Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | May 17, 2014


At the NESCBWI 2014 conference, I attended an excellent workshop with Julie Berry and Kendra Levin titled “Write what you don’t know.” After a first basic writing prompt, they asked us to think about the character we had just created, and re-write the scene with an entirely opposite character. Here is the opposite character I described:

A young boy who’s outgoing – talkative, loves people – scared of being alone – craves accomplishing useful things. Wants to change the world. 

And here is a scene from his point of view:

One eye opens. Blurry world, ugh. Why do mornings have to happen? Couldn’t the day just start in the middle? I scan my room like an explorer about to summit Mt. Everest. Pile of shoes – there. Pile of crumpled clothes, must contain both underwear and pants and possibly two socks. Helmet and pick-axe, by the door. If I plan it just right, I can sleep for 12 more minutes, then navigate the path to be dressed and out the door in under 30 seconds. I close my eyes, and let my mind start to drift – what was that dream? An airplane in our backyard surrounded by giant… cows?

“Bernard! Bernie!”

Crap. The 30-second plan! I have the 30-second plan all worked out!

“Time to get up!”

They weren’t cows, they were mountain goats. And they only spoke Spanish. And they were eating the plane. And I needed to get on that plane and fly it – it was my only way to get away from the work camp, only now I can’t remember where I was going.

I hear the door open. Pretend to be fast asleep, like the dead. Pretend to be sick. Cough a little, no don’t. look peaceful, she’ll think you’re adorable and leave you alo—

Yank, Aunt Hannie pulls me out of bed and throws a pile of clothes at me. “You’re late.”

“I’ll be ready in 30 seconds,” I mumble.

And I am! I really am! I timed it on my watch, and it literally takes 27 seconds. I have a whole three seconds to amble down the front walk to wait for Mr. Thorton to drive me to the work camp, where I’ll spend all day whacking bits of rock into smithereens. Once, last year, Bruce broke open a rock with a hunk of kiloromite inside. That single, bright green stone made the company enough money to keep us all working another five years. Oh goodie.

I wait, swinging my helmet back and forth. Aunt Hannie tugs her fingers through my hair, then stops the helmet mid-swing and cleans off the visor with a cloth.

“We’re never going to find any more kiloromite,” I say. “It’s all dug up already. That’s what Bruce’s older brother says, and he’s been working there 10 years! Why do I have to go? Why can’t I work for a different company? How about one that raises mountain goats. Do mountain goats bite?”

Aunt Hannie frowns. “There’s Mr. Thornton. Good luck today, Bernie.”

Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | December 27, 2013

The Other Side of the Curtain


The world feels deep and vast and vibrant and full of stunning shapes, but everything you see and hear and touch is no more than a painting on a fabric curtain. In places where the shapes align, where the air thins and the wind fails to gather, you can reach out and… tug.

It feels like ants crawling across your skin, looks like fireworks exploding behind your eyes, sounds like the silence before a scream. If you can bear it, keep tugging, and reality will slowly, surely, shift aside.

We live in the spaces behind the curtain — the dark pockets of intense emptiness. We are those who dared not let go of your reality completely. We died, but did not extinguish and dissipate into the lifestream. We clung to the thick, velvet fabric with tenacious desperation. If you ever see a single leaf swirling where there is no breeze, or an insect fall dead from the air, we are close by, just a hair’s breadth from your skin, yet the distance may as well be the size of the universe — for you cannot traverse it.

You might call us ghosts, but that word carries thoughts of Halloween and white sheets and mischief. A ghost haunts a painting on a curtain. It is a story, nothing more. But we are real. We cling like barnacles on the hull of an ocean liner in a raging hurricane. Below us, nothingness claws and reaches and snarls and begs to consume us, but we are stuck too tightly. Even if we wanted to let go, we couldn’t — not now.

Wait — stop. Are you really listening? Can you hear me whisper these words?

