By the time Laura opened her eyes, morning had crept into the room. She sat up and worked her fingers through her hair. There, towards the back of her skull, she could feel a bump. It felt sore but only when Laura touched it.
She got out of bed. Then she lifted her scraped knee and let her leg swing up and back. It didn’t hurt at all. Tobias Goatherd’s medicine needles had done their work.
Laura walked in a circle all the way around the little hut. As she padded barefoot around the soft dirt floor, she reached out and let her fingers crawl along the wall like a spider, tap tap tap. The walls were made of stacked logs. The wood felt rough and raw, not like the ancient pine beams that had supported Laura’s house back in the Big Woods. Through the gaps between the logs, pinpricks of sunlight pierced the hut.
Laura hopped back up onto the bed to reach the hut’s little square window. She pulled aside a ragged cloth curtain and peered out into the dawn. There, the first teasing rays of morning cast zig-zag shadows through a weed-covered yard. The yard was divided into neat squares by the remains of several criss-crossing creetrock walls. Beyond these ruins, just a short distance from Laura’s window, there was an old brick building. Jutting out from the building was a covered wooden porch that did not look like it had been part of the original construction. Its deck and posts and awning were all painted a milk white that clashed with the weathered brick. A pair of wicker chairs sat beside the railing. Laura supposed that was where Pa and Tobias Goatherd had been sitting when Laura had overheard their conversation the night before.
Laura leaned a little further out the window to better scan her surroundings. She took in a long breath, filling her nose with the fresh morning air. Before she could exhale, her eyes landed on something that made that breath stop where it was, lodged right at the top of her chest. Rising up from behind the brick building’s roof was one of the monsters Laura had seen from the hilltop. Only now she wasn’t gazing down on it from afar but looking right up into its lizard eyes, which peered down at her from a tiny head perched at the end of its long snake neck. Instinctively, she jerked her head back inside the window.
As soon as the cloth curtain flopped back into place, Laura released the breath she had been holding in. It poured out in a giggle of relief. She knew the monster was just a creetrock statute. She had just been startled to find it looming over her, so big and close. She peeked out of the window once more to prove to herself she wasn’t afraid. Then she hopped down from the bed.
Laura found her coat, shrugged it on, and stuffed Oprah snug into the pocket. Then she walked over to the curtain which was draped over the doorway of the little log hut. She pulled it aside, letting the sunlight wash over her.
Before Laura could even take in her surroundings, she heard Mary call out.
A dirt path led from the hut towards the brick house with its white porch. A little ways up the path, sitting beside the ruins of an old wall, were Mary and Ma. Alongside them sat the silent, tangle-haired girl Laura had met the night before. Ma sat on her stool, and Mary sat cross-legged on the ground, Baby Grace in her lap. The girl—Mabel she had been called—crouched across from them, hugging her knees tight against her chest.
“Laura’s awake!” Mary cried, rising to her feet.
Mary handed Baby Grace to Ma and ran to Laura. Close at her heels was Jack. Mary wrapped Laura up in a joyous hug, while the little striped pigdog raced in circles round and round them.
Mary at her arm and Jack at her heels, Laura was swept up the path. There was a fire going. As Laura approached, the smell of frycakes greeted her. Soon, she could hear them sizzling. Her stomach squealed in anticipation.
The old stone wall that sheltered Ma’s cookfire ran parallel to the footpath. The wall rose and fell in an erratic succession of peaks and valleys before sinking with finality beneath the weeds just short of the main house. Near the spot where Ma was preparing breakfast, an apple tree had knocked down an entire section of the wall and was busily wrapping its roots about the rubble. The tree’s branches spread upwards, stretching out over Ma and the wildgirl and the skillet of frycakes. Sitting there beside the fire, Laura saw a whole basket of apples.
Ma pulled Laura close and pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. Then she felt around for the bump on the back of Laura’s head.
“All in all, I’d say you look well enough,” Ma said, finally. “Do you feel dizzy? Tired?”
