The Plus Sized Club: Brooke and Jared Nescott by Devon Pitlor Prologue: “In the future,” said

Jared, “people will be different, and a lot of the craziness around us now will have dried up and blown away. But right now we have to deal with psychopaths, and there are no end to those everywhere.” I. New Year’s Eve, 2010: A small and intimate party As one of the worst snowstorms in recent history blew through Aristock, Brooke Nescott examined the small gathering in her cozy house and was satisfied. Her arrangement of shared affection between Dr. Eric Palobay and the inimitable Dragonsnort had been a successful one, much approved of by each of her soul mates, but more importantly understood and admired by her precocious son, Jared, who this evening was of course staying up late to ring in a new year, whatever that year might hold. Brooke would be thirty-seven the coming spring, and Eric, kept alive and youthful by the parasitical vap attached for many decades to his body, would be a shocking ninety-seven. It was impossible to tell just how old Dragonsnort would be because Dragonsnort did not measure time in the same way as Brooke and the others. All that was known was that he was a solid friend and lover who could, for temporary periods, escape his tree form, don outrageous clothes and metal studs and become as human as anyone else in the room. Jared was his natural son, but Dragonsnort was always more than happy that Jared was being reared by a stepfather of such depth and intelligence as Eric Palobay, who continued as department chairman of entomology at Central State University and had found a unique way of integrating his involvement with the heretofore secret Crypto-Zoological Society into his daily work by declaring all vap wearers to be cryptids themselves and thereby gaining the confidence and shared secrets of both clandestine worldwide groups: The Crypto-Zoological Society and ultra-invisible Brotherhood of VapWearers. But as the gaiety of the little family group wore on that blustery New Year’s Eve, another small but growing mystery seemed to be sprouting, and Brooke’s maternal interests were piqued to the degree that she temporarily put aside her vow not to probe into the life of her gifted son Jared, and this to the degree that she slipped the eleven year old boy one more glass of champagne, exclaiming “Oh what the hell? It’s not like he is going to drive anywhere.” Eric Palobay rolled his eyes at Dragonsnort, who was stretched out on a sofa watching a documentary concerning the depressing events of 2010. Dragonsnort, always definitive in his decisions, shot back a glance of assent, and Jared quaffed a second glass of bubbly. The wind howled beyond the walls and windows, and the new year, soon to arrive, seemed to hold both promise and adventure. Brooke had actually started to enjoy her life in the ménage à trois that had developed. It gave her two strong and

ultimately extraordinary men to support. One was a bug and cryptid expert and the other an incarnated tree that knew apparently everything that had happened on Earth at one point or another. Bouncing around the party too was the irrepressible, spring-heeled Katie, Eric’s assistant and, as ever, Dragonsnort’s tree protector. She too was enjoying the champagne. But for weeks before, Jared, with his preternatural maturity had been hinting at something that Brooke, perhaps becoming more protective than usual, wanted to know more about. Jared and his friends had been whispering about two things: One was some sort of club they had founded with the baffling name of The Plus Sized Club, about which they pleasantly refused to divulge anything, but it appeared as if to the Plus Sized Club many decisions were often deferred, as exemplified by a typical remark from Jared to his best friends Malachi, Subaru, Ian, Cody and Tyshawn: “Let’s wait and see what the Plus Sized Club has to say about this, whether we should admit her as a member.” Dragonsnort, taking very little notice of remarks like this, credited it to the eleven year old boy mentality and said “It’s probably about a tree house with a sign that says ‘No girls allowed.’ Eric Palobay agreed. “Boys need their secrets,” he mused, perhaps remembering his own rough and tumble boyhood as a homeless waif on the Depression-ravaged streets of Chicago. But Brooke had her doubts. Jared had always shared things with her as she had with him, and their closer than usual mother-son intimacy had never known any communication barriers. Perhaps a little more champagne would loosen his lips. What was the Plus Sized Club, and who was “she” who might be admitted? Jared grinned and looked at the clock. The Plus Sized Club was a secret, if she didn’t mind, and she…. Well, it was about a sixth-grade girl whose name Brooke had heard buzzed about before: Nautica De Craquelot. For weeks it had been Nautica this and Nautica that. At first, Brooke surmised that Jared might be experiencing his first youthful crush---and this right along with the other boys. But after a time, Nautica’s name was mentioned so often that Brooke began to feel it may have been something more peculiar. “Forget it,” said Palobay, cornering Brooke in the kitchen as she prepared a further round of ham sandwiches with the help of Katie, who was only interested in eating the trimmed-off fat to nourish the raging metabolism which fueled her always moving, wiry frame. “Boys need their secrets. Trust me. I was one myself.” This male wall of silence began to seriously irk Brooke, but she couldn’t say exactly why. She was happy that her quick-witted son was gaining an interest in women and perhaps a few hormones as well, but, having lived the arcane life she had, she continued to suspect the existence of a deeper mystery. Katie, harboring her own list of untold enigmas, seemed oblivious to it all and made no comment, as she sprang about looking for odds and ends to stuff into her mouth. After Eric left the kitchen along with the ever-bounding and leaping Katie, Brooke ruminated about the very bizarre nature of the club’s name itself. Jared and all of his friends were anything but Plus Sized, being agile, athletic and active boys. Perhaps this Nautica was fat or something. Brooke couldn’t say.

