Z THE KINGDOM AT THE END OF THE DRIVEWAY V
B O O K
T H R E E
The Ending Feud
BY JEFFERSON KNAPP
oonlight illuminated the fog as it danced through the shadowy trees. Persly’s Woods was quiet and abandoned – or so it seemed. Inside the hollow trunk of a tall oak, five cottontail rabbits huddled together. The terror they’d encountered at the eastern edge of the forest had sent them running for their lives. Each one felt the others’ heartbeats, pounding rapidly. They waited (for how long they didn’t know), trying not to make a sound. Then… “Achoo!” “Shhh!” another scolded. They waited in silence for a moment, then froze. Crunch…crunch…crunch. All five gasped, and squeezed their eyes tightly shut. Fallen leaves and sticks snapped in the path of some thing, and it was getting closer. Crunch…crunch…crunch! The rabbits shook in terror. Suddenly a sound they’d never heard made their long ears twitch. Ring…crunch!…Ring, ring…crunch! And the sound was just outside the trunk. Two of the bunnies bravely opened an eye to peek at the unseen horror in the hazy fog. The others, afraid to look, tucked their heads far into the fur of the rabbits beside them. “Mmmmm!” A high-pitched whine was followed by an amused voice. “You think wood will save you?” They dared not reply. Ring! Ring! A small shadow entered the hollow. The rabbits
jumped and tried to flee. “Don’t leave this tree! It’s still not safe!” “Wh-who are y-you?” “I’m alive…just like you!” The strange voice grew eerily higher. “Mmmmmmmm!” Ring! Ring! “What is that sound?” a rabbit whispered. “That’s none of your business!” the stranger snapped. “Shhhhhh! We must keep our voices down.” “We…we saw something tonight,” a rabbit stammered. “It was close, but we couldn’t make out what it was. We were in the trees just east of here, looking for food, and heard a sound like the entire forest was rolling toward us.” The other rabbits stiffened at the memory. “We split up and ran as fast as we could away from… from whatever it was.” “It b-brushed up against m-me in the dark,” another rabbit added. “I tried to look away, but it was gigantic!” “Mmmmmmmmm.” The stranger’s disturbing smile was hidden by the darkness. “She has bigger things to eat than you tonight!” Ring! Ring! “She must go home…far from here…” “She? Y-You know where…she… lives?” “Hyack! Hyack!” It coughed, and its voice grew even higher. “Mmmmm. Rest up, little friends, and get some good sleep. Stay in here forever and don’t make a peep! For the time will come when—” The pale glow of the fog was cut by immediate darkness. The rabbits couldn’t see the terrified look on the face of the stranger. It allowed a gasp to slip out. “Sh-shh…” They could barely make out the stuttering advice. Something grazed the mighty oak that protected them, causing it to sway slightly. Trapped inside, they had no choice but to wait for their fate. Finally the darkness pulled away and the glowing fog stunned their eyes.
“Is she gone—” “Sh-shh!” The stranger waited a while longer, then stuck its head out of the hollow. Sniff! Sniff! “It’s gone.” “What was it? What did we see?” The stranger was no longer amused by the frightened company. “She slithers and slithers ‘til she goes to her lair. Far to the east there is a hill that holds many nightmares…and doesn’t let them out!” “Slith—? That was a s-snake?” The stranger hurriedly left the trunk. “Wait! W-Where are you going?” Ring! Ring! The shadow turned back to the hole of the frightened rabbits. “Stay away from Hermit Hill! There is something worse in that place than she!” BOOM! BOOM! The thundering noise, somewhere close by, drew a gasp from the stranger, who disappeared into the woods. Ring! Ring!…ring!…ring. The strange sound grew fainter. For hours the five rabbits stayed in the hollow trunk, shaking. They didn’t get a wink of sleep for the rest of the night. And in that hill of nightmares, neither did the Watermelon Queen.
