June 2, 2010

The Ohhhh Man

The group of us were as tight as cat-dog, the animated Siamese twin gone wrong in Karen’s favorite TV show—if anything, we were tighter, as we would never dream of fighting. After all, we were ten years old, double digits, and well beyond such a juvenile activity.

On this particular day, it was morning, an August morning that, even while the nighttime cool attempted to settle in, the sticky warmth to come was visible in the clear sky that had already hit its bluest. I was up early, more or less, but I was almost finished with my fourth read-through of Half Magic, so I’d spent a few hours reading it before I picked up the phone to call Karen.

I unwound the cord of the phone and began my attempts at communication. I had to dial three times, as whatever sticky substance resided under the keys did an even better job at getting buttons stuck during the summertime. The number finally went through, and Karen didn’t pick up. I hung up on the answering machine and called again. No response. I called a third time, and when I heard her younger brother announcing “we aren’t home right now, but Mom—uh, Sharon--says hi,” I dropped the phone back onto its base.

“Mom!”

“I’m outside,” she called back.

“What?”

“I’m outside!”

“Oh!” I put on sandals and went out the door. “I’m going to Karen’s. Sharon says hi.”

“Tell her the same. Call if you aren’t coming home for dinner.”

I walked past Mom, further down the yard, to a collapsed section of stone wall tucked behind the hedge. I went down the steps before closing my eyes and continuing. I stuck out my arms, always cautious, but I enjoyed the reminder that I could, in fact, truly make this walk with my eyes closed.

When my hands hit her gate, I opened my eyes again, pushed through, and ran further down the hill to her back door. I took off my shoes before unlatching it and entering.

“Hello?”

I heard nothing for a moment, followed by some loud thumps. Her dog, a black lab as wide as he was tall and with a tail thicker than my fist, was banging himself against the door to the kitchen. I followed him over and saw Karen’s mother with her arm deep in the freezer, digging.

“Hi Sharon.”

“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

I shrugged. “My book was good.”

“That’s lovely.” She resumed shuffling through whatever was in the back of the fridge.

“Where’s Karen?”

“She’s with Anna. I think--” she grunted before finally yanking something out.

“Okay, thanks.”

“Finally got it.” She waved a chocolate bar at me. “I’d give you some, but I know your mother wouldn’t appreciate it.”

“Oh, right, Mom says ‘the same.’”

“Doesn’t she always?”

“Yes.”

She peeled back a section of wrapper. “Have fun at the beach.”

“What?”

“That’s where Karen and Anna went, the beach. At least, I think it was the beach, although it might have been Anna’s house, or maybe the Deli, but they’re out somewhere. They only left a little while ago, you could probably catch them.”

I nodded and left, this time through the garage, which I closed behind me using the keypad outside. I had barely made it out of Karen’s driveway before I saw the pair rushing towards me.

“Oh! Good! We were just coming to get you!”

“You were?”

“We saw,” began Karen, but she cut herself off with a breathless gasp, so Anna filled in.

“It was terrifying.”

“Crazy.”

“So scary.”

“What was it?”

“Oh.”

“Well.”

They looked at each other for a moment, then began to talk at the same time. “The omen,” said Karen, at the same time that Anna said “the box.”

“The what?”

“You mean we didn’t tell you?” said Karen.

“Didn’t tell me what?”

“About the omen!”

“You definitely didn’t.”

“Are you sure? Because I think we did,” said Anna.

“I think I’d remember.”

“You never know, you could have forgotten,” said Karen.

“I wouldn’t forget.”

“Doesn’t everybody forget?” said Anna.

“Not me.”

“Well,” said Karen. “I suppose I’ll have to tell you. But, I don’t know, you might be better off not knowing.”

“Yeah, it’s a pretty scary story.”

“Tell me!”

“Well, are you sure you can handle it?”

“Yes!”

“Really sure?” added Anna.

“YES!”

“In that case,” began Karen, “we need a good location.”

“Does it really matter?”

“Of course it matters. I need to go right where we were, when it happened.”

“If you say so,” I said.

“We should go,” agreed Anna.

“Well, where was it?”

Anna looked at Karen, who appeared deep in thought. “The tree.”

“What tree?”

At this, Karen looked up. “The one by the tennis court, near the Sloat’s house.”

We walked together towards said tree, which was actually a network of trees, a pine hedge with a soft green coating hiding a spacious inside with the perfect concentration of large, sturdy branches.

“Anna,” I said, “I need a least a hint.”

“I’m no good at hints.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not. I’ll give too much away.”

“No hints,” said Karen. “You’ll find out when we get there. It’s only around the block.”

“It’s a big block.”

