Most of the world thought he still slumbered. Most of the world was wrong.
“Is your small mind unable to comprehend this? Every last defiled little beast flushed from the corridor.” Scarthroat’s voice was deep and strong.
“Master, if you gave us just a few more days the operation would be well organized and we could control the way it was communicated throughout the northern—”
“You’ve delayed long enough. The filthy rabbits will be removed tonight dead or alive. For those that need an explanation, relocation is required to overcome the severe food shortages.”
The young general was shaking his head. “It will be a sloppy operation, we need—"
“All you need is to make sure Death has his appearance. The animals will fixate on him. Be sure to destroy any copies of their archaic fallacies, and check their safes for any remnants of manalma.”
The young black badger’s face titled in silent protest.
Scarthroat’s tongue flicked out. “Now get out of my chamber… And fear tomorrow if you fail.”
The tired black rabbit had just put her seven fluffy little ones to bed. Her white tail snuck through the back of her dining chair as she raised a warm cup of tea to her lips. A soothing record was spinning in the corner. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh, the calm of a day finally at rest. Then came the knock. Visitors at this hour?
She opened the door of her burrow slowly. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then the figure of a bat, hanging upside down from the porch came into view. He was from the regiment.
“On orders from General Diester, you are being evacuated from this burrow tonight.”
“Certainly not. The papers ensured us our burrows would be allowed to remain here, and our case would be taken up by the courts.”
“Plans have changed. You can leave tonight willing, or if you chose, by force.”
“This is outrageous! You can’t take me from my home. My children are sleeping.”
“This is your finally warning… black rabbit.” The bat pulled back one wing and revealed a curved sword strapped to his chest.
“Tompkins isn’t home. When he arrives in the morning we will pack up our things.” She needed to buy some time.
“That isn’t good enough.” The dark bat forced his way into the house. His wings flapping savagely, hitting the she-rabbit in the face as he we went by. He flew like a thunderstorm launching dishes into mirrors, silencing the record player and finally flinging the burning lamps into the rug. Soothing music was replaced by crackling flame.
The rabbit grabbed a knife to attach the beast. Or should she grab water? The fire rose. The bat slapped the knife from her hand and flew back out in the nighttime corridor. She threw water into the fire, but it was too late. The red blaze had already begun to grab the cupboards and the pantry. Smoke thicken and burned the nostrils. She ran and woke the children. Dazed and coughing they scampered for fresh air.
Eight black rabbits stood outside their house, the bright light of a home destroyed glaring on their whiskers and reflecting in their moist eyes. They looked out into the corridor. Dozens of burrows in flames. Glass broken. Screams, tears and curses. Regiment forces swarmed through their peaceful neighborhood, like ants pouring from their anthill. But that wasn’t the worst part.
“Mother! Death is coming.”
The she-rabbit turned, and at the edge of the wood she thought she saw something. A gray mist. A moving shadow. We haven’t had Death in the corridor for over 500 days. The probabilities of his appearing among them had been rising in recent weeks. She gathered the children, and hastened them toward the southern exit of the corridor. She joined a trail of brokenness. Dozens of devastated families pouring into a black river of despair and pain, all moving south. Mother rabbit told her kids to pull their ears closed. In the night behind them, they began to hear the shrieks of Death clasping their friends.
Damian Santos hunched over his drawing with wide shoulders. His black hair fell down past his ears and nose like a curtain that was shielding him from the outside world. His golden-brown eyes flickered from one part of his drawing to another, like a cat stalking a bird at dusk. His drawing was superb. It was white paper with a number two pencil. A fierce dragon flapped wide wings and released an explosive fireball. A boy of maybe 15 held up his backpack in defense. He was about to be incinerated.
Damian thought the picture needed another layer of interest. He had decided to place the boy’s family and home behind him. It gave a sense of sacrifice to the story. Maybe the boy had thrown himself between the dragon’s fire and his family. Damian looked at the drawing, titled his head slightly to the left and gave a small nod.
The lanky teenager looked up from his drawing. “Hello!” A low chuckle from the class.
“I’ve called your name three times.”
“I was finishing up a drawing,” he held up his battle scene. Andrew Winer, sitting next to him, smiled his approval.
Mrs. Avilla walked up to Damian and swiped the drawing out of his hand without looking at it. “How many times do I have to tell you this isn’t art class?”
“Probably a few more.” Another chuckle from the class.
Mrs. Avilla’s eyes filled with anger. “Maybe you should start drawing pictures of yourself sitting at a desk for summer school, while your friends are outside enjoying their vacation.”
The class responded with a low, “Oohh. Dang.”
Damian’s brown cheeks reddened slightly. He slumped back into his chair with his arms dangling to the side. He wanted his drawing back. That one was going to go into his portfolio.
At the end of class Mrs. Avilla returned to her desk. She looked at the drawing that Damian had made with captured interest. Damian approached slowly.
“Can I have my drawing back?”
“How did you learn to draw like this?”
Damian shrugged. “While other kids are hunched over their phones, I’m hunched over a piece of paper.”
“Mr. Santos, you’re gifted. But even to become a successful artist you need to complete your other classes.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She slowly extended the drawing to him, which he grabbed eagerly.
Damian sat at the tired fast-food booth with his brother Mario. Mario was two years younger, and a foot shorter than Damian. His black hair swirled into a thousand springs that rested on his eyebrows. His upper lip was already showing his Mexican heritage. His lips were full and pink, and able to make middle school girls jealous, “Give me your lips… or at least let me put lipstick on you.” His complexion was a little lighter than Damian’s, and his slow blinks and reclined posture contradicted his studious nature.