Fall away, old friend, and cast off the burdens you now carry. Close your eyes and dream of a time so long ago…when your only worry was slaying a giant snake to save the girl of your dreams.
Z CHAPTER ONE V
Good Times and Worse
oooo boooooooo! The wail of a basset hound pierced the calm dusk of the Haverhill countryside. The pug smiled as she watched her friend hobble down the road. She had great news to share this week. The basset hopped up on the porch of the old country house, where the fat pug lay in dim yellow light. Moths flew crazily around the almost-burned-out bulb next to the door. “Okay, so what happened? That smile tells me you got to see your pups! Gossip spreads quick, ya know?” “Oh, it was the most amazing thing!” The pug sat up with the help of the hound’s snout. “Now don’t keep me waiting, Princess. Did they look like you?” “Biscuit, lemme tell ya, those boys were as cute as their daddy and as ornery as me!” The two dogs laughed. “Yep, Mac and Jonah just showed up out of the blue yesterday. Best surprise ever!” The pug snorted and then burped. “Mac and Jonah, I like those names!” “Yeah, they’re good boys, just like their daddy.” “Speaking of…tell me more about him…” “Pugsly…Pugsly, Pugsly, Pugsly…” Princess shook her head. “He had a special way about him, ya know? Like he was a king or something.” “A king?” Biscuit was taken aback. 7
“Yeah, it’s silly, but there was something different about Pugsly than any other creature I’ve met. He gave me four beautiful puppies and I was blessed to see two of ’em yesterday!” “Well, so what was Mac like?” “Oh, he was a kind and loving boy.” The pug plopped down on her side to rest. “Well-mannered and very courteous.” “And Jonah?” The basset’s blood-shot eyes widened. “Jonah…hmmmm…Jonah seemed to have some issues.” Princess’s flattened snout scrunched in even more. “They both wanted to know real badly who was born first, so I told ‘em, ‘First was their brother, then Mac, then their sister, and then Jonah.’” “Oh, so he’s the runt!” She laughed. “Hehe! Yeah, he is! But he got a little short with me after I told him that.” “Then what happened?” “Then I went to sleep! You think I keep this girlish frame without my beauty sleep?” They both laughed. “It sounds like they’re gonna live good lives like you, Princess.” “Yeah, Mac should live a pretty good life….Jonah I don’t know about. I think things may come a little hard for him.” The pug closed her eyes and shook her head. “And what about their sister?” “Hehe, she was adopted. Probably being pampered in some fancy-shmancy house…eatin’ more than me! Ha haaaa!” Her high-pitched laugh was followed by a snort. “And the oldest brother? Where did he go?” She stopped laughing and stared at the wooden floor for a long, quiet moment. 8
“Princess? You okay?” Her friend whimpered softly. “Princess?” The pug couldn’t talk. She broke down and cried like she hadn’t cried in a long time—since the night she’d lost her firstborn son. “H-h-he was just a newborn pup!” Sniff! Sniff! “H-h-he didn’t deserve to go!” “Princess, I-I…” The basset didn’t know what to say. She lowered her head and her long brown ears covered Princess’s tear-stained face in comfort. The pug soon fell asleep and dreamt better memories than the one on that dark, stormy night years ago in the tire shop.