Laura shook her head. Ma kissed her forehead and then handed her a tin plate piled with three steaming frycakes. Laura looked down at the plate and couldn’t believe her eyes, for there were fat chunks of apple baked right into the soymeal. The tallow-coated skillet had turned their flesh a sticky caramel. Laura looked over to Mary to share her delight and found that her sister’s face was already stuffed with frycake.
Laura was about to follow Mary’s lead, when Ma told her to lower her plate. Right on top of the warm apple frycake, Ma plopped down a spoonful of cream. Laura had never had cream before. It was so thick that it just sat there in a thick glop on top of the frycakes for a moment before slowly spreading across the spongy surface, soaking into the little holes that the bubbles had made. Finally, Laura took a bite. Between the tart apples and the rich cream, Laura’s mouth was full of flavors she had never tasted, and she chewed slowly, savoring the delicious newness.
On the other side of the cookfire, the wildgirl seemed to be enjoying the breakfast as well. Judging from the way she eyed the sizzling soymeal in fascination and sniffed each morsel before it passed her lips, the frycakes were just as much an exotic treat for Mabel as the cream and apples were for Laura. As the girl ate, her eyes bounced back and forth between Ma and Mary and Laura and the food on her plate. It reminded Laura of Jack when they’d first found him, the wary way he’d watched them as he gnawed the saltmeat Pa had set out as bait.
Ma explained that Pa had gone off with Tobias Goatherd to help the old man mend some fences down by the creek.
“He said that Ms. Mabel would show you and Mary around the grounds if you’re feeling up to it. Would you like that?”
Laura looked back to Mabel. The girl’s expression was impossible to read. Gazing back at Laura, she wrinkled her nose like a rabbit and pursed her lips. Perhaps that was her version of a smile, Laura thought. Over Mabel’s shoulder, Laura could see the lectric cars suspended in the air atop the great iron spike. She nodded to Ma.
When their tin plates and the big iron pan had been scraped clean and the soymeal sack tied up tight with hemp string to keep the air out and everything stacked up neat and put away in the handcar, Mary and Laura looked to Ma expectantly.
“Alright,” Ma said. “I suppose there’s no harm in you girls exploring for a few minutes while we wait for Pa to get back. Just see you don’t go far. And be careful around any old ruins. Don’t touch anything. And stay together. And see that you mind what Ms. Mabel . . . well, you just mind her, understand?”
Mabel raised her eyebrows when Laura and Mary turned to her and pursed her lips in that same cryptic maybe-smile. Then she squeezed through a gap in the old stone wall and looked back at them, cocking her head, before skipping off down another dirt path that led winding off through the ruins in the direction of the giant car spike.
That look meant “follow me,” Laura thought, and so, after a moment of hesitation, Laura rushed over to the wall, clambered through, and raced down the trail after Mabel, Mary and Jack right behind her.
The wildgirl led them down a rocky path. It wound its way in between weed-covered creetrock foundations, which Laura knew were the footprints of vanished buildings. Suddenly, the iron spire rose up ahead of them. High above, the column of lectric cars hung suspended in the air, speared through their middles like chunks of meat on a skewer. Mabel led them right up to shadow of the car spike. Skinny beams of sunlight rained down on Laura from the many holes that pierced the cars’ age-encrusted armor. Instinctively, she and Mary hung back, as if the heavy lectric machines might topple down on them at any moment.
The spike had looked so spindly and delicate from far off that Laura was surprised to see how thick it was about the base. Mary and Laura and Mabel might all have joined hands and still not been able to wrap their arms around it. She could also see now that, while the spike had seemed solid from far off, like a single nail crafted in some gigantic forge, its surface was covered in sections of iron plating, joined edge to edge. One of the plates, a few feet above Laura’s head, was missing, and she could see shadows of iron scaffolding within.
Mabel danced round and round the spike, seemingly oblivious to the rusted hulks dangling precariously above. Finally, Laura made up her mind that she was going to touch it.
“Laura!” Mary said when she stepped forward.
