; THE KINGDOM AT THE END OF THE DRIVEWAY ?
B O O K
O N E
The Brave Journey
BY JEFFERSON KNAPP
; INTRODUCTION ?
ar from the farmhouses, the highway, and even the old dirt road, treetops swayed in the midnight sky. High above, the radiant moon was a spectacularly large blue-white circle. Every few seconds thick storm clouds traveling east covered it in shadows. A jackrabbit hopped through the woods, hungry but keeping its eyes open for predators. BOOM! Distant thunder made its heart beat faster in its little brown chest. Moving quickly through the tall weeds and trees it finally reached a clearing of shorter grass. It was aware of the meadow but not of what surrounded it in the darkness. BOOM! Lightning gave the jackrabbit a glimpse of a towering ivy-covered barn. In a matter of seconds the light touch of tiny drops turned into a sheet of furious rain. BOOM! The jackrabbit cautiously hopped toward the barn, instinctively seeking shelter. It saw a giant dark square opening and moved quickly inside to get relief from the cold rain. The smell of hay and dust filled its nostrils. But there was something elseâ€“a sick, pungent odor the jackrabbit had never smelled. As it hopped around in the darkness, feeling for a soft place to lie down, something lightly flapped in the air nearby. A quick, whispering flitter. The unknown sound caused its heartbeat to pound in its long ears. BOOM! The flash illuminated the inside of the old barn, and a long grayish-white body on a large pile of hay. The jackrabbit instinctively leaped into the air with fright, kicking its hind legs to flee even before it again touched the ground. It was too late. It didnâ€™t have another second to think. Its body felt the crushing sensation of life coming to an end in that old abandoned barn that Haverhill and its countryside had forgotten all those years.
“Don’t tell me about reality. Don’t tell me about how the world is supposed to work...I don’t care.” The boy on the back porch
; CHAPTER ONE ?
A Very Special Gift
averhill never had much excitement to speak of. Sure, every fall the Harvest Home Festival was celebrated in the nearby town of Leon. (Reverend Landreth earned bragging rights for the rest of the year by growing the heaviest pumpkin, even though some folks accused him of sneaking several bricks inside it at the weigh-in.) The weather’s about the same as anywhere else, plus the odd tornado or two. Years ago a traveling carnival came through, but it never amounted to anything. The local high school football team, the Losing Lions, had a winless streak that brought some publicity, even if it was bad. And the crowning of the Watermelon Queen during Leon’s Summer Jubilee provided interesting gossip for the town matriarchs. But from a child’s point of view, in the sparse community of Haverhill nothing exciting ever really happened…until that one afternoon Benjamin Biggs’s grandfather showed up at the door holding a cardboard box. The four-year-old was playing in his sandbox in the backyard, the sun warming his baby-blonde hair. Benjamin liked living in the country. He had a love for all animals (well, except snakes), and his house was in the perfect spot to see them. Wild animals of every kind popped up all over the place. He once thought he saw a fox and skunk playing on the country road in front of his house. Benjamin was free to roam without the worry of cars zooming along the road. He did, however, miss having friends living close by, as they did when the Biggs family lived in the city. Not a single r7 r
neighbor was within a short walk. But his father couldn’t pass up buying the house that his father had built years ago. The house was in a perfect setting. In front they had a large pond that stretched the length of a long gravel driveway, small and large trees scattered across twenty acres, and a tool shop out behind the tan-colored house where Benjamin’s dad spent most of his evenings tinkering, just like his dad used to. Benjamin was making his second attempt at a tall sand castle when his mother opened the back glass door. “Ben, somebody’s here to see you!” She smiled knowingly. Benjamin was shocked that he was the reason for a visitor. Anytime anybody made the effort to drive