Z CHAPTER TWO V
he night seemed long in the tiny town of Leon. The annual fall celebration, the Harvest Home Festival, had ended hours ago, but that was the last thing on the minds of those who decided to remain downtown. They were searching for the girl who only hours before had kicked off the celebration—Jessica Howell, the Watermelon Queen. Her parents were emotionally and physically exhausted but kept asking people where they’d last seen her. Even Jessica’s boyfriend, Derek, hadn’t seen her after they got separated in the crowd at the end of the Moonlight Drive concert. Standing in the middle of the street, Mr. Howell kept calling Jessica’s cell phone but always got her voicemail greeting. He shook his head at his wife, and she broke down crying once again. Deb Crissup tried her best to console Mrs. Howell, but the town drunk kept interrupting. “It was bigfoot, I tell ya!” The toothless, bearded man hobbled up to the grieving couple. “Hoker, not now! Go tell your stories somewhere else.” Deb stepped away from Jessica’s parents and swatted her hand at the boozy man. “He’s out there! Came into town and took her! Bet he stole my ridin’ lawnmower, too!” The man had been bitter about losing his mode of transportation ever since his license was taken away by Sheriff Turner. Deb nodded to a nearby group of people to distract Hoker as the Howells moved along. 10
Mr. Howell held the watermelon crown someone had found on the ground and Hoker spotted it. “Figures he didn’t take that. Bigfoot don’t like watermelon!” Hoker yelled, followed by a large belch. The people around him caught him before he fell to the ground. A pickup truck zoomed up the street and stopped in front of the Howells. Half of the Losing Lions football team was in the back. The quarterback, Dakota Demo, was at the wheel and Jessica’s boyfriend, Derek, leaned out the passenger window. “Still haven’t seen anything, Mr. Howell,” Derek called out. The boys in the back looked down somberly. Mr. Howell couldn’t say anything. “W-we’ll keep looking! C’mon guys!” The truck sped away and disappeared around a turn. Mr. Howell compulsively dialed Jessica’s cell phone again. A group of kids far down the street were coming back from a search. Riiiing! Ring! Ring! Ring!! A girl stopped and looked around. There was a trash can in front of a café behind them. She walked up to it and peeked inside the dark opening. RIIIIING! RING! RING! RING! Taking an uneasy breath, she puckered her face and stuck her arm in. Her fingers probed the space until she felt the familiar plastic square and pulled it out. It rang loudly in her face. Her curious friends surrounded her. Through the mustard and ketchup globs she read the lit screen from the incoming call: Dad. Her thumb nervously pressed the Talk button. “Huh-hello?” She heard a gasp. “OH! OH, HONEY!” Mr. Howell turned to his wife with a look of shock. She grabbed his arm. “Jessica, are you okay?!” “Um…” The girl didn’t know what to say. “Mr. Howell, this is Sausha. I’m at the end of the street.” Through the hazy streetlights Mr. Howell saw the girl waving back at him among a group of friends. “I…I found her phone in this trash can…” 11
Mr. Howell started to sob and dropped his phone to the ground. He hugged his wife. Sausha ran to them and held out Jessica’s cell phone. Mrs. Howell took it. “Thank you.” The town drunk watched from a distance. He felt the need to yell but decided to keep it under his beer-soaked breath. “Bigfoot don’t need no cell phone…” Sheriff Turner soon arrived to take the phone and have it fingerprinted. For a few hours longer everyone stayed to comfort the Howells, until they decided to go home. They’d talked to everyone they could think of, including the Biggses, but got no answers. They were still a little skeptical of Benjamin, though. There was something strange about that boy. Not only did Jessica discover him snooping around their house a few nights back, but shortly after that their pug went missing. What they never saw, however, was Benjamin crawling into the hole of a fox den down the road, or Benjamin talking to the animals living in the giant cave beneath it. But Benjamin Biggs would no longer be doing that…or so it seemed. In the same late hour the Howells arrived home, young Benjamin Biggs was unable to sleep, thinking about his inevitable, upcoming encounter with a snake twice as big as the one who’d tried to eat him just over a month ago. And a little pug named Jonah was trapped in a barrel inside the belly of that very snake. It was a bad night for everyone in Haverhill. The darkness inside the Trojan Pig barrel made Jonah nauseous. He was only in this predicament because of his so-called friend Malcolm’s harebrained scheme. “We get inside and let her swallow us. She takes us back to her lair then pukes us back up!” the raccoon had told him. “When she’s asleep, we sneak out and kill her!” Jonah tried to remember why he would do such a thing. “You’re gonna be a 12
hero…unlike that no-good brother of yours.” Oh yeah, that’s right…Mac. Jonah tried not to think about his ever-growing frustration with his older brother. He was too busy trying to stay calm, only failing every few minutes (which seemed like hours). He’d felt no movement for a while and knew the monstrous snake had to be asleep. His breaths were getting shorter. Little air was reaching him. Hopelessness overcame him. He would die soon. Jonah tried not to fall asleep, but when he nodded off he was quickly awakened by the muted, high-pitched screams of a human girl. Oh no… He closed his eyes. “Where are we?” he nervously whispered to the darkness.
