Just because someone asked...but no more after this. ;-)
Chapter Two: How Jacob and Nicky Arrive at the Forest
Jacob and Nicky could not wait for the full moon. The next three days were certainly the longest ever to occur. What the key might do was all Nicky would talk about. Luckily, their mother thought they were discussing a video game and did not inquire.
When the night finally came, the brothers waited until after lights out and then climbed out of bed. Nicky held back the curtain, while Jacob opened the window. They stuck the key out over the windowsill until the moonstone glistened in the bright moonlight. Overhead, the moon was a brilliant silvery orb. An owl hooted.
“Okay, that should be enough.” Jacob pulled the key inside. “Now, we look into it.”
“Let me! Let me see it! I want to do it first!” Nicky pushed his head in front of Jacob’s. He opened his eyes very wide and stared with all his might.
Jacob tried it. Nicky tried it again. Then, Nicky tried it again. Then, Nicky tried it again, this time opening his eyes even wider. Jacob then held it out the window again, and they stared into it while it was still in the moonlight.
Nothing continued to happen.
“Awe, it’s broken.” Nicky crossed his arms and pouted. “I wanted to help Sarah.”
Jacob was disappointed, too, terribly disappointed. His heart felt as if it were resting on the basement floor two stories below. In a fit of anger, he threw the key out the window, watching it twinkle as it flew end over end. Then, he climbed back into bed.
* * *
The owl hooted more loudly now, and there were more of them. Jacob stirred and turned, yelping when he rolled over something sharp. He had told Nicky not to leave his transformers around. He would pummel him in the morning.
When had his bed become so hard?
Jacob sat up. He was not in his bed. He was not even in his bedroom. He was lying on the grass near a huge arched gate. It was still night time, but the moonlight was very bright. Beyond the gate was a dark forest. The trees of this forest were huge – not like the slender maples back home. They were giant poplars and enormous oaks. Jacob knew this. Forester was one of his five badges.
Speaking of badges, Jacob pulled at his shirt. He was wearing his Webelo uniform. It was khaki, like a Boy Scout uniform, but had wide blue loops on the shoulder epaulets and the front of the hat and the neckerchief were a red and blue plaid. His colors were on his right sleeve. The pins that represented the badges he had earned hung on its red, yellow, and blue ribbons. Jacob counted them off: Aquanaut, Readyman, Forester, Communicator, and Handyman.
His mother was going to scream like a banshee when she learned he had lost his pajamas. (Jacob was not quite sure what a banshee was, but his father was forever warning them that unless they did this or did not do that, Mom would scream like one.)
“Jacob? Are you here? I’m scared!” Nicky’s voice called.
Jacob rocketed to his feet and sprinted toward his brother. Nicky sat on the ground about ten feet away. He rose shakily and then ran to Jacob, hugging him hard. Jacob embraced him back. Nicky’s pajamas were also gone. Instead, his brother wore his white martial arts gi over a black shirt. His yellow belt girdled his waist. On the ground near where Nicky had been lying sat a black rectangular case with a gem set into the top.
“What’s that?” Jacob pointed at the case.
“A spy case!!” Nicky ran to kneel beside the case, his fear forgotten. He opened it eagerly. “Cool!”
Inside was a single gold key set into a shaped indentation in the velvet lining. It was not a fancy one, like the Moonstone Key, just a simple one, though it also looked old fashioned. Indentations of other shapes suggested the case was meant to hold more items. Jacob counted eleven empty slots.
The Moonstone Key! He had thrown it out the window! He had to go get it as soon as he got back…if he got back. Jacob looked hesitantly at the bronze arch and the imposing forest behind it.
“A skeleton key!” Nicky cried with delight, brandishing the silvery object. “Mommy read about this in my spy book! It’s supposed to open any lock. Well, any old lock. In the old days.”
The other side of the spy case had a pocket. Nicky pulled out something black and silky. He shook it out.
“Look! A ninja mask!” Nicky grinned like a jack-a-lantern. He put it on. It covered his face, except for his eyes, which gazed at Jacob intently. He looked cool, though Jacob would never tell him that.
“You’re wearing something black.” Jacob pointed at the dark collar poking out under Nicky’s white uniform. “I bet if you took your gi off, you would be dressed like a ninja!”
“Cool!” Nicky started to undress.
“Not now!” Jacob warned. “I hear someone coming.”
From the direction of the forest came the noise of wheels on rock. It sounded like their father’s wheelbarrow going down the garden path, only louder. There were footsteps, too, and clomping and voices. The two brothers moved closer together and held hands.
Out of the forest rattled a carriage pulled by two old draft horses with large shaggy feet. A man in a tall hat drove the carriage. Half a dozen people peered out of the windows. More followed on foot, several with walking sticks. Their clothes were old fashioned, like something out of a movie, and splattered with mud. Some carried lamps, their burning wicks flickering. Others extinguished them when they saw the brightness of the moonlight, now that they were no longer among the trees.
They came slowly, their faces gloomy and disappointed.