Another step and then another, into the shadow, and soon Laura was face-to-face with the monolith. She reached out and pressed her palm against it. The iron surface was coarse with rust, streaked in deep reds and grays. Slowly, Laura lifted her chin upwards until she was staring straight up at the strange metal canopy. The shapes of the cars were dark against the sun, but when Laura shielded her eyes with her other hand she could make out the undersides of the old machines. Twisted pipes hung loose from their bellies like the innards of a deer strung up for cleaning.
Mabel stopped beside Laura. She too placed a palm against the base of the spike. They looked at one another. Suddenly, the winds shifted, and the great tree of iron above them groaned and creaked. Laura gasped and dashed backwards, and Mabel followed her lead.
The car spike quieted. When her initial alarm subsided, Laura looked up at Mabel. The wildgirl wrinkled her nose, making a soft snuffling sound that sounded bit like a laugh. Laura found herself giggling too.
Mabel gave them another follow-me look before running back up the path. Laura and Mary and Jack all ran after her. Almost immediately, Mabel stopped beside a hill of rubble and clambered up its slope. Mary and Laura climbed after her, hoisting themselves up and over the remains of an old creetrock wall. Poor Jack couldn’t find a way around. He dashed back and forth, growling piteously, until Laura turned back and lifted him across.
At the top of the rubble slope, they found a flat plateau covered with tallgrass and brambles. Nearby, a stray goat munched on the vegetation. Jack bounded over to it with a yip. The goat was startled at first, but then it turned to Jack and planted its hooves. The goat snorted and lowered its head, showing Jack its horns.
For a moment, Laura was worried the goat might hurt Jack. But Mabel walked up to the goat and grabbed it by the horn. She waggled a finger in front of its face and clacked her tongue. Then she gave it a smack to its hindquarters, sending it loping off through the grass with an indignant bleat. Jack yipped and ran around in a tight circle as if it had been he that had faced down the goat.
Next to where the goat had been standing was a long mound. It was covered in weeds and brambles, and Laura had taken it for simply another pile of creetrock debris from some toppled building. When Mabel beckoned them closer, though, Laura saw that the mound was more than mere rubble. Beneath the overgrowth, the creetrock was carved with the details of another huge statue. And there were even streaks of color, faded blues and pinks.
Mabel lifted up her roughspun tunic. Hidden beneath, tucked into a sash wound tight around her hips, was a leather sheath. From the sheath, Mabel pulled out a knife, so long and sharp that Laura couldn’t believe it had been there the whole time. Mabel twirled it, its bone handle sliding through her fingers while the long blade spun end over end, as casually as one might stir a bowl of soymeal porridge. Mary and Laura turned to one another in surprise. A look of uneasiness creased Mary’s brow as she watched the wildgirl, but Laura mostly just found herself wishing that she had such a knife and could learn to twirl it just so.
Mabel knelt down and began to hack away at the brambles and pull up weeds by the root. As she worked, Laura and Mary walked along the length of the fallen statue. It was a man. A huge man. When he had stood, he must have been as tall as a house. A huge ax lay across his chest, clutched against his sleeping body. Along the undersides of his bulging arms and shoulders, Laura could see faded pink squares that had once checkered his shirt.
When she came to the axman’s head, she paused. Half his face was missing, and his nose was broken off completely. But the features that remained were sharp and lifelike. Curls of creetrock hair peeked out from beneath a cap still flecked with traces of pink paint. His jaw was covered with a bushy creetrock beard. It rose in a majestic arc from the axman’s ear, half buried in soil, to an apex where it abruptly stopped, hewn clean away along with the rest of his face. His one remaining eye was open. It stared unblinking skyward.
When Mabel finished clearing weeds, she put her knife away. She stepped back. Pressing her hands together, she closed her eyes and made a respectful bow towards the fallen axman. Mary and Laura exchanged a puzzled look. Finally, Laura stepped forward and put her own hands together and copied Mabel’s bow. She wasn’t sure why, but the gesture felt right. Mabel seemed pleased, and, after a moment of hesitation, Mary bowed towards the statue as well.