You are turning around, walking slowly back to the place where a spider dropped dead from its web a moment before. You see the spider on the ground. You look up and stare straight ahead — somehow, you stare past the trees and tombstones and through the crisp, windless autumn air.

Reach your hand up, yes, like that, and… tug.


You grimace and clench your jaw, but the curtain draws aside. Warm, soft, earthy smells surround me and for one blissful moment I drink in the contented fullness of life. And then the wind snaps the curtain shut and smashes into me, throwing me backwards and away, away…

A hurricane of leaves slaps into the boy’s face and he covers his head with his hands until it dies down. He doesn’t know what just happened, but he remembers seeing a slice of dark with pinpoints of stars even though it’s daytime. He remembers the dead spider. That was why he stopped. Did the wind blow it away?

He looks down at the ground, and there is the spider. But it’s not dead any more. It gets up and walks toward the boy’s fingers. It taps its front legs against his thumb three times, and then bows its head, as if to say… thank you.

Photo by Amadvr (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-ee], via Wikimedia Commons
Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | September 22, 2013

The Wizard Light


I recently attended a writing workshop for kids at Wellesley Books led by three amazing authors — Ammi-Joan Paquette, Erin Dionne, and Ellen Booraem. I brought my niece along, and she had a great time following the prompts and hearing passages from each author’s work. But of course I wasn’t going to just sit back and listen… I wanted to play, too! Above is the picture of my character that I had to work with, and the prompt (after figuring out a bit of his back story) was to write a chase scene.

Here is what I came up with, embellished and continued a bit while re-typing it here:

Aldo looked up — there, across the dark street in the next alley, a single light flickered. An other-worldly light, greenish-white and full of dancing sparks. A wizard light. Balthasar was here.

How did he find me? Aldo thought, heart racing. I traveled 2,000 miles!

Still, there he was — and Aldo refused to give him what he wanted.

The light moved — exiting the alley and drifting down the street — faster and faster. It knew where he was.

Aldo turned and ran, down the street and toward the park. Hopefully the open space and the trees would throw the old wizard off. He hated sunshine and green, growing things as much as Aldo loved them.

The light gained on him, pulsing and growing in size. Aldo turned just once to see a hand emerge, then an arm, a nose, and a head — Balthasar stepped out of the light and laughed.

Aldo ran smack into a wall. A wall that hadn’t been there one moment before — Balthasar must have summoned it.


Aldo touched the seeds in his pocket — the precious cargo he’d carried on trains and through subways and across dozens of state lines on midnight buses. The flowers they produced held more magic than anyone had ever seen. If Balthasar got his hands on them… he’d be unstoppable.

Aldo didn’t have time to think or take a deep breath or even say a prayer. He hated using magic, but he hated Balthasar more.

His other pocket held a single, small, white flower. The last one, unless someone got the seeds and grew more.

Aldo crushed it in his fingertips, and felt its magic drain into his hands, up his arms, and through his chest. His heart raced and sweat beaded on his forehead.

Balthasar saw, and roared. “No! You don’t dare!”

Aldo shook his head slowly, and shot straight up in the air — leaping over Balthasar’s wall in one, effortless, inhuman leap.

Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | May 30, 2013

In Memory


A person who meant a lot to me passed away this week. I painted this for his family and for myself, because the act of painting turned sadness into something beautiful.

Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | March 7, 2013

The Hero and the Horseshoe


Heroes fight dragons and rescue poor souls in distress. They gallop in on white stallions with smiles on their rugged faces and swords raised high in victory. True heroes never ask a reward — they do their work purely out of honor and a love for humanity. And maybe they like the attention.

Fergus was not a hero. In fact, he wasn’t even a sidekick. He had a sword, but that was about it. The sword was old and dented, the handle gave him blisters, and he had an aching bruise on his thigh from the scabbard banging against his leg.

Fergus also had a big nose and a pile of wild orange hair. When people talked about him, which wasn’t often, they would say, “You know, Fergus with the nose and the carrot-top.”