The driver stopped when he saw Jacob and then drew back in alarm. Jacob realized Nicky was still wearing his ninja mask. Quickly, he yanked it off and held it behind his back.
“Turn back, Lads!” The driver called from his seat atop the carriage. “No point in going on. No one can make it. It’s hopeless.”
Jacob blinked. What an unhelpful thing to say to two boys in the middle of nowhere. This guy should come by Jacob’s school. His principal would be happy to give the guy a few quick lessons in how to build confidence in children.
“Who are you?” Jacob called up to him.
“Humble pilgrims, Lad.” The driver leaned closer.
“Pilgrims?” Nicky peered closely at them. “Where are your big black hats?”
“Not that kind of pilgrim,” Jacob corrected him quickly.
The driver tipped his hat to Nicky. “We are travelers on a pilgrimage …only we’ve given up. We’re going home.”
“What is this place?” Jacob asked.
The driver leaned over to hear him better. “The forest? Or the gate?.”
“It is the Forest of Doom and Gloom.”
A cold sweat broke out over Jacob’s body. He did not want to anything to do with a place with a name like that. How come it could not have a nice name, like the Forest of Ice Cream and Pillows?
Nicky’s grip tightened on his hand. He cried, his voice shrill, “I don’t want to go into the Forest of Doom and Gloom. It sounds scary. It might give me nightmares!”
Jacob drew him closer. Nicky had a problem with bad dreams. Normally, his brother was one of the bravest little kids Jacob knew – but that vanished the moment he ran into something that reminded him of his nightmares. Then, he went wild with terror, and there was no reasoning with him. He was afraid of the dark and insisted on having a nightlight. He was afraid of scary images on book covers and posters. He was afraid of old sit-coms and would not let Jacob watch them, though what that had to do with nightmares, Jacob had no idea. How in the world would Nicky make it through something called the Forest of Doom and Gloom.
“It’s okay.” Jacob patted his brother’s back the way their mother did. Eager to distract him, he turned back to the driver. “And the gate?”
Glancing up at the intricate bronze arch as he spoke, Jacob noticed for the first time that there were letters carved into a flat plaque at the top: V.i.t….
The old familiar fear gripped Jacob. His thoughts felt paralyzed. His heart beat faster. His eyes slid to the left, away from the word. Victory? Vitophone? What could the word be? He told himself he could look at it again, try to sound it out. Everyone reads. It cannot be that hard. But he just could not force his eyes to obey.
“Why, that’s the gate to Virtue-topia, just like the sign says.” The driver ran a hand through his unkempt, curly hair, knocking his hat aside. He caught the hat awkwardly with his other hand.
“Virtue-topia?” Jacob looked at the word with interest now. “That’s kind of a weird name.”
“It sounds cool. Like there are dinosaurs!” cried Nicky.
“You’re thinking of Dinotopia.” Jacob stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Still!” Nicky let go of Jacob and took a martial arts stance, as if that somehow addressed the issue. The driver and the other travelers gazed at him in puzzlement.
Jacob looked at the forest, so dark and menacing despite the brightness of the silvery moonlight. “Is there another way?”
The driver shook his head. “You can’t get to Virtue-topia without passing through the Forest of Doom and Gloom. No one can. But there’s no point in going. Most never make it through the forest. Even if you did get there, you’ll never get past the first city.”
“Or the second.” A fellow with shifty eyes peered over his shoulder suspiciously.
“Or the third,” growled a man whose voice was gruff and hostile.
“Much less beyond that! And even if you do, there is the rivers and the swamps and all the other obstacles,” an old woman said querulously. “They’ll stop you as sure as a bull running into a barn wall.”
Jacob tried to picture this, but each time he did, his imaginary bull burst through the wall of the barn, shattering it and sending red splinters flying everywhere. Real barns must be sturdier than the imaginary kind.
The driver nodded. “You’d do best to turn back now, Lad. Listen to your little brother. Don’t go into the Forest of Doom and Gloom, or you’ll wish you never had.”
The driver clicked his tongue and jiggled his reigns. The horse plodded forward. The other folks followed the carriage. Their faces drawn.
Jacob watched them go, his terror growing. Nicky’s enthusiasm drained away. He grabbed his spy case and held it against his chest. They both looked at the forest beyond the bronze gate. It was full of dark shadows and eerie noises. Jacob knew he could not go in there.
“We’ve got to go.” His voice came out as a croak. “Sarah.”
Nicky pouted. “I wish Sarah was here. She wouldn’t be afraid.”
“That’s because she would not know it was bad.” Jacob felt cold all over. He wished he were home again, back in his bed.
“No it’s not.” Nicky threw him a dark look. “It’s cause she’s brave.”
“She doesn’t know any better.” Jacob stared at the forest. Both brothers were quite for a time.
“So, what do we do now?” asked Nicky.
“We have to go.”
Jacob took a step forward. Nicky whimpered, but he did not pull away. Together, they walked through the bronze gate to Virtue-topia.