And, with that, they were off again. Mabel led them from place to place all around the abandoned Merican outpost, pointing out other strange ruins. There were more statues. Most were little more than wayward limbs or creetrock mounds weathered down to shapeless gray blobs, but some were nearly as well-preserved as the giant axman. Laura’s favorite was the horned rabbit, whose head and front limbs they found propped against a brick wall.
Then there was the chain of small lectric cars. They were all strung together like the long skytrains of Old Shicago, but Laura could not imagine this train ferrying people around the Great Towers. Each car had only one seat, each seat barely big enough to fit a child. Mabel climbed in one anyway, her knees squished up between her chest and the car’s rusted iron prow. She slapped her palm against the side as if imagining herself drawn along by the train’s vanished lectric power. A smiling face was sculpted into the front car. There was something unpleasant about its warped grimace, the way the streaks of rust dripped down its pock-marked cheeks. Laura was glad when they moved on.
Elsewhere, they came across big letters etched into a metal sign. According to Mary, they spelled out “World’s Largest Apple.” Laura was much impressed until she inspected the ruins that lay just beyond the sign. Not much of the building remained, but the base had clearly been round. One of its walls lay at an angle, propped up by a fortuitous tree. The creetrock was curved, cresting up and over like a wave before crumbling away into a web of iron rods. If this was what the sign had called the world’s largest apple—nothing more than a modest-sized apple-shaped building—Laura couldn’t help feeling a bit cheated.
Finally, Mabel led them to a structure that stood at the edge of Happy Valley Orchards. It seemed better maintained than the other ruins, its walls free of creepers and the ground around it cleared of weeds and rubble. Its brick doorway was tall and wide and flanked by ornate creetrock columns, each carved with the image of a snake winding up and down its length. Whatever doors had originally stood between those snake columns were gone. Instead, the doorway had been filled in with a crude wooden fence, into which, in turn, a smaller doorway had been cut. A curtain was draped across the entryway, much like the hut where Laura had spent the night. Above the doorway, a stone slab was set into the brick. Letters were etched into the stone.
“Reptilsoo,” Laura heard Mary whisper, sounding out the building’s name.
Mabel pulled aside the curtain. Everything beyond was darkness. Laura and Mary stood there at the threshold of the old building, hesitant to follow. For some reason, Laura felt a tingling at the back of her neck, causing her to glance around. Emerging from behind a corner of the mysterious reptilsoo, she was confronted by the second of Happy Valley’s twin monsters, the one that stood on two legs. Its face loomed above her. It smiled a smile, full of crooked knifelike teeth, gaping wide in eerie silhouettes black against the morning sun. Turning again to the dark doorway framed by serpents, Laura felt an unaccountable chill.
Suddenly, Mabel disappeared behind the curtain. A moment later, she peeked back out and regarded them with that same enigmatic tilt of her head before ducking back inside. Laura squared her shoulders, reminding herself that the sharp-toothed monster guarding the building was nothing but creetrock. With a deep breath, she plunged in after Mabel.
Laura stood there a moment, just inside the curtain. Gradually, her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Though the roof had clearly been repaired at some point in the recent past, gaps remained, letting stray fissures of light slip through its high ceiling. Eventually, Laura was able to pick out Mabel’s shape from among the other shadows. The wildgirl was crouched just a few steps away, fiddling with something on the creetrock floor. There was a clacking and a scratching. Then a spark. Then a blossoming orange glow.
Mabel stood and lofted a lantern. Around her, the shadows shifted and danced. She walked past Laura. As she moved along the wall, she thrust her lantern out, splashing light across a patchwork of brick and plaster.
The sweep of the lantern gradually revealed a breathtaking scene. The walls of the reptilsoo were covered with murals. The images stretched from the floor all the way to the rafters, interrupted only by cracks and the irregular blotches where decaying plaster had given way to bare brick.