out to the country, it was a big deal. He threw his blue plastic shovel into the sand and ran barefoot onto the back porch. He looked through the finger-smudged glass door and saw a big cardboard box, hands gripping the sides, rounding the corner of the hallway. Grandpa Gus’s brown pant legs were underneath the box and walking toward him. The little boy opened the door and let his grandpa through. “Benjamin, my boy!” Grandpa’s muffled voice said from behind the box. “Hi, Grandpa! What’s in the box?” Benjamin heard scratching sounds and his eyes grew wide. His grandpa laid the box on the wooden porch and cocked his head. “Well, I don’t really know. You’d better take a look.” The curious child peeked through the two long cardboard flaps and saw only darkness. Then something wet licked his nose. Benjamin pulled back and a small pug puppy tipped the box over and ran out. “This is my dog? Oh, wow! Thanks, Grandpa!” In his excitement he fell backward, letting the hyper dog run up and down on top of him. “What’s his name?” r8 r
Grandpa Gus knelt and petted the puppy’s tan coat as Benjamin’s smiling parents stood at the open door. “Well, Benjamin, he doesn’t have one. So I’m gonna let you pick this little pug’s name.” “A pig? He’s not a dog? ” He did kind of look like a pig, with a curly little tail and flattened snout. His grandpa laughed. “No, pug. That’s what kind of dog he is–a pug.” The boy thought for a moment, “Well then, I like Pugsly!” “That’s a wonderful name, son.” “Is he one of your puppies, Grandpa?” “No, he’s from another dog. This little guy is about six months old.” Gus scratched Pugsly above his tail and his hind foot patted quickly against the floor. “He’s got a black foot!” Benjamin cried, holding up the little black paw that stood out from the other three tan ones. The pug playfully bit his fingers. “Yes, that’s what makes him unique. You’re quite the special dog, aren’t you, Pugsly?” The puppy barked. Benjamin’s mom stepped onto the porch. “Now, sweetie, you’re going to be responsible for feeding and watering—” “Can he drink outta the pond?” Benjamin asked innocently. His mom made a face. “Uh, I guess if he’s outside.” “He’ll need a collar in case he gets lost,” said Benjamin’s dad. Grandpa Gus perked up. “Oh! That reminds me. I have one right here.” Benjamin watched his grandpa reach into the pocket of his shirt and pull out a black leather collar with a silver-blue tag. Benjamin squinted as the tag caught the sunlight. His grandpa pulled the puppy around to face him and held the collar in his hand. “Now, Pugsly, you be a good friend to my little grandson here, okay? I love him very much.” The pug barked. Gus took the collar r9 r
and wrapped it around the dog’s neck, turned to the boy’s parents, and smiled. “Keep this collar on Pugsly, will ya? I think he likes it.” “We will, Dad, if it doesn’t blind us,” Benjamin’s mom joked as she shaded her eyes with her hand. Benjamin stared at two gold symbols etched into the tag and pointed. “What does that say, Grandpa?” “Oh that’s just a design. It makes it special, like Pugsly.” He looked into Pugsly’s eyes, rubbing the tag with his thumb. “You’re now a very important dog, Pugsly. You know that, right?” The dog barked again and the man stood up, laughing. “Alright, Benjamin. I need to see some friends this afternoon. You take care of this dog of yours.” The old man picked up the cardboard box and the little boy hugged his legs. “Thank you Grandpa. I love him!” The excited pug stood upright on his hind legs and rested his front paws on Benjamin’s sun-burnt knees. Grandpa Gus said goodbye and left. Benjamin’s parents stood at the door, watching their son and his new dog wrestle. That’s the way it was for years. Of course, Benjamin soon started school. New friends came. Old friends left. The Losing Lions continued their winless streak. The boy and his dog grew older. But no matter what happened in Benjamin’s life, he and Pugsly remained best friends. If Benjamin was away, he knew his little tan pug with one black paw would be waiting for him when he got home. And just like this, eight years passed since that warm afternoon on the back porch when Benjamin Biggs received his special gift.
; CHAPTER TWO ?