He wished they would mention the sword. Swords just weren’t things most people carried nowadays. You’d see the occasional dagger, maybe a pouch of sleeping powder, but no swords. They were too awkward and uncomfortable and there was nothing around to fight off with a sword.

The country of Uborg hadn’t fought a war or even a battle in 100 years. The last true hero was Terrence the Magnificent, who united Uborg into one nation, defeated the last dragon, and married the princess Bonnie. They had thirty children, and Fergus’ father’s sister’s husband’s cousin’s mother was one of them. Number twenty-seven or twenty-eight.

A statue of Terrence stood in the city square right outside Fergus’ house. Every day, he walked past that statue on his way to work as a dishwasher at the palace. “A distant cousin of Terrence the Magnificent shouldn’t be a dishwasher,” said Fergus’ mother. He agreed, but knew it best not to say anything. His meager earnings were enough to buy his mother a few pieces of fresh fruit once a week, and the occasional new hat.

Fergus was thinking about the latest hat his mother had her eyes set on — a veritable fountain of blue and purple feathers festooned with real dried berries and plums — when he passed the statue one spring morning. He was imagining birds landing on his mother’s head to eat the plums, and it made him giggle. The giggle made him hiccup, and he almost tripped over something lying at the statue’s feet. His scabbard swung around and jabbed him in the hip, but he managed to keep his balance and pick up… a horseshoe.

It was huge – much too big for a real horse, but just the right size for the horse in the statue. Fergus walked around and looked at all four hooves, but none of them had horseshoes. Certainly none of the hooves seemed to be missing any pieces. Where did it come from? He felt a creeping discomfort, and almost put the horseshoe back on the ground.

But someone else might trip on it, he thought. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the thing, tying the sleeves to make a bundle he could carry.

And then he went to work.

And he didn’t think about the horseshoe again until that night, when he realized that through the entire day at work — a beet soup and roast lamb day, where the plates are all stained cherry red – his boss hadn’t yelled or slapped him even once. No one teased him about his big nose, his hair, or his sword. He hadn’t dropped a single tea cup and his stack of washed dishes was higher than everyone else’s. In fact, it had been his very best day of work ever.

Fergus took out the horseshoe and set it on his bedside table. Coincidence? Perhaps. But he thought the shoe seemed a little shinier than it had this morning. A little more… heroic.

To be continued…

Photo by Brocken Inaglory [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | February 24, 2013

Cabin in the Woods

pink flower

It’s just a cabin in the woods, nothing more. Some hunter or fisherman built it to escape from a dead-end day job and hectic family life. Right?

That’s what I told myself, the first time I saw it, on a snowy late winter day. We’d wandered off the path somehow. It was just a day hike, killing time. Me and Andre and Sven. We were talking about helicopters – could you equip one with missels, or would that throw off the balance?

“If you could,” argued Sven, “Someone would have done it already.”

“How do you know they haven’t?” I said. “Could be a top secret government lab hidden around here and we’d never know it.”

“Drones are the really scary thing,” said Andre.

“Hey, there’s the top secret lab!” Sven bumped my shoulder. “Right there.”

We looked up the hill, and there it was. Broken chimney, crumbling roof, boarded up windows. And an  electricity meter. Power lines ran up from the meter to a pole farther up the hill, then trailed off into the woods and out of sight.

Lines also snaked around the corner of the building and inside, held in place by brand new, shiny screws.

“Maybe this hunter likes to play Xbox while he waits for deer to wander by,” joked Sven.

I laughed. We walked around the cabin a few times, tried the door. It was locked, obviously.

And we left.

But a few weeks later, we came back. The weather was starting to warm up. You know that muddy-wet-squishy weather when everything smells rotten. But it was so nice to go out without a jacket. We had to look around for a while to find it, but finally we climbed the right hill and there it was.

“Hey, did the electricity meter go up?” Andre read off the number, “3640,” but none of us could remember what it had been before.