CHAPTER THREE V
A Somber Bus Ride
draft of cool, early-morning air shot into Benjamin’s bedroom and whipped across his face. He grabbed the sheet and blanket and wrapped them around his body. A warm pocket in his bed gave him the comfort he’d been seeking all night long. He’d spent hours tossing, turning, and staring up at the shadowy ceiling in thought, then had finally fallen asleep. Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Benjamin jumped up, disoriented from the annoying alarm clock ringing in his ear. Slamming his hand down on the snooze button, he fought the urge to return helplessly into the warm pocket and sleep forever. He stood up. A second blast of cold wind was his instant wake-up call. He didn’t take long putting on his school clothes. His father’s attempt at covering the window had failed. The plastic blew carelessly in and out. He still couldn’t believe Malcolm had broken in the night before. He thought he could trust his raccoon friend. Another shot of air whooshed through. “…’Coons.” Benjamin muttered under his breath. Seeing his mom and dad sitting at the breakfast table as usual gave him a lift. But the kitchen was quiet. Benjamin could tell they were worried. “Good morning,” Benjamin said softly. “G’morning, Ben.” His mom stood up and placed her coffee cup on the counter. “I want you to be sure and get on that bus 14
this morning. Okay, son?” His mother’s serious tone got Benjamin’s attention. “Uhh… yeah I will. Don’t worry.” Only three days ago he’d missed the school bus and blamed it on the death of old Mrs. Crane down the road. In reality he was playing around in the hidden cave at the end of the driveway. He didn’t forget to add, “…I-I think I’m finally getting over Mrs. Crane.” Tom and Carol looked uneasy. “When did the police say they would come to check out the break-in?” Carol asked. “They just said sometime this morning. I’ve gotta get to work so it looks like you’ll be the one who talks to them.” Tom gave his wife a kiss on the cheek, then nonchalantly nodded his head toward the hall, signaling her to follow. Benjamin put two pieces of bread in the toaster and watched his parents walk into their bedroom. He followed, placing one ear at their doorway to hear the whispered conversation. “I can’t believe Mrs. Howell would say something like that!” “Ben doesn’t hang out with that kind of crowd.” Benjamin squinted, wanting to know what Mrs. Howell had said about him. “Well it doesn’t matter anyway; he was with us the whole time.” There was a pause. “Sweetie, we can’t blame them for reacting this way. We’d be looking for answers everywhere if something happened to Ben.” Benjamin sighed and returned to the kitchen. The past day had been a rough one. Jessica Howell was missing; he was no longer king of, or even a part of, the kingdom; his raccoon friend Malcolm had stolen his social studies project to destroy the giant snake in Persly’s Woods. He knew this would be one of the longest days of his life. Now what else could go wrong? “Benjamin! It’s 7:30!” His mom glared at him. 15
“I know, I’m headed that way.” He fumbled to put on his backpack as he walked through the front room, a piece of toast in his teeth. “Have a good day, son.” Tom stood at the end of the hallway, straightening his tie. “Aw rite, Dahd.” Benjamin took a big bite and tried to hang onto the toast that dangled from his lips. “Goodbye, sweetheart,” he heard his mom call out before he shut the front door. The morning was indeed cool and the wind was blowing enough to send small ripples across the gray mirrored pond along the driveway. Benjamin finished the toast as he walked down the drive, staring at the fox den. It looked strangely quiet. He tried not to think about it but he couldn’t help it. Thousands of his animal friends were in the cave under it and he could no longer talk to them. It was going to be harder to say goodbye than he thought. He heard a low hum in the distance, beyond the tree line along the road. Al, the school bus driver, was in the last