An Interesting Morning
he morning started out dreary. Through the small window an overcast sky bathed twelve-year-old Benjamin Biggs’s basement bedroom in gray light. He awoke to the last full week before his first day of seventh grade. Saturday mornings always meant a good breakfast of homemade biscuits and gravy. The clanking of his mom’s pans on the stove-top upstairs brought a hungry smile. He loved Saturday mornings. Climbing the stairs Benjamin saw the familiar tops of his parents’ heads come into view at the kitchen table. But this time Carol and Tom looked sad as their son’s half-awake body came lazily into view. They knew he was about to have a very hard day. “Good morning,” the boy said, taking his usual chair at the table. He looked around. “When’s breakfast?” His mother’s eyes teared up. His dad tried to sound normal, but his voice cracked. “Son, you know how Pugsly has been acting lately….” Benjamin looked confused. “No.” “Well, I think he hasn’t been feeling so good. He’s…he’s old.” “Well, then let’s take him to the vet.” Carol couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Ben, Pugsly died last night. We found him outside by the garage this morning.” Benjamin was stunned for several seconds, then his eyes started watering. “Oh…well…I guess he was a really…old pug. Older than…most pugs live…right?” He tried to make sense of the sudden sad news. r11 r
His mom was quick to reply. “Oh yes, sweetheart, he was a very old pug. And you gave him a wonderful life. Dogs just don’t live forever.” Benjamin didn’t hear a word she said. “Where is he?” His dad stood up. “In the garage, son. I wanted you to have the chance to say goodbye before we bury him.” Benjamin opened the garage door and walked slowly to the lifeless dog lying on the blanket they’d put in his bed years ago. He stared at his face, and the little red scratch he got on his head the other night from a brawl with another animal. His dad came up behind him. “We need to do it quickly, son.” Tom found a shovel and walked in front of Carol as the boy carried his best friend in the blanket out to the backyard. Rain sprinkled on them as Tom shoveled the soft dirt behind the tool shop. Benjamin’s body felt numb at the thought of no longer having his best friend. He tried not to look at Pugsly’s face–he knew for certain he would cry. But his overwhelming grief made tears uncontrollable. Benjamin squatted and rested his dog across his knees. Memories swirled in his head: the day he got Pugsly…how they used to play in the autumn leaf piles and in the winter snow…how at dinner the dog sat patiently on the floor beside his chair, looking up with the cutest face, waiting for food to be dropped… Pugsly’s loud snoring at night after a long day outside. It was all too much to say goodbye to. “I love you, boy. I hope I see you again someday.” Warm tears streamed down his face. Taking off the pug’s collar, he crammed it into the back right pocket of his shorts. One last time he embraced his friend, taking Pugsly’s one little black paw in his hand and tenderly hugging it with his fingers. He gently lowered him into the newly dug grave. “Goodbye, Pugsly,” he whispered, petting the soft fur, and r12 r
stood up. The raindrops dwindled as the sun peeked through holes in the gray clouds. His mom held his hand as they watched his dad bury their family member in his final resting place. As they walked back to the house, Benjamin was hunched over, looking down at the ground, tears streaming down his cheeks. He thought about squashing a big, shiny green beetle, racing to get somewhere over the wet blades of grass. What good would that do? he thought. Today he couldn’t take a life. They walked inside the house. Pugsly lay covered in dirt, peaceful and feeling no pain from the two tiny bite marks on his chest. The big green beetle ran across the large front yard, its busy pace not slowed by the wet ground. It approached the soggy road and crossed a warm spot where the sun shone down on the gravel. Heading for the row of hedge trees across the road, the beetle sensed the fast approach of increasing vibrations and SPLAT! The truck tire smashed it into the soft, tiny rocks. Breakfast began around a quiet table in the Biggs’s country house. “Honey, aren’t you going to eat anything?” Carol looked worried. “No,” he said, looking down at his plate. Something poked him in his back right pocket and he remembered Pugsly’s collar. He pulled it out, tore the worn address sticker off the back, and slipped his fist through to make a bracelet. “Sweetie, you need to eat some–” “Hey!” his dad butted in, “Has anybody gotten the newspaper yet?” Carol gave Tom an annoyed look. “Ben, would you mind grabbing it?” he asked with a mouth full of sausage. r13 r