Even beneath the pale orange tint of the lantern light, the paintings were vivid. A green shape crept along the bottom of the mural. As Laura approached, she saw it was a creature. Its long snout was filled with many sharp tiny teeth, and its short legs seemed unable to keep its belly from dragging along the floor.
Above the long-snouted animal was a giant snake devouring a deer whole. Nearby, beside a mountain that spat fire and smoke into the air, was something that looked very much like the monster statue standing outside. It had the same little two-clawed hands, the same big toothy mouth.
“Oh my,” said a hushed voice at Laura’s back.
Laura had been so absorbed by the paintings, she hadn’t noticed Mary slip in behind her. Together, they stared, mouths agape at the strange animals and exotic landscapes flickering in the lantern light.
The paintings seemed to go on and on. Jungles faded into deserts which gave way to swamps, each crawling with a different collection of clawed and scaly beasts.
As Mabel led them deeper into the abandoned structure, she turned her lantern away from the mural-covered walls. The big room seemed to go on and on, cavernous and empty, but Laura began to discern peaks and valleys cut into the featureless creetrock floor. Vague shapes rose up here and there. Elsewhere, the ground was sunken, with steps leading down into shallow pools. In one corner, there were stacks of boxes made of pure lectricmade glass. Their crystal walls were cracked and dusty but still hauntingly beautiful.
Mabel walked on, illuminating their path so Laura and Mary wouldn’t stumble. Even so, it made Laura nervous. She knew Ma and Pa wouldn’t want them crawling blindly through old ruins, and she did not think it would make them feel better to know they were under the care of a wordless knife-wielding young woman whom they’d only just met.
She could hear Mary getting more and more upset.
“Laura . . .” Mary kept saying, her voice hushed, as if afraid of the echo that would bounce back at her from the far corners of the vast dark chamber.
Finally, Mary grabbed Laura’s arm and tried to tug her back the way they’d come. Laura thought Mary was probably right. They shouldn’t go any further. She was about to give in and follow her sister back out into the light when suddenly Mabel stopped. Her lantern clanked as she set it down. Mary stopped tugging Laura’s arm, and they both looked.
Mabel stood before a rock shelf. At first, the shelf appeared to have been chiseled from a heap of boulders, piled incongruously in the middle of this abandoned building and somehow arranged to form a series of flat outcroppings. On closer look, though, Laura saw that the shelf was made of creetrock that had merely been shaped to imitate natural stone. On top and on each of the lower outcroppings, there were candles. Mabel lit them one by one until an eerie, flickering radiance surrounded the shelf of false boulders.
Between the candles, there were other objects, big and small. As the candlelight bloomed, brighter and brighter with each sweep of Mabel’s hand, Laura’s attention was drawn from one strange item to another. Small statuettes, ornate jars and bottles, painted wooden crosses, and still other objects that Laura couldn’t even begin to comprehend lurked everywhere among the creetrock boulders’ ramparts and alcoves. In a place of prominence, there was a framed picture, a faded portrait of a man with dark skin and long, braided hair.
Finally, Mabel lit the topmost row of candles, illuminating a shelf above the portrait of the man. Sitting there, at the very pinnacle of this strange display, was the biggest object of all. Laura took it for a large stone at first or perhaps a remnant from another creetrock statue. But as its contours took shape, the spreading candlelight gradually revealing the depth of its black eye sockets, she realized that the thing was bone, gray and smooth like the skeletons they’d found in the great iron boxes beside the river.
Only these bones did not belong to a person. These were the bones of some creature, some ancient horror from a forgotten world.
The skull stared back at her. Tooth upon jagged tooth crissed and crossed from beneath a long snout. This was the same snout, the same teeth, she’d seen on the snarling green creature from the mural. In the flickering light, the skull seemed to move, the hollow shadows of its eyes looking Laura up and down as its jaws twisted upwards in a savage grin.
“Laura . . .” Mary said again, the word quivering off into nothing.
From somewhere in the shadows, she heard Jack growl.
Laura clutched tight to her sister’s hand, and together they dashed headlong toward the exit.