Henry on Fire (The first ten pages)

Chapter 1  Sunday Night

Elvis left the building, Dorothy left Kansas and last night I left the neighborhood. I am trying to wrap my head around what happened. I got this idea to write my story in a journal. Maybe I’m only doing this for me I don’t know. (But I want to think someone else cares enough to be reading this. I hope you care enough to stick with me. Thanks for reading.)

I went to bed about ten as usual. The weekend had been okay, definitely nothing to write about. My life is pretty ordinary. I suffocate in the quiet boredom of suburbia. I live outside D.C., in Fairdale. I tell people I live in Suborediom, Virginia. They usually give me a weird look. Sometimes they even say, 'Where's that?' (You get it, don’t you? Suburbia + Boredom = Suborediom. I really want you to understand.)

I woke up at 1 a.m., wide wake. I couldn’t figure out what woke me. I had been dreaming, something about a horse and pain but I couldn’t quite remember. My eyes searched my room as my ears searched the house. I heard Mom and Dad snoring, two rooms away. No sound came from Larry’s room. (He’s my little brother.)

I rolled over, to go back to sleep, but the moonlight drew my attention outside. A horse stood in my front yard, a real horse! His coat shone silver in the moonlight. His face had a white mark, a star, between his eyes.  He stared right at me.  Our eyes locked for a minute or two.

After our staring contest, I decided to head outside. I wanted to touch this horse. I’ve talked about slipping out at night before, but I never have.  Fred and Jamal say they would meet me, but I doubt they would show. (They’re my only friends.)

I slipped silently down the hall toward the front door. The first lock made a loud, snapping noise. I froze and listened. I heard nothing different. I flipped the second one more gently. I opened the door and checked the locks to make sure I wouldn't be locked out. The horse was standing twenty feet away from me. As I crossed the lawn, I felt my heart pounding in my chest.

I approached carefully. I learned what little I know about horses on a one hour ride in a national park.  Our horses followed the ranger’s horse for an hour.  The white spot on his forehead is called a star and you approach a horse slowly with your hand held out, open and palm up. That's everything I remember. I hope somebody taught this horse the same rules.  He shook his head and snorted. I jumped back and wiped horse snot off my face. I approached again. I started to sweat and my legs were weak, but I wanted to touch the horse.

The white mark on his forehead was more a scar, than a star.  I laid my hand on his neck for a minute. He pulled away. He circled around the front yard and came back. A connection was building between me and this horse. This is the horse from my dream. He wanted something from me, and I needed to figure out what it was.  Again I laid my hand on his neck and again he pulled away, but this time he trotted down the street a few houses. My heart sank at first, but then I knew he wanted me to come with him. As soon as I understood what he wanted he turned around and came back. With no saddle and no reigns and for about a dozen other reasons I can think of, leaving on this horse would be a bad idea.

Even though he turned around to come back, I had decided to call it quits. I had my hand on the door when he came and stood beside the porch. The fact he knew enough to stand by the porch so I could climb on his back overcame my fear and my sense of reason. I scrambled over the porch rail and slid my right leg across his back letting myself down gently. I leaned down putting my head by his neck to steady myself. For a second everything was good, then my mind cleared. I know nothing about riding a horse, and when Mom and Dad find out, I will be grounded forever.

Halfway down the street, I realized we were moving. I held on with all I had. I laid my head against his neck, wrapped my fingers into his mane and pressed my legs against his body. The rhythm of my heart matched the rise and fall of his hooves. I was one with the horse.

We turned north on Forest Lane. Everything was normal until we were a half mile from my house. An empty field replaced the shopping center. Woods replaced houses. I held on with all my strength as we galloped across open fields. I trembled at the idea he was carrying me away from the life I knew, yet at the same time new strength, new life flowed from the horse into me. I shouted into the wind, “Ride, Henry ride.” The horse went faster.

(I don’t think I told you, my name is Henry. I’m named for a great grandfather who was an orphan. Sometimes I wish I was an orphan.)

The horse slowed to a walk. We stepped into the darkest darkness I ever experienced. My eyes were open, but I couldn’t see anything. In the darkness, the horse, and I with him, made several very odd turns.  At each turn I felt I was an image in a pop-up book being folded flat by the reader as they turned the page. Then on the next page I would rise up going in a new direction.

After the last turn, I rose up to the light of a new day. We were trotting down a mountain path.  The mountain climbed up to my right and fell off sharply to my left. I leaned toward the mountain and away from the drop off.  Occasionally, through the trees, I glimpsed lower hills and beyond them, a valley.  The sun was at mid-morning, rising at the far end of the valley.

The horse stopped outside the ruins of a large stone building.  I slipped off his back, though I more fell off than got off. When I returned to my feet, the horse was gone. I didn’t have a clue where.

At this point in a movie, the main character always takes stock of the situation and so I took stock. I had no water, food, supplies or transportation, other than my feet. There is nothing like this building near my house. I concluded I am alone in an unknown land at some kind of ruin. (My life in middle school could be described as a ruin in an unknown land.)