“Sure.” Benjamin shuffled out the front door. The sun hit him in the face. The pond glistened with ripples and the long, grassy wet hill on the other side sparkled emerald green. But the beautiful scene didn’t brighten him up any. The big oak tree in front of his house was always full of birds, but as he walked by it he heard birds he’d never heard before. They seemed to be yelling at each other in really high voices. He continued walking down the pebbly driveway, noticing the different types of rocks that had been driven on for years. When he was younger he spent hours picking out flat rocks and trying to skip them across the pond. His ears heard a new sound: a nearby flopping and hissing noise. The left corner of his eye caught a surprising image on the pond bank: a blacksnake twisting this way and that with a catfish in its mouth. He was shocked. Benjamin heard the fish groaning and thought it was quite strange. He’d never heard a fish groan but he figured that’s what they did. The image was still frightening. The snake looked up at Benjamin and quickly slithered off into the water, taking the fish with it. Did I just really see that? Benjamin made sure no other snakes were along the pond bank. A small, solitary maple tree, which grew on a hill separating the end of the pond from the road, always had a bullfrog croaking loudly beside it. Usually the croaking sounded normal (well, bullfrog normal). But today Benjamin thought he heard it croak “Beware! Beware!” No, he can’t be saying that! He approached the faded blue newspaper box, which the delivery man always carelessly missed when he drove by. A hedge apple lay close to the paper. Benjamin kicked it halfway across the road. Deciding to finish it off, he ran and gave it a great big boot. It soared through the air and landed on the other side of the r14 r
road on a large pile of sticks and dead branches in front of an endless row of tall hedge trees. The abandoned fox den had been across from the mailbox for as long as Benjamin could remember. All at once…SNAP! He jerked his head. What was that? He took a step forward and a small stick on the fox den stood up on its end. Did I hit an animal? Benjamin took another step and two more sticks pointed straight up. What was happening? It seemed that his steps were making the sticks move. Scared but curious, he forced his right foot forward and many more sticks responded, making a partial opening at the top of the den. Do foxes still live in there? He heard what sounded like a faint laugh coming from the half-opened hole. What in the world?! The distant sound of talking and laughing came from the hole. Benjamin’s eyes widened. He thought he was going crazy. He leaned forward to see all the sticks on top of the fox den sticking out and the hole completely exposed. He couldn’t tell how deep it was, but he knew he stood at the mouth of a dark tunnel. The voices grew louder. “There could be hundreds of people in there!” he whispered. He shoved the pointed sticks aside with his arm, crawled into the mouth, and slid down to a cold dirt floor. When he stood he bumped the top of his head on the roof of the tunnel, causing clumps of dirt to fall in his hair. All was pitch black in front of him, but the thought of an underground party overcame his fear of the dark. The tunnel was big enough for him to walk through, as long as he slouched and used his hands to feel the way. It was a long tunnel, with cold dirt on either side. Once Benjamin could no longer see the light from the entrance it took him a minute to find the courage to move forward. But the voices enticed him on. His eyes grew adjusted to the darkness and he saw a soft blue glow on the walls of the tunnel ahead of him. r15 r
Benjamin walked steadily on. When he felt pressure on his toes he knew the pathway was sloping down and the tunnel was leading him into the earth. A few more steps and the tunnel turned right. The walls were tinted blue. With another turn he grew braver and moved faster. He felt the sides of the wall change to jagged rock. The sound of cheerful voices was now close by. This doesn’t make any sense! Why would people be down here? Benjamin didn’t notice that the tag on Pugsly’s collar, still around his wrist, was sparkling, even in the darkness. It was too late to turn back. A strong musty smell came over him as he continued down the rocky tunnel. Right before the final corner he stopped. He could tell that a large number of people were just around it. His heart raced in his chest. “Oh, you must try the walnuts at Seymour’s Creek. They’re to die for!” “To die for? You don’t say!” “Yes, I was about eaten by a hawk! Do you know how hard it is to run with a delicious Seymour’s Creek walnut in your hands? They’re not small, you know!” Benjamin heard neighing that sounded like laughter. Who are these people? Benjamin stared at the blue flickers on the wall. “I left when I overheard my master telling his wife he was going to cut off my horns.” “How horrid!” “I know. It’s just that when his wife bends over in the vegetable garden, that big rump of hers is like a target. I can’t help giving it a nice head-butt.” More laughter ensued. Benjamin took a deep breath and let one eye peek around the corner. Before him was an enormous cavern, its tall ceiling punctured in the center by a beam of sunlight that shone on a natural spring sparkling with blue light. Small r16 r