What Brooke didn’t know was that in the living room, Eric, Dragonsnort and Katie were quietly conferring together. Dragonsnort, always the most dominant, looked sincerely into Eric’s eyes and speaking through the true sense of friendship which had blossomed between them whispered: “You need to have a private discussion with Jared about this Nautica. I already have when he visited the tree, and I think your Katie, my protector, has too. But Eric, it is your turn. There is something about Nautica that Jared needs to tell you. And to be fair, I am going to let him do it.” Katie vaulted around the room, pausing only long enough to shake her head in assent. Eric Palobay knew his “family” and said he would talk to Jared the next day. In private. II. New Year’s Day, 2011: Eric and Jared talk man to man Despite the heavy covering of snow, January 1, 2011 presented itself as bright, crisp and cheerful to Brooke and her little family. Although she had gotten no answers from her handsome son on the nature of either Nautica or the Plus Sized Club, she had spent a night of towering passion with Dragonsnort in the rear bedroom of her house, and this had been with Eric’s total go-ahead, as he not only respected Dragonsnort as a close friend and first soul mate of his wife, but he realized that Dragonsnort would soon need to leave for his tree and once again become a part of it in order to ensure his own survival, much in the way that Eric depended on the life-giving beneficial vap parasite to preserve his own. Jealousy was not in the ninety-six year old make-up of Dr. Eric Palobay, nor was it a part of the threesome understanding between himself, Dragonsnort and Brooke. Brooke found the warmth of both men to be her main salvation in what she had always considered to be a rather monotonous and meaningless existence. And then there was Jared. Her life was as complete as it could be, and Brooke looked out onto the sunny vista of snow in total contentment. Dragonsnort had vanished by the time Eric got dressed and came down to the alcove dining room and kissed her shoulder. “Happy new year,” he purred into her ear. Turning about abruptly, Brooke flung her arms about her second lover and kissed him. “Do you want to fool around now or later?” she laughed. “It’s your turn.” “Let’s make it later,” said Palobay. “It’s a nice day and I want to bond a little with Jared. He is going to be lonely now that his father is gone, and I want to step in.” “Great! Where are we going?” “We are not going anywhere,” laughed Palobay. “Despite the fact that you have three of them, you never have managed to understand men. I want to go out with Jared alone, maybe do some man talk and all that. He is, after all, getting older. Boys pull a little away from their mothers at his age….” “I understand,” said Brooke. “I feel like cooking anyway. I actually do. I never feel like cooking but today I do. I’m going to surprise you boys with something edible for a change.” “That really will be a change,” joked Eric.

At that moment, Jared padded downstairs in his soft footie pajamas and hugged each parent. “No coffee for me,” he said with a certain irony. “I don’t want to grow up too fast, and that champagne last night was just a little too much. I need to be a kid for a while longer.” Palobay wasted no time in asking Jared if he wanted to go to the indoor go-kart track, which had advertised a special discount all day on New Years---and Jared---somewhat surprisingly---wasted no time in saying that yes, he definitely wanted to go. The rapidity of his decision ruffled Brooke a little. Jared had once raised his eyebrows at the idea of an indoor track and had claimed that it was “for sissies.” After a quick breakfast, Eric and Jared kissed Brooke goodbye and piled into Eric’s Ford truck, bundled against the cold in several layers of clothing. “Just in case we decide to do something outdoors instead,” said Eric to Brooke upon leaving. Once en route to the indoor track, Eric asked Jared if he missed his father. Jared, with his usual adultlike demeanor, said that Eric was his other father and that, besides, he could go visit Dragonsnort whenever he wanted as he was, after all, planted firmly in the ground and wasn’t going anywhere. Eric looked for another conversation opener, but at once Jared turned to him and said “You know, I hate gokarts, especially those slow ones on a phony-baloney indoor track. You may have not noticed, but me and the guys have unplugged all of our video games and electronic gear too. It’s like a New Year’s resolution that we are going to keep, and we have others. And that is something you and I should really talk about.” “For sure, where do you want to go?” “To your office,” said Jared, eyeing his unofficial stepfather for a reaction. “The university is closed, but you have a key.” “You are running the show now,” said Eric, resigned that Jared was probably the best-spoken and most mature eleven year old he had ever seen in his ninety-six years of life. “You obviously want to talk about some thing.” “I do,” said Jared, firmly but resuming his silence. Across the snow covered campus there were only Eric and Jared’s tracks leading to the Natural Sciences Building where Eric’s office was. Eric let them both into his unheated workplace, which characteristically was filled with every sort of exotic and non-exotic bug specimens, flipped on the heating and sat down at his desk, motioning for Jared to sit across from him. “Just like one of your students,” said Jared, his voice still twinged with a slight irony. I have a few things to tell you, so we really ought to change places, don’t you think?” Eric smiled and conceded. The two symbolically switched their seats and Eric waited patiently for Jared to begin whatever subject he was about to broach. He glanced outside at the empty campus and

