Wren gazed out at her family’s private lake. Huddled in the center of the mini “island,” surrounded by mist-blanketed waters, and pine trees out for miles and miles. A handful of apple trees dotted the island, and the only other pieces of scenery were a giant rock in the very center, and a weeping willow tree on the left hand side, its long, drooping branches and leaves grazing the water’s surface lightly. The early morning clouds drifted lazily by, as they had done for hours since she’d rowed out here. The relaxing coos of mourning doves, accompanied by early chirps of robins, drove into her a serene sense of belonging. She belonged here, no where else. Here, she was almost completely free, entirely whole. She was tempted to just stay out here, just remain on this rock, until time passed and passed, but she was no more. Just like her friends.
No. Can’t think like that.
She folded her splayed legs under her, and rose up on top of the rock, which she had long ago dubbed, “Queen’s Rock, ” jumped down, then walked among the small orchard in the middle of the island. She smiled faintly as she recalled, years ago, her and Jake finding the massive, but well hidden, lake on their property. They had made a bet that whoever could reach the island first would name it, and by the time eleven year old Jake had reached the island, she was only a quarter of the way there, chest deep in mud-swirled water, and bawling. Like the big baby she’d been. Jake had actually taken pity on her, dove back, scooped her up, and carried her the rest of the way on his back. He’d named the island, “Island Tapu,” a stupid sounding name to her youthful ears. She, on the other hand, was allowed to name one thing, and one thing only on the island; she named the rock smack dab in the middle. When questioned by a laughing Jake why it was named, “QUEEN Rock,” rather than, “KING Rock” after him, she stated that she wanted it to be different. Wanted it to make a statement. Wanted to let the world know that it wasn’t just kings who ruled the earth. He’d laughed a second time, and she’d gotten so annoyed at him that a mud-throwing contest had begun. By the time they were back, their mother had been so astonished, so amused at their mud, leaf, and pine-needle covered appearances that she had to take pictures before cleaning them up, laughing. Their mother wasn’t like most, who would have easily scolded their children for such a rambunctious thing.
Wren tilted her head back to gaze at the sky once more, a tiny half-smile stretching the edges of her mouth at the memory. Good times, fun times. Times that were so faded and distant now. She could hit “replay” as many times as she wanted, but that didn’t alter the fact that they were all long past, not in the here and now, or even in the future. To preserve her future, to make it something worth saving, she had to protect her loved ones. At almost any cost.
At this thought, her sensitive ears pricked at a rustling. And, judging by the loudness, it was close. Very close. A deer? A bear? No… smaller. She whirled back around, in a defensive stance, only to face… a squirrel? She blinked, and lowered her guard a tad. Really, Wren? On the other hand, it could be rabid. Or maybe she was just overreacting, for the fifth time this week. The creature raised its head curiously, nose and fuzzy tail both twitching as it eyed her. Sighing at her own paranoia, she walked back and plopped back down onto Queen Rock. Much to her surprise, the squirrel had followed her. She raised an eyebrow at it. “I’m not Briar Rose– I don’t sing to animals. You don’t have to come to me. Go back to your tree hole or whatever.” More twitching. It suddenly jumped onto the rock next to her; Wren gave out a squeal of surprise and a little jump. A wild animal? This friendly? MUST be rab– Her thoughts were interrupted when the squirrel leaned forward, so much it was almost flat on its stomach. She was startled a tiny leather pouch fastened to its back. A TRAINED squirrel? What the–A tiny paper scroll was rolled up inside. The squirrel glanced up at her, half-expectant, half apprehensive, as if to say, “Well?” In fact, she almost expected it to talk. Narnia-style. This had been a strange week, what was one more strange thing? But no, it remained silent, steady. Like a trained dog.
Slowly, cautiously, she reached out, and plucked out the parchment. The squirrel straightened the instant she did, standing upright on its hind legs like a little person, waiting patiently as if for further orders. Like she was in any position to give them. She snorted, then scanned the page. It was written in similar script to the previous letter-writer, similar tone,
Speaking of Briar Rose…This will be our instructions place, from now on. If you desire my help, you shall sing, my little song bird. This will signal one of my little messengers to bring further word from me. They are trained to respond to specific tones of voice, and certain voices; yours, and especially your singing voice, triggers this reaction in them. Don’t think of it as brainwashing; they are simply conditioned this way– it’s very humane.
Our meeting place will be in the northern most place of these woods. Unfortunately, I myself am unable to meet you; in my stead, I send my younger brother. He will show you how you must be trained to help and retrieve your friends. I would advise, however, to come in secret. Not even those boys may know; if they do, they will only interfere. And we don’t want that, do we?