I walked around the building again, then noticed something. For the whole walk, we’d seen these tiny white flowers poking up between the tree trunks. All around the cabin, for at least a hundred yards, there were no flowers. Some grass, and trees and bushes, but no flowers.

“Maybe the Xbox-playing hunter hates flowers and pulls them all out,” said Andre when I told him.

Sven wasn’t around. He’d decided to follow the power lines to see where they went.

Ten minutes later he came back. “Um, guys?” he said. “The lines stop. They go for a while, then they just stop.”

We followed him, and sure enough, after seven poles, the lines just dangled down, dead and definitely disconnected from the grid.

We ran back to the electricity meter. “3641,” I read.

“No. No way!” said Andre. Sven pulled out his phone where he’d noted down the number before, just so we’d be absolutely sure next time.

Then we heard a noise, like Thump – swish. 

“Someone’s inside.” I said, and we ran.

But we couldn’t stop talking about it, and a few days later we went back. A bunch of bushes were blooming now, and as we got closer to the cabin, it was clear that the flower thing wasn’t just some strange taste in gardening. The same bushes grew right up against the cabin, but these ones didn’t have a single flower. Not even a bud.

“4003,” said Sven. Then he took out a piece of wire. Picking the lock had sounded like a great idea back home. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

Thump, thump, swish.

“What if it’s a prisoner? Some kind of super dangerous dude who had to be locked away out here?” I said.

“It’s probably just a raccoon that climbed in through the broken chimney,” said Andre. “We’re doing a good deed letting it out.

Sven was working on the lock, now, sliding the wire back and forth.

I watched the meter. Every few minutes it flashed to all zeros, then back to 4003. After maybe eight minutes, it went up. 4004.

At that moment, Sven looked up in triumph and pulled the door open.

Thump, thump, thump. 

My muscles twitched and I wanted to run more than anything. But I’d never live it down. If we got out of here alive, that is.

“A horse?” Sven shouted. “It’s a freaking horse?”

Andre and I crowded around the door and looked in. Sure enough, a majestic white beast stood inside, its head almost brushing against the low ceiling.

“It doesn’t smell…horsey,” I said. “There’s no manure. No food.” My aunt and uncle had a farm, so I knew that if you put a horse in a cabin, you should be able to smell it from a mile away.

Then I remembered the flowers. How they didn’t grow around the cabin. This horse didn’t look hungry. It was an absolutely bizarre idea that didn’t make any sense, but somehow I knew that this creature had been eating those flowers, from afar, before they could even bloom. Like, absorbing their energy.

“I don’t think it’s a horse,” said Andre. “Guys, I think we found a unicorn.”

Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | December 30, 2012

Goat Scouts


“Where are those idiot goats this time?”

My mom shouts loud enough for the whole town to hear. I walk out back and sure enough, the pen is empty. No one left the door open, and they didn’t chew a hole through the wire – that’s pretty much impossible now that dad installed two extra layers around the outside.

“Did they jump out?” asks my little sister Suri. “Hali, I think they jumped! Like this!” She starts jumping as high as she can, which isn’t very.

But I clap for her and say, “Yes, I think you’re right!”

Mom brushes her forehead with the bandana she keeps stuffed in her right pocket. It’s not really hot out, not yet anyway, but she always sweats a lot when she’s angry. “Two baby goats jumped six feet in the air? Ok, girls. Whatever you say.”

“We’ll find them, Mommy,” Suri says. “Right, Hali?”

I feel my plans for the day spiraling away like water down a drain. Searching for the goats was not on the agenda. I was going to go over to Kyra’s house and work on our dance moves for the talent show, then go to the store to spend the five dollars I earned yesterday helping dad install the extra wire. I had narrowed the choices down to either three bags of gummi fish, or one of those necklaces on display right next to the register. The ones with tiny dolphins and pearls. Probably the necklace, because if I buy candy, I have to share with Suri.

“Let’s go, Hali! Let’s find them right now!” She bounces up and down, somehow jumping higher now than she did when she was trying to show me how high she could jump.