My Dad has what he calls man rules. Man rule number five is, 'You have choices. You may not like your choices, but you have choices.' I had choices. Choice number one, I sit here and see what happens or choice number two, I get going and see what happens. You might be thinking how terribly brave I was, but at this point, a part of me believed this was a dream and if a dream, by waking up I would return to the safety of my bedroom. (The safety net would disappear shortly.)

I started walking around the building looking for a way in. I assumed I had arrived on the back side because there was no door and all the windows were high up in the wall. The wall towered two or more stories over me. Chunks of stone had fallen from above and lay on the ground along the base of the wall.  As I came around the corner, I found a break in the wall and a pile of rubble below it. I managed to climb up the rubble and slip into the building through the crack. (Have I mentioned I am not the most athletic guy?)

I entered a large room the size of a gym. There were doors to other rooms. Even a second story, but the stairs lay collapsed on the floor. Large holes in the roof let in light. Someone or something had torn this place apart.  Even parts of the floor had been pulled up. Almost immediately my skin began to crawl and the hair on my neck stood up. Outside there was a warm morning sun, but inside the building was cold and dark. The air was heavy and stale, like a wet basement. I had a bad feeling about the place. Something bad happened here. Something very bad happened here. Maybe worse, something bad was about to happen here. The feeling overwhelmed me and I tried to shake myself awake. (This is when I knew for certain I wasn’t dreaming. I filled with fear and expectation.) 

In the movies the characters always hang around in the bad place until something bad happens. It’s called plot development. Not me, I headed for the largest opening to the outside. I had chosen the main entrance for my exit. Stone stairs led from this opening to a large courtyard below. Six smaller buildings made a semi-circle defining the area. They were messed up like the big building and some even had trees growing out of them.

Leaving the building did something for me. Inside me something more powerful than the bad of the building came alive. The new life the horse gave me lit a fire deep inside me.  

Once in gym, during track season, Coach yelled at me, “Miller, if you had a fire in your belly, you could jump those hurdles.” I had no clue what he meant. I skipped lunch that day and all I had in my belly was bile. I caught my foot on the first hurdle and fell on my face. I crawled over to the side of the track with the dry heaves, but this is what he meant, this fire in my gut quickly grew more powerful than the darkness of the building.

Standing at the doors of the building facing the courtyard, I raised my arms in a ‘V,’ as though pointing to the sky with two swords. I shouted at the top of my lungs,

“Good Bye, Henry of Suborediom.

I AM HENRY ON FIRE”

As I shouted, the fire in me raged.

(This is what I am trying to tell you about, I want to hold on to this fire.)

I started day dreaming about the life of Henry on Fire. I pictured the heroic Henry on Fire ruling over this place. I imagined people coming and going and doing everything I told them to do and asking me what they should do next. I was imagining ordering up lunch when an angry voice from behind me shocked me out of my day dream.

“Where do you come from? No one is allowed here.”

Out of reflex or from watching too many old movies, I raised my hands and turned around slowly.  The voice belonged to an old guy with a wispy beard and dressed in a dingy gray robe.  I’ve had a growth spurt and he was old and shrunken so I was almost as tall as him. The difference was he was shaking a stick at me, six inches in front of my face. I couldn’t tell if he was shaking because of rage or age. I froze.

“Account for yourself, boy.”

My voice caught in my throat, but I managed to say, “I’m not doing anything. I didn’t mess with anything or touch anything. I found the place like this.”

He growled, “Where do you come from?”

I should have said, ‘I come from my Mother’s womb, where did you come from’ or even ‘I come from 10510 Timber Lane in Suborediom.’ I chose a cautious answer, “I came down the mountain.”

After a long pause, during which he carefully looked me over, he lowered his stick and walked past me, out into the court yard, saying nothing. I hate it when adults treat me that way. When he had gone thirty feet he turned back, I guess to see if I would follow him.

The smart move would be to take off running, circle around the building and head back out on the trail I came in on. But that road leads to Suborediom and suffocation. No today the horse gave me the chance to choose a new road and the fire in me gave me the courage to take the new road.

I followed the old man through the courtyard and onto a trail into the woods. We came to his camp at a clearing a hundred yards in. I stopped at a small fire at the center of the camp. The old man headed into a shack off to one side of the clearing. Still not looking back at me or saying a word. He returned with some bread, cheese and some other things. 

I sat down and started to eat, the bread was dry and the cheese smelled like gym socks. Fortunately he brought me a cup of cold water which helped me wash both down. I ate because I was hungry. He sat across the fire from me.  He started stirring up the fire and adding stuff to a cooking pot. Every so often he would stop and stare at me like I had two heads. I didn’t like it.

Finally he asked, I guess he more demanded, “What brings you to Lothar?”

His abruptness caught me off guard, “Pardon?”

“Lothar, the name of the house is Lothar,” he said a little less roughly.

“Yes, Lothar, I came to look around.”  I wanted him to think I knew where I was. I started to think of the conversation as a chess game and thought I should take control of the board.  (I play chess at lunch every day with Fred and Jamal.)