Do not abandon hope, Wren– what you seek is right around the corner. Change is happening. It is going to happen. We are close, so very , very close to our goal, to your goal, I know it… I only ask that you simply trust me. “
It was left unsigned. Wren felt a slight trickle of shivers crawl down her spinal cord. This person, whoever he was, knew about her special place. Had gone to the trouble of training and conditioning squirrels, of all creatures, to actually respond to her voice. Her voice. Specifically, of all things. That in itself said volumes– this person DID care, but in a way that was extremely unsettling to her. But what was more– the person had rephrased who she had likened herself to– Briar Rose– and had even known she was self-conscious about singing for anyone. Almost implying…
That they’re nearby. Listening in. Her head jolted up at this; eyes narrowing, scanning the nearby area, all the apple trees, all the tall, knee-high grass surrounding her. It suddenly felt like a wooden jungle-esque savanna area, with a large predatory cat watching her, ready to make its move for dinner. She swallowed, and, without breaking her gaze, slowly retrieved a pencil from her bag to respond to the parchment.
She and the squirrel jolted simultaneously, and as if cued, the critter scurried back into the tall, thick grass, and vanished– as skittish as any other wild animal. Wren’s chest almost tore open in pain until she saw Kodi’s head bob into view. She hurriedly stuffed the note into her jeans’ pocket. “What are you doing out here? How did you find me?” she said angrily, finally releasing the wind from her lungs with some relief. “No one but family is supposed to know about this lake, this place!”
“Jake told me. But that’s the least of our concerns.” Kodi grabbed her wrist. “C’mon, we need to get you outta here. It’s too open, too exposed.”
“What do you mean, “too open, too exposed”? This is one of the most private places around the area, almost no one knows about it!” She forced out the image of the squirrel carrying the note to her, knowing exactly where she was. “It’s a LOT less exposed if I was, say, downtown, in the middle of the night, when all the goons are out and roaming.”
“And you DON’T think the goons ever come this far out into the woods to make moonshine or toy with drugs or whatever?”
“Most tend to only go on the outskirts, if they DO do anything of that sort,” she said smoothly. “I would hardly think I’m in any real dan–”
“And yet, if something happened to you, and you alone, all the way out here, who could you turn to for help? You’d be in total isolation from society!”
“Kodi, stop this. Look at me.” She took hold of his shoulders, facing him directly, and gave him a good, hard shake. “What’s WRONG with you? Why are you freaking out about nothing? I’m fine, as you can see–”
“No, you’re not,” he retorted. “If you were, you would’ve been in school ages ago, not boarded up in your room like a hermit. You’re going through a lot, I get it. Just let us help you.”
She could feel the note burning a hole in her pocket. She was suddenly frightened he would spy it. “No, thanks. As much as I appreciate the offer, I don’t need you two anymore.”
“So that’s it, then? You use us for your own purposes, then when you don’t get what you want, you just toss us to the side like toys you’ve outgrown?”
She sighed heavily. “OK, look, it’s not like that. I’m sorry to have dragged you into this, to have burdened you like this. If it were up to me, that kid would’ve never anointed us or whatever. I should’ve just confronted that Junk Collector by myself. You have lives of your own, I was just too selfish to realize it. From now on, I’ll leave you two be.” She started to turn away, but Kodi grabbed her arm. “It’s not like that,” he said, “I LIKE being a Junk Collector. It’s like it gives me a purpose, a higher calling in life. I love it when my drawings come to life, though I need to be more careful about WHAT I draw, sometimes. ” Here he paused. “But I know there’s a lot of risks that come with being one. They’re risks I’m willing to take, but…” He chewed his lower lip, gazing up at her.
“But they’re risks we’re ALL exposed to. Including you, Wren.” He took a breath. “Just this morning, I was almost buried alive. By two kids, just like us. Only… I don’t think they were like us, exactly.”
“What?” She felt like she’d been slugged in the gut. “You– You sure it wasn’t a hallucination, or anythi–” In answer, he held out to her a sandwich-sized Ziploc baggie. It was filled to the brim with dirt clumps. “I brushed and washed most of it off, but kept about a fourth to show you. I almost suffocated, and probably would’ve starved to death down there, if I didn’t have the grace of light to see to draw a giant beanstalk. I rode my way out of that pit pretty quickly. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the last I’ll see of them. Or the last ANY of us will see of them.”
“Of…Of the Shadow Six.”
There was a long silence.
Kodi was the first to break it. “You don’t believe me, do you.” It was a statement, not a question. Almost defensive-sounding.
“It’s not quite like that,” She shook her head, ponytail flailing behind her. “You see– I’ve had enough of the stupid Junk Collector and all his games. And I would never want to be one, I’d rather be shot than become one.”
“But I saw you… GUY saw you…”
“I said that to get that kid to stop rambling and to get us out of there.” She knelt, picked up her knapsack, and swung it around her shoulders gracefully. “Doesn’t mean I am one. I’ve never even gone on one of your ridiculous little missions. So why should I be at risk?”
“You don’t understand,” Kodi pleaded, “You don’t get what they’re like. If they even so much as know you’ve been associating with us, they’ll come after you! They’re out to kill!”
“Kodi,” she said sharply. “Enough. My mind’s made up. I’m sorry, but this is the way it has to be, from here on out. Besides, I can handle myself.”
“So that’s it, then?” Kodi shouted behind her as she stalked off. “You’re just going to run off and do your own thing, act like we’ve never met, like Guy and I don’t even EXIST? We’re trying to help you, for Pete’s sake!”
“Thanks,” she murmured under her breath, “But I’ve all the help I really need.”