“Ok.” I trail behind her as she half-skips, half-runs down our dirt driveway and out onto the road.

“We’ll follow their tracks! Just like Apache scouts,” she says. They must be on the second grade unit on Native Americans. I stare at the ground, but all I see are the ruts from dad’s truck. The ground is too hard and dry for goat footprints to stick.

But Suri turns right like she knows where she’s going, and I follow.

I wish we never got those goats. It was all dad’s idea, that we’d have a real farm out here in the middle of nowhere. Now mom and I have to take care of all the animals while he works extra hours at the restaurant. At first, I thought it was cool that we had goats and chickens and a cow, but that lasted all of two days. Until I had to muck out my first stall full of poop. Ick!

Suri’s too young and small to do much other than fill the feed troughs or get eggs from the hen house. So to her, it’s still a big exciting adventure.

“Look! It’s a goat track!” Suri bends down and points to a dent in the dirt on the side of the road. It doesn’t look like much of anything to me.

“Sure, so where are they?”

“This way!” Suri leads us into the brush. It’s the shortcut we take when we walk to school — down a steep embankment through a grove of reaching mesquite trees. We’ve made a path for ourselves that dad helps us clear twice a year. It’s almost time to get out here with the clippers again – I have to duck to get through. Suri is small enough to walk right on through.

Then I hear something. Maa-aa-aa, maa-aa-aa.


“Shhh!” We tiptoe forward and around the bend, and there they are. Two baby goats, standing in the sand, looking lost and hungry.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Suri says.

I nod.

“I let them out,” she whispers. “Because I wanted to go on an adventure with you. Wasn’t it a great adventure?”

I think about the talent show, and the dolphin necklace waiting for me at the store, and how it’s going to take at least another hour to catch these goats with rope and drag them back home…

“Yes, it was a great adventure, Suri. We’re real goat scouts, you and me.”

Photo by Kalaiarasy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | October 17, 2012

Memorial Bridge

He tells me about the cancer on the World War I Memorial Bridge, and all I can think about is the shadow stretched out on the water. The color of the shadow is almost violet against the murky green of the river. Why isn’t it deep, impenetrable black? What right does a shadow have to be a pretty color?

“There’s treatment. Chemotherapy, operations. I’ll pull through.” Chris smiles his easy smile, the one that used to make my heart flutter when he glanced across the room in pre-calc freshman year. “Come on, Tia, say something.”

“You’re seventeen! You can’t get cancer at seventeen. It doesn’t happen.” In my mind, the cancer is a shadow spreading through Chris’ body, sending out dark fingers from his gut and grabbing at lungs and heart and all the other organs that let him smile and run track and wrap me in hugs that lift my feet off the ground.

“I’m young and strong, right? It’s the old dudes who don’t make it.”

I watched lung cancer take my grandfather. It worked slowly, but it ate through him piece by piece until there was nothing left. I don’t think cancer cares if you’re young or old.

“Tee, Tia, look at me.”

I’m staring at the shadow of the bridge again. If I look at his eyes, I’ll cry, and I can’t let that happen. I’m supposed to be the strong one, right? The one whose high school sweetheart dies young, so I create a foundation to raise money for cancer research and I speak at rallies and everyone says how strong I am and how caring. But all I want to do is run away, run back to the car and drive home, leave Chris here, wake up tomorrow morning and forget this ever happened.

I’m a coward.

“God won’t let me die.” He speaks softly, urgently. Like he knows he’s about to lose me to my own fear. “I prayed, I really did. It was like, this voice inside of me. I know it sounds weird, but I really felt it. I felt something say that I would be fine. That He has other plans for me.”

I tear my gaze from the water and look deep into his dark brown eyes. “I don’t believe in God.”

He’s crying, silent drops glistening on his cheeks. He shared terrible news with me, then bared his soul, and I stomped all over it. Something shrivels inside of me, shirks away from touching or comforting him. Like I’ll catch the cancer, or the religion, or something. Who am I?

