“That is not a ramp. That is a slide,” Nathan said with wide eyes.
“Of course, it is a slide,” Mathis responded. “Why would anyone want to use a ramp if they could have a slide? It would take so much more space and be a so much slower way to get anywhere.”
“Slides are undignified in a skirt,” Nathan said, thinking of a memorable visit to the park with a friend’s little sister and his mother around to add an extra helping of drama to the occasion.
“So are ladders and ropes,” Mathis countered. “With a slide you just need something to sit on and hold like a rug, mat, blanket, or jacket. Besides, neither of us is wearing a skirt,” Mathis said with a smile before stepping into the hole and sliding out of sight.
“Why does he keep jumping off things?” Nathan asked, turning to where Flame Heart sat in the grass nearby. The vervet looked up at Nathan for a long moment, for all the world as if he meant to answer at any moment. However, at the last, the monkey just hopped into the slide to disappear with a flash of blue that startled a laugh out of the boy.
“You may have a point there,” Nathan said after the retreating tail. “It can be pretty fun, as long as you pick your landings very carefully.” With no further stalling, if a bit more caution, Nathan sat down on the hole’s edge and slipped himself into the slide. It was all very well for Mathis to just step off. He was obviously an expert at sliding, and he did not seem to have any bones he might break. Flame Heart was another story entirely, and one Nathan did not know most of, but presumably someone who could transform from a horse to a dog to a monkey did not have to follow the same sorts of rules as a mere twelve-year-old, male human.
The slide ran straight for some indeterminate distance then the center row of lights went out and it arced right. The grey stone color developed a ruddy hue that turned the lights purple. The slide straightened out for a breath or so, and then the lights went out altogether just as the slide spiraled to the left. In the absolute darkness, the spiral seemed to develop a loop as well until Nathan had no idea which way might be up, and which might be down. He had reason to be grateful for this because his stomach could not tell one from the other either, so it could not decide which way was up if it decided to throw.
Nathan did not realize at first that the slide had straightened out with the way his head and other parts kept spinning, but then he saw, ahead and below, a little circle of watery sunlight coming nearer at a much more sedate and stately pace than it had any right to use. With a little twist and only the faintest of jolts, the slide dropped Nathan on his feet, ankle deep in a wide, muddy pit dug into the base of a hill and edged with damp sandbags. Overhead a dirty sky threatened to dump more rain onto a landscape that already had too much. Nathan was wearing a wide, flattish metal hat and a World War II British infantry uniform just like in his grandfather’s pictures. In the not so great distance, he could hear and feel the great voices of the big guns vibrating the air.
After only a glance around, Nathan saw the back of a Yank with green painted antlers peering out over the sandbags where they met the side of the hill. The boy joined the moose, being careful to keep his head below the top of the sandbags. “What is good the word, Mathis?” Nathan asked, turning his back against the side of the pit while he braced his legs to keep from sliding down into the muddy sludge at the pit’s bottom. “Have you seen any sign of Flame Heart? He took the slide before I did.”
When Mathis did not respond, Nathan went on. “What do you suppose he turned into this time? Maybe an Army Mule, what do you think?” Nathan elbowed Mathis in the thigh, trying to get a response. The boy started to grow concerned. He knew quite well that on a battlefield like that one, life could vanish in an instant, and he might be addressing a cooling corpse instead of his brave, nigh invincible adventuring companion.
Mathis shook himself slightly, and Nathan gave a profound sigh of relief. “No, not a mule. If you want to see what Flame Heart turned into, come up here and take a gander.”
Beyond their protected little hole lay a broad, damp slice of hell. Once, the area had been a stretch of fields with a barn and farmhouse off to one side. Now the neatly plowed rows had hastily dug trenches in their ruins, and the only crops planted in these were the bodies of the dead. What had probably been a pretty little pond off to their left had been churned muddy, polluted by death, with the smoking remains of a mutilated motorcycle half underwater. New and old craters dotted the landscape, some of them still smoking, but it had probably been something smaller and much closer to home that set the neat little house and all the out buildings aflame.
Coils of barbed wire littered the area, some stretched tight, but a few just abandoned in place when whatever pressure or order or catastrophe pulled the fighting away from this little stretch, but not before a horrible cost was paid. The whole scene seemed dirty, grayed out, and stained with smoke.
