“This will be the last one, General,” droned a faceless man.
A guard with mud-colored eyes and a dazed expression on his face brought the last prisoner into the dungeon. The prisoner was barefoot, wore tattered rags for clothes, and had a foul bag slung over her head hiding her tangled black hair. The guard guided the woman to a thick, iron chair in the middle of the room and shoved her down. He tied the prisoner’s wrists and ankles in place with strips of leather.
The faceless man removed the soiled bag from the prisoner’s head. He then slammed a metal stand onto the stone floor at the prisoner’s feet. The collision of metal and rock created a shower of sparks causing the prisoner to recoil and cover her eyes, as if the dark room had been flooded with a bright light.
“At last,” said the general, securing his sword to the stand.
As the prisoner’s gray eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, she couldn’t help but notice the uniquely shaped sword before him. The blade had three edges and was shaped like a star. Beneath the blade rested a black crossbar with a leather handle bound with silver thread. The blade’s capstone, set in the pommel, was a green gem of unprecedented beauty and pureness.
The prisoner was scared and, yet, curious. She surveyed the numerous bookshelves that filled the walls of the gloomy chamber. Each was full of moth-eaten scrolls and dust-covered books piled high in no particular order. The prisoner then noticed five rectangular tables in front of her. Each was covered with a variety of gems, tools, and scientific devices. She quickly whispered a silent prayer, pleading not to be part of any strange experiments.
Over the years in the dungeon, the prisoner had seen her family and friends dragged from their cells and into this secret chamber. None ever returned. She had imagined the room to be more splendid than this dungeon laboratory. How thankful she felt that her husband had been spared this fate.
The faceless man grabbed a large, iron goblet from the nearest table and, with the help of the guard, filled the prisoner’s mouth with purple ooze. The prisoner fought to no avail as the fiery potion coated her throat. She convulsed against her restraints, coughing and gagging. She came to rest hunched forward, almost lifeless. Unable to move her body, but fully aware of her surroundings, the prisoner stared vacantly through her new, mud-colored eyes.
The general cracked his knuckles and got into position for the final time. The faceless man and the guard exited the dungeon. After closing the door, an intense green light radiated from beneath. Once the light faded, and a soft thump resonated from inside, the general’s associates reentered the room. They lifted their superior’s limp-but-breathing body from the floor, unhooked his sword from the metal stand, and carried him up the many stairs to his private quarters; leaving an empty room in their wake.
The man had no face. He wore a long trench coat with a hood that hung to where his eyes should have been. Instead of skin, I saw emptiness, as if someone had erased his features. And he was standing behind a blue minivan across the street from my house.
I’d stepped out my front door and there he was, staring at me. He made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I fumbled for the silver key in my pocket. I found it, but immediately dropped it because my fingers were shaking. I picked it up off the porch and quickly locked the door behind me. When I turned around again, the faceless man was gone.
The feeling of being watched made my skin crawl. I found my bike on its side in the middle of the lawn. As I pedaled towards the blue minivan, I couldn’t shake the thought of the faceless man jumping out and grabbing me. But he never did. The only thing behind the minivan was a couple of dandelions growing through a crack in the sidewalk.
I headed to my best friend’s house. Alex and I met when we were seven, and over the next seven years we’ve become inseparable. He only lived a few blocks away. I cut across the neighbor’s yard and down a trail through the woods. I rode over some dirt humps and around a high-banked turn. I rejoined the street at the faded salmon-colored mailbox. It used to be yellow, but I broke the old one during Alex’s ninth birthday party.
A boy in a blue football jersey and jeans said, “Hey, Spoon, you made it.”
Spoon isn’t my real name, of course. It’s Ethan Spooner. With a last name like Spooner, it didn’t take long to get shortened.
I skidded to a stop and said, “Sorry I’m late.” I kept quiet about the faceless guy. I didn’t want Alex to make fun of me. “My mom said I couldn’t leave the house unless I’d finished two chapters of the assigned reading.”
“But it’s only Monday,” said Alex, looking at me sideways.
“That’s exactly what I told her,” I said, getting off my bike. “But you know how she gets about me putting things off.”