* * *
The boys walked forward under the watchful eye of the full moon. Its silvery light cast dark shadows before them. The high, arched, bronze gate passed overhead and soon fell behind. The forest closed around them like a cold unwanted embrace.
Eerie noises hooted and creaked from behind the trees. The towering oaks and poplars by the gate had given way to gnarled birches and spruce, the branches of which seemed to reach out like crooked arms, as if to waiting grab an trespasser so foolish as to leave the path and dare the thick, thorny underbrush. Jacob and Nicky huddled close together and crept forward.
Something large and dark flew overhead, flapping loudly. Nicky grabbed Jacob and cried out in fear. Jacob was terrified, too, but he put his arm protectively around his brother. Another flap and the creature was gone. Jacob looked about warily. Whatever it was sounded big. He prayed it would not return.
“Hey, Nicky! Let’s pray, like we do at night.” Jacob said brightly.
He began praying out loud, the way their mother did with them each evening. Just thinking about it cheered him, but this turned out to have been a mistake. To Nicky, prays implied bedtime and bed implied…
“It’s too scary! It’s too scary!” Nicky threw his arms up, as if to block out the sounds and darkness. His voice was high and shrill. “It’s going to give me nightmares.”
“Nicky, we’ve got to keep going.” Jacob’s voice wavered, betraying his own fear. Nicky let out a long plaintive whine. He squatted down and coved his head with his arms.
“I want Mommy! It’s too scary!”
“We can’t stop now.” Jacob did not point out they did not know the way home. That would just make his brother more upset.
“Too scary! Too scary!”
Jacob looked left and right, but there was no one in sight. They were alone. He did not know what to do. Nicky was too heavy to carry, even their mother could no longer carry him. Jacob could not leave his little brother alone in the wilderness and go for help, yet staying here was frightening. He resented having to make decisions that should be made by grown ups. Until last week, no one had ever called upon him to do such things.
“We can’t just stay here, Nicky,” Jacob insisted. “We’ve got to go somewhere. If you don’t want to go on, we should go back to the other side of the gate.”
”Scared! Scared! Scared!”
Jacob had only one idea left. If this did not work, nothing would. “But it’s for Sarah!”
“It’s too scary!” Nicky closed his eyes and covered his ears with his hands.
The darkness and the fear and the uncertainty were suddenly too much. Jacob could not deal with Nicky melting down, too. He could think of nothing that would help a frightened brother when they were all alone at night. He knew nothing about camping, nothing about being in the woods after dark. If only he had earned his Outdoorsman badge.
He glanced at the colors dangling from his right arm with his badges pinned to them and then squinted. What were those glittery things on the pins?
Jacob examined the badge pins more closely. The Forester looked like a small pine tree, the Handyman like a little house. Normally, their surfaces were painted with colored enamel, but now each one had a little jewel, like a chip of diamond, set into it.
Jacob touched the gem on the green plus sign of the Readyman pin. He began to imagine what it would be like if he were holding a first aid kit. He imagined the weight of it in his hand and the smooth coolness of the hard plastic box. He imagined it more and more clearly until…
Jacob held a first aid kit in his hand. It was blue and white and bore a big red cross. He opened it. Inside, it was full of first aid supplies: bandages, snake-bite kit, gauze, everything he might need to help someone.
He gaped in amazement, his mind reeling. Where had it come from? Cautiously, he reached up and touched the gem on the Readyman badge again. He began to imagine his hands were empty. And then they were.
He tried it again and again. The process took about ten seconds. He took a tube of ointment out and closed the box again. When he touched the gem this time, the box disappeared but the ointment stayed. Then, he did it again and put the ointment back. Then, he checked the other pins. The Forester produced a book on trees and plants. The Handyman manifested a tool kit. The Aquanaut gave him a bag with a towel and bathing suit and other beach gear, and the Communicator produced a backpack with a pen and notebook and other writing supplies in it.
“What are you doing?” His brother peered up through his fingers, no longer whimpering with fear. “I want to do that, too!”.
Jacob glanced down and saw the gem glittering on the top of Nicky’s spy case. It looked like a bigger version of those on his badge pins. He smiled. If there was a sure fire way of getting his brother to cheer up, it was showing him a new toy.
“Nicky, look!” He squatted down next to his brother. “That jewel on the top of your spy case. I think it does something. Touch it.”
Nicky did. Jacob began to imagine what it would be like if there were no case there. The image got clearer and clearer. Then, the case was gone, and Nicky held a black rectangular pin shaped like the case. A little chip of crystal glittered in the handle.
“Cool!” His brother gave a big grin.
“Pin it to your uniform. That way you don’t have to carry it.”
“That will make me feel better.” Nicky wiped tears from his face. “The case was heavy.”
Nicky made it appear and disappear several times, each time checking to make sure that the key and ninja mask were still inside. When he was finally willing to start walking again, he chatted cheerfully, urging Jacob to play a game of make-believe with him. Jacob sighed. He was relieved that his brother was cheerful again, but as they continued through the forest laden with dark, ominous shadows, fear lay upon him like a heavy blanket.