stretch of road before the Biggs’s mailbox. Benjamin picked up his pace. The chipped dark-yellow paint on the front of the bus popped out of the blocking trees. Benjamin took a deep breath. “And so it begins…” The squeaky doors unfolded and Benjamin lifted a foot onto the first step. An exhausted Al sat above him. Usually he smirked or made a funny face, but not today. Al was one of the many people who’d stayed late to look for Jessica in downtown Leon. He offered only a tiny, sympathetic smile as Benjamin climbed up and turned down the aisle. They both knew the next stop was Jessica Howell’s. Benjamin tossed his backpack onto the dark-green, dusty seat in the back and plopped down. To his left were a couple of younger girls, whispering and glancing. He knew they were 16
talking about him but he didn’t care. There were lots of things people could never understand about him, and for the past month he had learned to live with it. The bus bounced down the road ‘til the brakes started to creak at the next stop. Whatever was going on before the bus slowed at Jessica’s driveway immediately ceased. Every face peered up over a seat to look at her house through fingersmudged window squares. A wave of sadness overcame Benjamin. Jessica’s mom stood next to the front gate, hunched over and cold, a tissue in her hand. Shaking her head hopelessly, she waved the bus on. Al nodded back, offering the same sympathetic smile.
Z CHAPTER FOUR V
The Beast and the Blind Beaver
he creature panted, tormented by another day of thirst that the morning dew could not quench. The beast was hungry, too, and worst of all, lost. Its breathing hardened with every dry heave. The forest towered above, and faded-yellow blades of tall grass scratched at its face. The trickling sound stopped it in its tracks. Its head lifted and a jolt of energy ran through its body. A brook? Moving a little faster through the brush, it salivated at the thought. No longer tormented with hunger, it didn’t bother looking for rats or anything else. There weren’t any to be found for as long as it could remember. Finally the beast reached the cliff of a creek, almost falling over the edge. No water anywhere! A long sigh of frustration escaped it. The trickling sound resumed. The animal’s head turned right. It followed the sound around a bend in the creek, then saw the source—a small, muddy puddle of water with a trapped fish flapping around in certain doom. The beast’s eyes grew wide. It raced to the ledge above the puddle and, without thinking, flung its body through the air and landed in the thick mud, launching the fish in the air with one big splat! “Who’s there?” asked a startled voice from behind. The beast turned slowly, the small fish in its mouth. Crunch! “I say, who goes there? I can hear you! Are you friend or foe?” An old, gray-brown beaver cautiously approached, glancing right and left. Its whiskers twitched up and down in 18
search of the scent. The beast finished the last of the fish. “I…I am a friend. At least…I think I am.” His dry throat struggled to talk. “W-w-what are you doing here?”
“Please, I don’t mean to intrude on your area but I haven’t eaten or drunk for many days—I’m barely alive!” The beast ducked its head under the muddy water quickly, then came back up refreshed. “There, there, you’ll have to forgive me. I don’t entertain company much in these parts. I am unable to help those that do.” The beaver pointed at his eyes, which seemed to look past the creature in the water. “I’m afraid I’m almost blind.” “I can see that…I mean, I could tell.” The beast was embarrassed. The old beaver came closer. “Let me introduce myself then. My name is Methuseleh.” “That’s a very odd name.” “It’s not odd if you’ve known it all your life. And that has been many years already!” The old beaver laughed. “Now, friend, what is your name?” The beast tilted his head at the seemingly easy question but found it harder to answer than expected. “I…I don’t know!” 19
Book Three in The Kingdom at the End of the Driveway series.