Sticks and Stones

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Image Credit: Alan Levine - Sticks and Stones

Waking up on a chipmunk’s back racing through the underbrush might sound cute. It’s not. Up close, chipmunks sorta smell like a dumpster fire. Plus, the first time you see a parasite, a semi-translucent tube sock full of dark blood the size of your forearm, emerge from the fur and then disappear like a breaching whale, you lose all thought of Alvin, Simon, and Theodor.

The moment I opened my eyes, I grabbed two fists full of wire-thick hair and held on for dear life. Those first few seconds were a bit fuzzy. I registered the shifting muscles of the creature beneath me. I felt the more mundane terror of being naked outdoors. And I was surprised by my own voice—not just at the change in pitch, but also I hadn’t really screamed in sincere terror since I was a little boy.

I screamed for five minutes straight. I probably would have kept screaming until my lungs gave out, except that I had to switch my focus to dodging gnats the size of crows while my ride raced along the bank of a noisy little stream. That shut me up. That, plus I got a look at a spider. Just a glance. It was hanging right at face level on the underside of a rotten log. That sight was all the motivation I needed to want to shrink down to nothing and never make a sound again.

I’m not sure if there is a limited amount of fear in a human body and I used up all of mine, or if a person really can get used to anything; whichever the case, eventually I calmed down enough to start asking some obvious questions. Mainly, how does a bank teller in Granville, Ohio, go from taking his lunch break to being a naked rodent cowboy in a world of giant nightmares? Also, more importantly, how does he get back again?

I remembered clocking out. I left the bank and walked down to my usual coffee place on West Broadway. Onion bagel. Medium mocha. That scrawny blonde barista with the thick accent tried to talk to me about sports like he does every day.

The chipmunk turned sharply and I thought my arms were going to come loose. We seemed to be going up a slope but it was hard to tell. I had no sense of direction. Everything was impossibly distant. Everything was dark and wet. Each tree and rock raced away into a dirty green blur before I could make sense of any landmarks.

Every day at the coffee shop I gave the blonde kid a nickname. He looked like he should’ve been too young to work. Maybe fourteen, about the age of my younger brother. I called him Squirt, Boss, Chief. On creative days, I gave him names to match his appearance: Casper, Powder, Goldilocks, Blondie. I tried to throw in the nicknames just as he was handing me my order, but if I timed it wrong he’d ask me what I meant. I’d shrug him off or make something up. I couldn’t place his accent, but English didn’t seem to be his strong suit.

A burning itch just between my shoulder blades sprung up as I noticed the rose hedge looming before us like a slab of jagged twilight at the edge of the trees. The chipmunk slowed and as it did I noticed streaks of multicolored light zipping through the branches of the hedge, but I couldn’t see any of them clearly.

The sensation on my upper back was building up to an electric crescendo. I wanted to reach for it, but I dreaded a sudden burst of speed from the chipmunk. I couldn’t imagine what would happen to me on foot in that place. Inside the hedge, we picked our way among black-tipped thorns shot through with veins of dark green. There was no path that I could see.

I had timed my nickname wrong. The kid had forgotten my side of cream cheese, so he had time to ask me who Legolas was. I was too annoyed to make something up, so I told him.

In the center of the hedge, there was a space that was open to the sky. It was probably only six feet across, but to me it seemed like a vast courtyard. Seated on a low stone in the center was the blonde barista. He looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, the same polo shirt and khakis, but he was surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of tiny people. All shapes and sizes. Some were mounted on animals, like me. Others zipped through the air on a dizzying variety of wings.

Blondie looked past all the others and locked eyes with me the moment the chipmunk trotted fully into the clearing. I think he was speaking in a whisper, but his voice boomed above all the noise. His tone was businesslike.

“You guessed my nature, son of Adam. By the old laws, you are one of us now. You are seelie. You are a vassal of the duke of thorns. Be welcome.”

With that, all the flitting, crawling, scampering creatures in that place all turned toward me and echoed “Be welcome” in thrumming discord. Even the chipmunk roared out the words.

I felt vomit rising into my throat but managed to fight it back. That is until I felt wings, hot and wet, erupt from my back and slump quivering against my bare shoulders. I wiped my mouth on the back of my arm and forced myself to stay upright.

“When can I go home?” I asked.

The barista’s eyes narrowed.

“You are not large enough to pass for human yet,” he said, then sighed. There was a smile in his eyes. “I was your size once. Perhaps in an age and an age, you will grow large enough to return.”

My head swam and I felt all my joints go loose.

“Until then,” he added with a smirk. “Hang in there, Shrimp.”

Then, he was gone.

end article

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Jarod Anderson

About Jarod Anderson

Formerly, Jarod taught college English. Currently, he works at a foundation that raises money for a wide range of college scholarships. He writes about education by day and ghosts, monsters, and madmen by night. It’s a good arrangement. Jarod’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, The Colored Lens, and elsewhere.