The fast-food joint needed a remodel. A red strip ran across the back of the thin double seat. Advertisements for the latest burger and taco specials, complete with fading pictures, were stuck to the windows. A few flies buzzed in the corner of the dining area. Mario was munching on some seasoned fries with spicy ketchup. Always munching on something. He seemed to be moving smoothly through an algebra chapter.
Damian sat with an orange soda, his portfolio in front of him. He was jotting something in a small notepad. Mario looked up and said, “What are you writing?”
“Let me see,” Mario grabbed Damian’s notepad and turned his shoulder toward his brother so he couldn’t grab it right back.
“Give me that back!” Damian tried to grab it.
Mario read out loud, “Resolutions: 1. Do something surprising. 2. Analyze things…” Mario started laughing.
Damian ripped it out of his brother’s hands. “Give that back.” Damian paused. “I don’t expect shallow people like you to understand deep people like me.” Damian smiled big. His smile uncovered a storehouse of joy.
Mario responded. He looked down at his algebra paper and pretended he was reading from it, “In honor of arbitrary resolution day, I have resolved to do the following. 1. Introduce myself to three strangers 2. Turn more cartwheels. 3. Help my brother be less socially awkward.”
The brothers laughed together, and studied together. An hour passed and the time became stagnant and boring.
“Dad’s not coming is he?” Mario asked.
“He told me if he missed this one, he would owe me $100.”
“Yeah, when is the last time dad had $100.”
“He wouldn’t miss seeing us on my birthday week.” Damian crossed his arms in front of him and his eyebrows dropped a bit. Mario shrugged and went back to his math.
Another 30 minutes went by. The flies buzzed in the corner. A tall man with a dark coat opened the door of the restaurant. Damian lifted his head high to see over a divider. The man had orange hair and a fixed angst on his face. Definitely not his dad. He slumped back and exhaled. He was so tired of this. Why do I keep putting myself through this? You know nine times out of ten he is going to let you down, so why do you keep hoping? Why would you trust his promise? He’s probably out slugging a bottle.
A woman at the order counter was speaking Spanish, but the employee wasn’t understanding her well. She had put in her order, but then realized she had left her billfold at home.
“?Le puedo pagar manana?” She asked if she could pay the next day. More confusion.
“Can y’all hurry it up?” The tall man behind her was getting irritated.
“Come on let’s go,” Damian said to Mario.
Mario packed his things. Damian walked over to the counter, and placed eight dollars on the counter. “For the lady’s order.”
She expressed her thanks.
“Es mi honor,” Damian said without a smile.
He walked out of the restaurant with a little pride having helped the woman. But like a flame that starts on the corner of a piece of paper and begins working its way toward the middle, his anger at his father started to resurface.
He opened his portfolio as they walked past the old hotel. The Spanish architecture was spotted with flaking cream paint. He looked at his picture of the dragon’s flames. Maybe I’m the boy that is waiting for the dragon to consume me. He looked at the boy’s face in the drawing. It was scrunched together, bracing for impact. I’m not going to be the kid that waits to get run over. He spoke out loud to Mario.
“I’m done trusting dad’s promises.”
Mario had a round root beer lollipop in his mouth that he pulled out. “He’ll come around.”
“No really, I’m not going to let him keep hurting us.”
“Bro, you’re just in a bad mood. Once he shows up to take us to a soccer match, you’ll be the first one in the truck.”
“Maybe, but I’m done trusting his words. In fact, I’m done trusting anyone’s words.” He held up his art portfolio. “I’m going to succeed on my own.”
Mario held out his arms wide, with his sucker in one hand, “You won’t even trust me?”
“Especially you,” Damian smiled and pounced on his brother getting him in a headlock. Mario stomped on his foot. Damian yelled. The little brother escaped and ran ahead laughing.
“Hey knock it off!” Someone shouted from the second story balcony of the old hotel.
Damian responded by mooning the man. The man’s eyes inflated and he nearly dropped his cigarette. The two brothers ran off laughing. After they got past the corner, Mario turned the world’s worst cartwheel.
“Lord Theokees, we have successfully planted several gateways to recruit outside help. But I have no confidence they will get here in time, or that they will be the caliber of soldiers that we need,” said a woman’s voice.
“You’ve done well. And you need not be afraid about the quality of our recruits. We need contributors, not heroes. Besides, my father knows the right people to send us,” said the voice of a man, or beast.
“One disloyal newcomer could be the difference between victory and defeat.”
“Or one teachable youth could bring down the evil one.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Provetah, I want you to invest a rich store of manalma into our recruits. If the world of Trapeza wants to trust in their wealth, then we will let them pursue it.”
“It sounds like a waste of resources.”
“Their world has all the resources they need. What they need is hope, and that is what we are going to give them.”
A silence hung in the air for several seconds. Then the woman said, “Is it time for us to begin our journey back to that wretched world?”
“It is past time… The cries of their lost ones have risen to me in a great wave. Their suffering has reached the rim of their cup.” The man’s large hand passed her a rolled parchment with spiral lettering on the outside. “You will commission a reconnaissance team from the South, and then return to our realm to prepare our own soldiers. If the usurper detects our presence in Trapeza, he will mount an offensive before we are on the ground. You must not trigger that battle.”
Provetah looked down at the thick roll of parchment in her hands. Her eyes narrowed and she said, “Your plans for reentry will be enacted with precision.”