Alex nodded. He was seated in the middle of his driveway, with the guts of what appeared to be an old weed whacker scattered around him. He touched the copper end of a red wire to the post of an old car battery. “What do you want to do today?” he asked, making a spark.
“You’re going to electrocute yourself again,” I said, watching a twinkle of pleasure in his eyes.
“This thing is mostly dead.”
“Right,” I said. I thought about his previous question. “We could kill some aliens.”
“I’d love to, but we can’t,” said Alex, grabbing another wire, this one black. He touched it to the battery’s other post. Nothing happened. His lips pressed together into a frown. “We broke the console.”
“We were playing the new racing game this morning,” he explained. “I won three games in a row. I let my brothers know how great I was. They tackled me, and the console got kicked in the process.”
This kind of thing occurred a lot with Alex and his two brothers.
“Now what are we going to do?” I said, happy to see him disconnect the wires from the battery’s posts.
“I have just the thing,” he said, smiling wolfishly.
Within an hour I was crouched in a lookout, which was nothing more than a few hunks of plywood nailed between two thick branches, way up in a Douglas fir tree. Being thirty feet in the air gave me a perfect view of the combat zone. Set in front of me was a bucket of ammo – pinecones soaked in water. They’re heavier and easier to throw when they’re wet. They also leave a nice welt on bare skin. If you think that’s bad, we freeze them in the winter.
“Here they come,” I called out to Alex. He was stationed inside a tree house fifteen feet below me with three buckets of ammo.
“I see ‘em,” he said.
Two boys came hurdling towards us. One was an eleventh grader, and the other was a sixth grader. Both were Alex’s brothers. They wore camouflage shirts that they’d bought at a garage sale.
The older brother slipped behind a tree and chucked pinecones so fast that they whistled through the air. The wooden walls of the tree house thudded like drums with every hit. Alex’s brothers had soaked their ammo, too.
The youngest brother hid behind a cluster of alders. He was the weakest thrower. What he lacked in velocity he more than made up for in foot speed. In a matter of seconds he was under the tree house and out of our sight.
We kept the two brothers pinned down with our barrage of pinecones. I hit Alex’s older brother multiple times on the arms, legs, and shoulders, and his younger brother twice on the top of the head. Alex drilled his older brother’s shin. My early success soon ran out with my ammo.
“Here comes Spoon,” shouted the younger brother.
Alex’s older brother rushed for the base of the tree house, zigzagging around ferns and trees. He reached his younger brother. Together they tagged me as I climbed down from the lookout. I finally reached the trap door in the roof of the tree house, welts and all.
The tree house was put together with two-by-fours and mismatched pieces of plywood. Alex and his brothers got the materials from a scrap pile next to a house that was being remodeled across the street. The tree house could hold six boys with ease. It was built with a Douglas fir tree growing through the middle. It had four walls, three lawn chairs for furniture, and a homemade zip line for an escape route.
Alex and I rotated between two of the windows, and two remaining buckets of pinecones, like a pair of snipers. I was able to land direct hits almost every time a head, elbow, or knee poked out below. A pinecone hit Alex on the forearm, causing him to yelp in pain.
“I’m almost out,” I said, dodging a pinecone that ricocheted around the inside of the tree house.
“Me too,” said Alex, showing me the last five pinecones in his bucket.
I hurled my last two pinecones, both hitting the youngest brother in the back. “Zip line?” I asked.
“Zip line,” agreed Alex.
We climbed through the trapdoor and onto the roof. I reached for the first zip line handle, grabbed on, and jumped off the roof.
“They’re taking the zip lines!” shouted someone from below.
Now I know what you’re picturing in your head. One of those professional zip lines that people ride on vacations. But like I said, this is a homemade zip line. It was no more than a thick rope tightened between two trees with a rusty winch. Don’t get me wrong, sailing twenty feet over the forest floor is fun. It’s just that our zip line isn’t made with wire cable. It sags terribly in the center, sucking the speed right out of the ride.
As soon as my body sailed through the air, a whizzing pinecone hit me in the elbow. Another smacked against the bone of my ankle. One more thumped me in the side of the head. It hurt so bad that I struggled to keep hold of the handle. Alex’s brothers cheered every time I winced.
