. Or worse. How about you?"

"I keep dreaming I'm being chased by something way scarier than Evan and his buddies. I'm afraid to turn around and see what it is. Maybe I turn to stone if I look. I run and run, along the spiral path, but it never ends. Not til I wake up."

"Still seems like we should tell somebody what happened in the woods," Charlie said. "Evan and his buddies were jerks, but their parents deserve some closure."

"How would we tell and not be considered crazy, or worse?" Lana asked. "Nothing's changed. None of the reasons we decided to keep quiet have gone away. No one would believe us. Anyone who did believe us would still know nothing more than we do. Or what, if anything, should be done. And we'd stand to get the blame for whatever did happen. The most that would happen would be a new plan to clear Jabberwocky Wood. That would surely end badly. I don't think you can control whatever forces haunt that place. They would just move somewhere else."

"I wish I could tell my mom, at least. She still says the world is not a math problem. But maybe it is," Charlie said. "The Fibonacci sequence led us there." Seeing the look in Lana's eye, he said, "Don't worry. My lips are sealed. I agree, too many questions we can't answer. Not so anyone would believe us. Just to be clear, though, we are assuming Mr. Ross's recovery is somehow connected to the woods and what happened in there, right?"

"That explanation works for me," Lana said. They had taken the shortcut, walking slowly. It seemed like a safer place to talk, as long as they did not leave the road. "These woods still give me the creeps, but in a different way. They used to seem like something from a fairy tale. They still do, but now it's like the fairy tale has a graveyard. A haunted graveyard."

"Yes, but also a fairy godmother who grants wishes." Charlie stared into the woods. The trees threw long afternoon shadows across ruts in the dirt road.

"If the woods that grant wishes also eat people, it's not that different than what happens in other fairy tales," Lana said. "A lot of them are the original horror stories—poisoned apples, kids baked in ovens, little girls eaten by wolves. Anything with as much power as those woods must have a source of energy. What comes out must first go in."

"Right. It's basic math and physics. Unless it's a singularity. A place where the laws of physics as we know them break down. Like a black hole. Which is another way of saying math and science don't have all the answers, anymore than art and literature do. I mean, Shakespeare didn't come up with the laws of gravity and motion."

"True," Lana agreed. "But sci-fi and fantasy still help us make sense of the world. Math seems like it's always one step away from fantasy, to me. Anyway, I don't really think physics breaks down in the Wood. Not exactly. It's more like a different set of rules apply. The rules of sacrifice. Mythological rules. I don't know exactly what those rules are, though. Maybe just a different kind of math and physics."

"So you think we sacrificed Evan and his buddies?" Charlie asked. "Sounds too much like …" He trailed off, not even wanting to say the word.

"Like killing? Like murder? No. We didn't sacrifice them. They sacrificed themselves. Or the Woods did. But they chased us into the Wood, remember. They volunteered. All we did was run. And sacrifice—do you know what that word means?"

"Of course I do. It means to kill something to make the gods happy."

"That's one definition," Lana said. "But sacrifice also means to do a sacred act."

"Call it sacred, but in mythology it seems to usually involve somebody getting stabbed, or something equally fatal, to make the gods forget about whatever pissed them off. The average god seems to be pretty blood-thirsty. Like when Jesus was sacrificed, supposedly to pay for the sins of the world. Or in the Greek myth, when Agamemnon kills one of Diana's pet deer, and Diana says he must sacrifice his daughter to pay for what he did. At least, the prophet said Diana wanted him to sacrifice her. I guess people didn't question prophets as much back then."

"In science or myth, energy has to come from somewhere," Lana said. "The woods must be fed. Makes as much sense to me as quantum mechanics—entangled particles, cats that are both alive and dead. "

"More sense, in fact. It's basic math. Things would be a lot less bloody if the gods were vegans, though," Charlie said. "Energy can come from a lot of sources."

"One other thing I wonder about—why did time pass the same for us in the woods as out of the woods? We didn't come back in the past or way too far in the future, like Austin. Or the hat."

"My guess is, it was because we had a map, and we followed it. We stayed on the path, the spiral described by the Fibonacci numbers. You can go both ways, up or down, in or out, in a spiral. Austin probably didn't have a map. Evan, Pence and Carlson—if you told them the right way, they'd go the wrong way just to see what happens. Who knows what would have happened if we had gone off the path."

"Nothing good, I'd bet," Lana said.

"I wonder if the remains of Evan and his buddies will ever turn up again, like Austin and the hat?"

"I have no idea," Lana said. "If they do, it will be a whole new story."

THE END


Copyright 2021, David Rogers

Bio: David Rogers' poems, stories, and articles have appeared in various print and electronic publications, including Aphelion, Star*Line, Third Flatiron, and Daily Science Fiction. His collection of short fiction, Emergency Exits, is available from Amazon. More at Davidrogersbooks.com.

E-mail: David Rogers

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