steady streams of glistening water fell down into the pool from the dark rocky ledges high above. The vibrant blue crystal sides of the pool reflected the sunlight throughout the spacious cavern. Benjamin was surprised to see a large chunk of limestone behind the pool that resembled a small throne. But the biggest surprise was the inhabitants: groundhogs, goats, squirrels, chickens, cats, dogs, pigs, ducks, rats, and all kinds of animals, wild and domestic. Benjamin had never even seen some of them in that part of the country. All were deep in conversation, not paying attention to anything else. He couldnâ€™t help himself. Smiling in amazement, he took a few steps and walked out into the great room. Only a few feet from r17 r
him a piglet and a rat were talking. “No, no, no,” the piglet said. “Watermelon rinds need to dry at least a couple of days before they’re nice and ripe.” “Ah, you’re crazy!” The rat pointed his fingers at his belly. “When I’m hungry, I don’t care. I’m eating it whether it’s fresh or not!” Sniff, sniff. The piglet’s nose moved up and down. “Do you smell something?” His nose led him to the tall, skinny boy looking down at him. His eyes opened wide with fear. “H-H-H-HUMAN!” The room instantly went quiet and they all looked his way. For a split second Benjamin saw hundreds of eyes on him before the room erupted in chaos. Feathers and fur flew as every creature yelled and scrambled for a hiding place. Some disappeared into the darkness behind the throne while some ran to the closest wall possible. The animals scrunched their bodies as close to the wall as they could. Noses, snouts, muzzles, and beaks were cramped in the edge between wall and floor. Benjamin stood alone in the center of the room, not knowing what to do. “Hello?” He ventured a couple of steps forward. All the animals were shaking. A beaver’s tail rat-a-tatted against the floor. “We’re doomed. It’s over!” Benjamin knew he’d ruined something special. “Look, I’m leaving now. Sorry…to interrupt. Just keep…uh….doing what you were doing.” He took a step backward. A white-and-black rat-terrier peeked out from behind his paw. “He can understand us!” He saw the sparkling tag on Pugsly’s collar. “It’s his! Why is he wearing it?” As Benjamin took another step back, he heard the frantic tapping of little feet coming up behind him. A gray field mouse ran right past without noticing him and stood in the middle of the room, heaving and panting. He took a deep breath and yelled as r18 r
loud as he could, “Assassination! The king is dead!” When he saw all the animals curled up against the walls, he turned and took one look at Benjamin before his eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted. The room came alive with whispering. “Dead? The king is dead?!” “Assassination? On him?” Whispering turned into yelling, weeping, crying, howling, and other laments. They no longer cared that a human was in the room. “Our king is dead!” yelled a basset hound. Benjamin had seen enough. He spun around and took off. The rat-terrier remembered the sparkling bracelet. “No, wait!” he yelled, but Benjamin disappeared around the corner, carefully running in the darkness with the fading sounds of crying behind him. His hands against the dark walls led him forward until his eyes readjusted to the slight blue glow of the cold tunnel. He was soon in total darkness but felt himself moving uphill and knew he was getting close to the entrance. As he approached, the sticks covering the hole sprang open. Fresh air, sunlight and the heat of the dwindling summer warmed his face. He climbed out, hopped onto the road, and ran all the way up his driveway, his mind racing as fast as his feet. A last burst of adrenaline propelled him to the front porch. He hunched over with exhaustion. Benjamin walked into the kitchen, where his parents both still sat at the table. The color was drained from his face as he sat down beside them, still out of breath. His wide-eyed mom dropped her fork. “Honey! What happened to you?!” “Where’s the paper?” his dad asked. Benjamin didn’t know what to say. “I…uh…I saw a snake” was what came out. r9 r