At first, Nathan could not imagine how anything could be alive out there, and he started to mourn the loyal, smart, funny animal that traveled with them so far, but then his eyes caught movement, and Nathan gasped. A tall man in a uniform completely at odds with the scene strode easily across the field wearing a dark blue uniform with shiny silver buttons and the name ‘Heart’ clearly engraved on a well-polished nameplate pinned to the breast.
Nathan was just about to yell at the man to get down, probably with some uncomplimentary descriptors thrown in, when he recognized the security guard’s uniform, and the nature of all the terrain blurred and shifted into the quite ordinary and almost entirely unpopulated lobby of the hotel in which the adventure began. The farmhouse and barn became the wide registration desk, the polluted pond shifted to a dimly lighted swimming pool behind its glass, and their pit was revealed to be the short stairway from a second elevator down nearer the parking garage up to the lobby area. Mathis hung over the bottom rung of the rail lining the short staircase, back in stuffed-animal size and shape.
With a great sigh, knowing that he had been seen, Nathan picked Mathis up and climbed up to the lobby in the more ordinary way, and walked across to meet the adult, authority figure, wondering if he was going to be in trouble.
“You must be Nathan,” Mr. Heart, the security guard, said holding out his hand to be shaken. “My name is Mr. Heart, but you may call me Aiden. Sheila told me how Barnaby rescued you from the storm and that you will be staying with us until your Aunt can make her way here.”
Slowly, Nathan reached out to grab the strong, worn hand. Mr. Heart stood quite a bit taller than the boy, taller even than his dad, who was one of the tallest men Nathan knew. Mr. Heart had broad shoulders and his limbs obviously had strength in them, though there was just a little stiffness in the left knee. His dark hair was shaved close on the sides and cut very short on top, a style that said ‘military’ in a way the carriage of his shoulders and the way he walked, even with that stiffness, agreed with adding ‘recently’. Nathan had seen the signs often enough in some of his grandparents’ old friends, and some of the grown-up children of those old friends.
“Hello Mr. Heart,” Nathan said, thinking a mile a minute so he was slow remembering what the man had just said, and adding on hastily, “Aiden.”
“Are you looking for anything in particular, or did you just get tired of being cooped up in the hotel room? I imagine Barnaby is still asleep, considering when you two got in,” Mr. Heart said, with a little, just a little, teasing in his voice.
Relieved that he was not going to be in trouble, Nathan smiled. “I took the long way down because it was still a little too early for breakfast. Is it five-thirty yet?” Nathan asked, smiling innocently up at the man who watched Nathan galloping and crawling and climbing through four floors of hotel hallway and stair cases.
Mr. Heart returned the smile, with just a hint of conspiratorial glee in the back of his eyes before checking his wrist watch. “Just a little past, actually. Enjoy your breakfast,” Mr. Heart said and turned to walk back across the lobby toward an unobtrusive door labeled ‘Security’.
Nathan waited until Mr. Heart reached his door and turned to exchange waves before heading across towards the restaurant front. “That was Flame Heart? How did that happen?” Nathan asked very quietly while he was still too far from anyone to be overheard.
“Aiden means Little Flame, and in a way, he was with us the whole time as he watched you on the monitors,” Mathis responded easily.
“But why didn’t he say anything about you?” Nathan asked.
“Most humans see what they expect to see when it comes to my kind,” Mathis said, hanging from Nathan’s arm. It was about that time when a skinny young man and a wide, droolingly entrancing variety of smells came out to meet them, and Nathan realized that he still felt the weight and edges of the carved bit of stone in his pocket that he collected in the jungle ruins, which should have been imaginary. He froze for a moment while his brain tried to make sense of those two facts, then a second, deeper breath redolent with the smells of bacon, sausages, and cinnamon along with a host of other delectable smells caused Nathan’s stomach to lead a revolt.
Nathan all but drifted by the nose across the carpet towards the buffet like they do sometimes in cartoons, but at the same time, his fingers traced the lines of the carved frog in the pocket of his khaki shorts, until it came time to take up plate and serving spoon and charge into an adventure of an entirely different and totally tangible kind, though the moose sneaking bites off his plate did add a pleasantly outré note.