I force myself to step forward and put my arms around him. I hear myself saying the right things. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m just in shock, that’s all. I love you.”

But it’s like those words belong to someone else, some girl who’s really Chris’ girlfriend. I’m not his girlfriend any more. I’m a disgusted monster who wants to be anywhere but here.

A man approaches walking a small white dog with a curly tail. He sees us embracing and I can almost hear him thinking, Teenagers! Get a room. 

I wish he would say it out loud. Then maybe I’d have an excuse to let go, to step back and fold my arms and let the physical distance settle until Chris understands that I can’t be the one to help him through this.

I can’t.

But the man walks on by without a word. The dog sniffs at Chris’ ankle on the way past and he smiles and wipes his face, as if there were never a single wet spot.

“I love you, too. Tia. We’ll get through this together. You’re everything to me.”

We won’t, and I’m not.

But I don’t say these things. I just stand with him, agree with him, until he’s ready to go back to the car.

I take one last backward glance at the water, but the shadow is gone now, faded into darkness as the sun set.

Photo by Poco a poco (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | October 6, 2012

Left in the Rain

“Come on, Gabe!” Petra grabs my hand and drags me into the falling rain. Her hair sticks to her face and arms in long strands like abstract tattoos. Our feet in soaked sneakers slurp against the pavement as we run through the park. So loud. Did we get away with it?

Don’t look back.

From here it’s hard to remember things spoken and imagined in far off times. We sat together in classrooms and fast food joints. We shared notes and french fries. What did we promise? What did we swear never to do? The words fade. What remains is the shape of her body running in the rain — shoulders hunched, messanger bag slapping against her side.

I strapped my own bag on securely — inside I can hear the faint chink of silver spoons, plates, and jewelry, wrapped in cloth that’s coming loose. We turn a bend and Petra ducks into a bandstand, catching her breath. She collapses to the mostly dry floor in the center, and laughs — a bright, barking noise.

My own fear lifts, rising from my feet through my chest and evaporating. I’m so light I feel like I could take off and zoom through the sky.

“We did it!” I say. The past doesn’t matter. I can’t go back — I’ve committed robbery and it feels great.

“How much did we get?” She pulls my bag around and peers inside. “It’s all sterling?”

“Sure. I think.”

“Don’t think.” She stares at me, her eyes suddenly hard and commanding. “Know.”

“Yes, all silver and gold.” How much will it get us? I wonder. Thousands, hundreds of thousands? Petra has a cousin who will buy it, no questions asked.

We didn’t do it for the money, I remind myself. It was revenge.

“When will they notice, do you think?” Petra throws my bag back to me, shakes out her hair and rubs her nose on her sleeve.

I smile, imagining principal Jonah, her husband, and her son Micah sitting down to dinner at that long, polished dining room table, waiting for the maid to bring out silver platters, then discovering, to their dismay, that there were no silver platters. Not anymore.

I almost wish we’d done more — slashed through their paintings, or torn up the flower beds. But Petra didn’t want to. She didn’t want to destroy, just take from them as they took from her.

She won the scholarship money fair and square. Not the Jonah’s spoiled son. We studied together for months, and she told me after the test that she had known every single answer. Her score came in the mail, and it was perfect. Just one single mistake. That’s all. One out of five hundred questions.

But Micah scored 100%. And I saw the look in principal Jonah’s eyes, the smirk when she announced the winner.

They cheated.

But how could we prove it? We couldn’t. Petra couldn’t afford college on her own.

The robbery was her idea. They owed her, she’d make them pay up.

I’m a willing accessory. The boyfriend side-kick with some mad fence-climbing and alarm deactivating skills.

Whooo, it feels great to be home-free! I reach out to wrap Petra in a hug and kiss her on the lips — where did she go?

I hear the sirens, see blue and red lights smearing through the rain.

I’m standing here alone, stolen silver and gold at my feet. And she’s gone.