I stood up and poured on the manners saying, “I am quite sorry sir, I came uninvited to your home and I have not even introduced myself.  My name is Henry.”  I couldn't decide whether to extend my hand for a handshake or bow or what to do.  It didn’t matter because the old man just sat there. I gave an awkward bow and sat back down. (So much for opening moves.)

“Henry.” He said my name as if tasting the word. He said it again, “Henry,” into the air, as if he needed to hear the sound of it. It was weird. After a long silence he said, “I am mostly called Papo, or old man, but my name is Alrinar.”

I took some more bread and cheese.  I chewed slowly in order to buy some time. I finally asked, “How long has Lothar been abandoned?” 

“The Taking happened at last night’s moon, a hundred years ago.  The Tara ordered every stone and timber searched and when the child was not found, he turned his back on Lothar.  He forbade any to return.”

“And you, why are you here?” 

Papo studied my face as if he was trying to remember something.  “I come every fall, in case the child returns.”

I laughed, coughed and blew water out my nose. As I recovered, I blurted out, “That would be a really old child by now.” But at the same time the fire in my gut grew stronger.

He smiled at my outburst and said, “Maybe.”

“And you, have you been coming here for a hundred years?”

“I’m old but not that old. I’ve been coming for many years.”

Something changed in the old man’s face during this conversation.  He acted warmer towards me, but with the kind of friendliness that is fake or even creepy.  He began to volunteer information.  “A few families live to the north, in the mountains and beyond, but we rarely have contact with them. Maybe you have been there?”

“I have been to the north of here.” I technically did not lie, because as best I could tell the trail I came in on was north of the camp.

“The land of Altara stretches east from the mountains.  The land follows the valley of the river Al.  Most people live in five villages along the river, Para, Nork, Tran, Roan and Rahtol.  The last village, Rahtol, is on an island where the river meets the sea.  Perhaps you have been to the sea?”

“I have been to the sea.” Again technically I didn't lie. We go to the ocean once a year. I just doubt I have been to his sea.

“The valley of the river Al is the land of the Tara.”  As he talked, he seemed less creepy and more just boring.

“And the Tara, who is he?” I asked.

“The Tara was once a powerful leader. The last true Tara built Lothar, but after the Taking, the rights of the Tara passed to the son of a brother and now, for several generations we haven't had a true Tara. Now we are to claim that a boy of no more than thirteen years is the Tara.” His voice grew angry as he mentioned the boy. 

“Tell me the story of the Taking. What’s that about?”

“Look at the sun, it’s getting late and we have things to do before dark, that story is a hundred years old, it will keep a while longer.” As he finished saying this he got up and headed over to his hut. He came back with a bucket.  Pointing to the side of camp opposite where we came in he said, “There’s a trail that heads out that side of the camp, at the end of the trail you’ll find a spring. Fill this bucket and come back.”

I just stood there looking at the guy. Who is he to assign me chores? I guess he understood the look.

He said, “Camp doesn’t run on its own. If you want some dinner and want water to wash up, you need to pitch in.”

I took the bucket and headed down the trail. (I find myself in some alternate world and an adult is assigning me chores. Really!) The path went on forever, heading down hill. The spring bubbled out of a pile of rocks into a shallow pool about three feet in diameter. The water was cold and clear. I filled the bucket. As I headed back uphill, the daylight faded fast and I had to work hard to follow the trail and to not spill too much water. The whole trip took about an hour. I was relieved to see the fire of camp through the trees.

As soon as I came into camp, Papo greeted me, “Well there you are. I thought maybe you lost your way.” He sounded sincerely concerned. He took the bucket, poured water in a bowl and rinsed his face and hands. I did likewise.

All day I had only eaten the biscuit and cheese Papo gave me. I was definitely hungry. We sat down at the fire and Papo handed me a wooden bowl of the stew he had been working on in the pot. I ate with a wooden spoon. If cafeteria food is your standard, this scored above average for taste and smell. As we finished our food Papo asked, “Inside or out?”

“What?”

“Do you want to sleep inside or outside?” he asked.

“I’m not planning on staying,” I said.  I figured I ought to be getting home. Between the ride and spending the day in Altara, I was sure everyone would be looking for me. A wave of guilt, fear and regret swept over me. I knew I faced a magnitude of trouble and disbelief as soon as I got home.

“Where would you be going?” he asked.

“Well, that is a good question,” I looked around and realized it was now pitch dark beyond the light of the fire. I doubt I could even find my way back to Lothar much less the trail I came in on. So I started thinking about whether to choose inside or outside.  In the hut I would be safe from whatever goes bumping around outside in the dark. (This is not Suborediom.) But I would not be safe from this old guy, who I only just met.  Also, if I was outside and I stayed awake, the horse might come back for me. 

“Outside,” I said.  Papo handed me a mat and some rough blankets, and I set them up as a bed at the edge of the fire. As I lay down, I asked, “How about the story of the Taking before I go to sleep.”

“No, I will tell you that story tomorrow. After that though I am heading down the mountain and going on to Para. You are welcome to come,” he said as he went into his hut. 
I tried to stay awake to wait for the horse, but in truth, I was exhausted and went right to sleep.  I woke at seven this morning in my own bed trying to make sense of what happened during the night.