“It’s half the size of my old block,” said Anna.

“You’re old block was megabig, then.” I turned to Karen. “Tell me.”

“No.”

Then to Anna. “Tell me.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Fine.”

We walked in silence towards the trees, before crawling through our usual gap and settling ourselves among the branches. Karen was the littlest, so she was on a flimsier, higher branch. I was clumsy, so I was leaned against the trunk towards the middle of the tree, straddling a branch so thick it was practically a log. Anna was perched a few feet in front of me, where my log began to thin. To our left was an empty branch, somewhere between mine and Karen’s in sturdiness. When Harriet arrived later, the final fourth of our group, she would sit there, and we would hold court to plan the day’s attack upon the world.

For now, though, we were only three, and all I could see was a story that was shared by two.

“Now,” began Karen. “The story of the O Man. On this very morning, we saw him, for the first time, and this experience has—“

“I thought you said it was an omen,” I interrupted.

“No, I said O Man.”

“You definitely said omen.”

“No, I didn’t. Anna, did I say omen or O Man?”

“O Man.”

“Like I said,” continued Karen. “Today, on this very morning, we first saw the O Man.”

“If you’ve only just seen him, why do you call it the first time? It’s not like there are other times.”

“Do you want to hear or not?”

“I want to hear.”

“Then listen! Today, we first saw the O Man. Well, actually, we first saw the O Box. This box was large, and it was cardboard, and it was right there.” She pointed behind her, towards the house of the neighbor to whom these trees belonged.

“Where?”

“Right inside the tree wall.”

“Oh. It can’t have been a very big box.”

“It was.”

“But there’s not a stamp in the needles.”

“That’s ‘cause it blew away.”

“Oh, right.” That made sense. I hushed up and let her continue.

“First thing in the morning, Anna and I were walking towards the beach. Now, we weren’t going to come in here, because this is the thinking tree, but we heard this awful noise coming from the driveway of the house—”

“Was it a car?”

“Be quiet,” said Anna. “I can’t hear.”

“You don’t need to hear. You were there.”

They both shushed me, and Karen continued. “There was a crunching noise, a big, loud crunching noise.”

“Just like this,” said Anna, breaking a small stick off of the tree and rubbing it against its trunk, “but louder.”

“Exactly. Well, we heard this noise, and we didn’t know what it was, but it sounded dangerous, so we crawled into here and climbed up a tree to hide.”

“This tree?”

“No, the one closer. I wanted to see what was happening.” She paused. “Anyways, we climb up, and then, while we’re sitting up in the tree, the crunching gets even louder.”

Anna began to rub her stick against the tree again, for effect.

“Then, we see the box. It’s right underneath our tree, and it has a big red O on the top.”

“O like the letter, or Oh, like oh my gosh?”

“The first one. Why would someone put O-H on a box?”

“Maybe it’s their initials,” suggested Anna.

“Or maybe it’s not.”

“It could be, though,” I said. “Owen Heart, or Oliver Hephastus.”

Karen, who had been about to cut me off, looked confused. “Hephastus?”

“It’s this poisonous thing that miners get.”

“Well, this was a man, not a kid.”

“That wasn’t what I—never mind. Who was the man?”

“I’ll get to it. We’re sitting in that tree, and we’re hearing this noise, and we suddenly see the box, and that’s when we realize that the noise is getting louder, and maybe the noise is coming to take the box!”

“Why?”

“Well, what would you think? The box and the noise, both didn’t make sense, so they had to be together. Anyways, we rushed back through the branches, and we were moving so fast that if the man had seen us, he probably would have thought we were escaped monkeys or something, but then we were sitting further back, and then, through the tree, comes a man.”

“The O Man,” said Anna.

“He took the box,” said Karen, “put it in his car, and left.”

“I thought you said the crunching wasn’t a car.”

“I said it didn’t sound like a car. There’s a difference.”

“Oh. So, what do we do now?”

“I dunno,” said Anna. “But we could try to figure out who he is!”

“How? It’s not like we’re going to see him again,” said Karen, “but, well, maybe—now I don’t know that this would work, but it’s an idea—maybe he’s stopping at all of the trees like this, and there’s another box, with another letter, and they spell something.”

“But where are there other trees like this?” asked Anna.

“At that house on your street,” said Karen. “The one with the big fancy gate.”

“The one where you have to push buttons to get in?” I said.

“That’s it. I bet our O Man is going there.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“We should go,” I said.

“We can eat lunch when we reach my house,” added Anna, “and we can stop and get Harriet on the way.”

“Good plan,” said Karen. “Ready?”

“Ready,” responded Anna and I in unison. The three of us high-fived, climbed down, and then began to walk.

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