Photo by Tomascastelazo (Own work) [<a href=”″>CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>%5D, <a href=””>via Wikimedia Commons</a>
Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | September 26, 2012


To find me, find the silver key. To get the key, go to the twisted tree. The tree you’ll see is by the sea. A sea of red and blue and green, and deep beneath, the me you seek.

The rhyme played over and over in Rico’s head. It was a silly kids’ riddle. Just something you sing when you’re picking corn all day or playing toss coin. It didn’t mean anything.

But then he saw the twisted tree.

It was right at the edge of the ocean, where the land dropped down suddenly in a short cliff of broken rock and clinging barnacles. Above, grass went right up to the edge and a single tree had grown in the strangest crooked, twisting shape Rico had ever seen. It looked like an old shoe string.

Rico might have ignored it, but there was a man sitting beneath the tree. A white-bearded man playing a funny-looking instrument with just two strings. He plucked one, then the other, and sang the rhyme, over and over. “To find me, find the silver key. To get the key, go to the twisted tree…”

Rico’s father hadn’t noticed. He kept walking up the road pushing the cart full of feed they’d just purchased for the goats. He wouldn’t mind if Rico lagged behind a little. As long as he was home in time to do all his chores.

Rico took a few steps towards the man. Was he drunk? Crazy? He didn’t want to get too close, but he was too curious to keep walking.

“Hey!” Rico shouted, but the man kept singing.

“What’s the silver key for?” he asked.

As soon as he said “key,” the singing and strumming stopped. The man looked up and smiled, showing a mouth full of missing and broken teeth.

“For you, boy.”

Rico turned and ran after his father, heart pounding. The man was definitely crazy.

But for the next week, he couldn’t get the rhyme out of his head. He tried to tell his friends what happened, but every time he opened his mouth to say, “Hey, you guys ever seen a freaky old guy playing music?” His tongue would feel too heavy and his head would hurt and somehow, he never said anything.

He fed the goats and watched his little sister Alma but somehow, things were different. He felt unsettled, like eyes followed him wherever he went, like a stranger was breathing just over his shoulder.

“Leave me alone!” He shouted one evening at nothing, and Alma woke up crying.

“Rico!” His mother picked up the baby and glared. “Get some air. You’re too cooped up lately.” She brushed her hair back into place over the burn-scarred half of her face. The fire three years ago had killed Rico’s older brother Uri, and almost killed his mother. Rico and his father had been sleeping out with the goats that night, keeping watch over the pregnant one. Now his mother covered the scars on her skin and no one talked about the bigger scar. The one that no amount of combing and brushing and smoothing could ever cover up.

Rico walked out. It was almost evening — that bright-yellow-sky time of day when the edges of everything sharpened and shadows stretched long and thin. He didn’t want to play toss coin or even football. He walked and stared at his shoelaces. Watched the untied one twist and contort with each step.

He looked up. The tree.

Pluck, strum, pluck, strum. The old man wasn’t singing this time, but the tune he played was the same. So was his toothless smile.

Rico shuffled forwards. “The key is for me?”

“Ah-ah, boy. The silver key is for you. The me is beneath the sea! Hee hee.”

“You, then. Can… uh… you have it?”

Pluck, strum. The man lifted the instrument, tipped it to the side, and out dropped a tiny key.

Rico bent to pick it up, but the man put one bare foot on top of it. His toes twisted together, full of bumps and boils like the bark of the tree.

“If you take the key, you must seek me.”

“Yeah, deep beneath the sea of red and blue and green?” Rico felt silly saying this, like he was five or six instead of ten, but suddenly he needed that key. More than anything. If he had it, he could fix everything — help them all forget Uri, or maybe remember him better. Or maybe the key would even turn back time. Rico would walk into that kitchen and pour buckets and buckets of water over the old stove, before it could smolder and burn.

The key was the answer.

The old man moved his foot, and Rico picked it up. It glinted silver in the evening light, no larger than his thumbnail.

The ocean would be cold tonight, but Rico knew what he had to do next — swim.

Photo by Wilfredor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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