When I was close enough to the ground I released my grip. Letting my knees bend to absorb the fall, I gathered my balance and sprinted down a trail. Alex was right behind me. Last week, we’d stashed some pinecones in various spots throughout the forest. The closest was coming up on our right, hidden at the base of a green fern. All we had to do was get there.
Alex’s brothers charged after us, their feet thudding against the packed dirt. I threw my last pinecone over my shoulder. Sliding over the forest floor, I thrust my hand beneath the fern. No pinecones.
“What’s the matter,” heckled the older brother, “out of ammo?”
Alex rushed up behind me while shouting back at his brother, “You took our pinecones!”
“Why do you think we agreed to have a pinecone fight in the first place?” mocked the younger brother.
We had no choice but to run. Making ninety-degree turns, we charged back towards the tree house. “Head for my backyard!” Alex yelled.
Alex’s brothers used this time to tag us in the backs with pinecones they pulled from their fanny-packs. I hate fanny-packs. We sprinted over a rotting log, around a stump, and between two leafy bushes.
We reached the spot where Alex’s cherry wooden fence connected to his neighbor’s gray wooden fence. I planted one foot on the outside of the cherry fence, grabbed the top, and propelled myself into my best friend’s backyard. Pinecones banged against the wooden panels of the fence behind me.
With two hands, Alex pulled himself up. He sat on the top of the fence that divided his neighbor’s yard and his own. With his back to his neighbor’s house, and his legs dangling above his own yard, Alex scanned the ground for a safe place to land. But he never got the chance. A pinecone cracked him in the base of the skull. His arms went to the back of his head, and his body fell backward.
“Alex!” I hollered.
I ran up the side of the fence that separated the two yards, grabbed a hold of the top, and catapulted myself into the neighbor’s yard. Alex rolled around on his side holding his wrist. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” he moaned, louder each time.
“Let me see,” I said.
Alex removed his shaking hand from his injured wrist. It was red and swollen. Thankfully, no bones were sticking through his skin.
“Can you move your fingers?” I asked.
He wiggled them with a painful groan. “Barely.”
Alex’s brothers climbed into the neighbor’s yard, too. “Sorry, Alex,” apologized his oldest brother. “I didn’t know this would happen.”
Alex gritted his teeth. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Does it hurt?” Alex’s younger brother asked.
“Yeah,” said Alex, his voice sounding shaky. “I heard it crack.”
His brothers shuddered.
An elderly Asian woman ran out of her house. She had ash-gray hair, a wrinkled face, and pink bunny slippers. She held a rolling pin behind her head like a samurai warrior. “Get off my flowers!” she shouted.
I looked down at my shoes. I was standing on a bush with thorny branches and red blossoms. Alex had landed on a cluster of flowers with yellow and orange pedals. Both plants were smashed to pieces.
“Let’s get out of here before we get whacked,” said Alex’s oldest brother.
That sounded good to me. “We’re sorry about your flowers,” I said, apologizing to the old lady. “But I think my friend broke his wrist.”
The older woman stopped and stared at me, frozen. “Your Japanese is flawless,” she said, sounding amazed.
“What?” I asked.
“Where did you learn to speak it so well?” she asked. “You don’t even have an accent.”
I had no idea what the old lady was talking about. I turned toward Alex, who had a funny look on his face.
“What?” I asked, checking to see if my fly was open.
“You’re speaking to our neighbor’s grandmother,” he said.
“So,” I said. “She’s mad because we destroyed her flowers.”
Alex pressed his lips into a thin line, not appearing to be in pain at the moment. “She’s speaking Japanese,” he said slowly, as if to make a point.
“She is?” I asked.
My cheeks burned red hot as all three brothers nodded their heads.
I ignored their confused looks. “Whatever,” I shrugged. “Let’s get Alex out of here.”
They helped Alex up, but kept glancing at me like I was an alien. The four of us made our way out of the old woman’s backyard.
“Sorry,” I said to her as we were leaving.
“It’s alright,” she said in perfect English.