wondered about the oddity of the situation. A precocious eleven year old, whom he had virtually adopted as a son, was about to lecture him on some subject. The world was indeed a strange place, and Eric Palobay during his ninety-six years had seen some of the strangest of it. “Did you and Mom make any New Year’s resolutions,” began Jared. “Not a one,” said Eric. “Your mother isn’t into planning stuff, and I would have broken every one of them if I had bothered. Have you made any?” “Yep. A lot. The guys and I have started a long list and it keeps growing. It is all part of the Plus Sized Club, and I’m not going to tell you much about that, except that we are planning to do things much differently in the future if we can. We are all eleven years old, and soon the world is going to depend on our generation to run it. We want to try to be different and make things better, or at least not the way they are now. You have lived for so long. You must have seen the really bad changes. I can only tell you a few of our resolutions which start for real today, but, to begin with, members of the Plus Size Club are not going to just blindly go around believing everything that people tell us. We are not going to stand or say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore either, beginning in school on Monday. We think it is stupid to swear loyalty to a piece of dumb cloth. If anything, we are going to swear loyalty to one another and to you.” “To me?” “Not just you, but to all of our parents. Just one little resolution we plan to keep as adults. We consider ourselves a tribe, and we don’t need any cockeyed politicians, preachers or even teachers to maintain a tribe. In Mom’s old age, in yours---whenever that comes----we are going to stay right here and take care of you all---all the parents and grandparents, just like a tribe. We are not going to spread out far and wide across the world and lose contact with our obligations. We are going to consider the maintenance of our parents in their old age as just one of our many responsibilities. Moreover, we are not going to close our minds to fresh ideas. You have your vap. My father is a tree. My best friend last year was almost carried away by a pterodactyl, a cryptid if there ever was one. My mother was visited by representatives from the future on behalf of the salvation of their society. She also ate that weird cheese and visited a parallel universe in dreams and was almost hung until some weird dream guy rescued her. How could I not believe in astonishing things? And that goes for the other guys. No dumb religion or standard way of thinking about stuff is going to prevent us from exploring everything in the world that is either unacceptable or downright weird right now.” “Very admirable,” said Eric pushing back in his chair and resting a leg on his desk. “And what else?” “We’re finished with artificial fun things too, like the video games and the crazy role playing stuff on line. Our tribe is going to have healthy braves. We are doing just like you did as a kid. We turn off television and games and play outside, explore, climb hills, run across fields. You know the routine. Maybe some sports too. But no more mindless computer crap. Also, we are going to be independent but obedient. We

will honor our teachers, but we will not necessarily have blind faith in all the bullshit they throw at us, especially in civics and history. There has got to be a better version to explain who people are and where they came from and why they do the things they do. Our resolution is to try to find it and not just agree to what is in the school books.” “Still very admirable,” said Eric, suddenly rising and standing with his back toward Jared and staring out the window. “So that is what the Plus Sized Club is all about? You and your friends becoming different than the older generation. Every age tries to do that. I wish you luck but…” “All we can do is try,” interrupted Jared. “People need to evolve. The first step, we think, in evolving is making ourselves stronger and more self-reliant. Then it is taking accountability for those in our various tribes who need us, as you might someday.” “Nice. I mean that. So you boys play your rough games outside and then go to your secret meetings of the Plus Sized Club and discuss how you are going to mutate as humans?” “I suppose it is about that,” said Jared, “but there are other things too. In our tribe if we can extend it far enough, there won’t be any need for people like you and your colleagues to hide things like your vaps and your cryptids. We’re going to drop far enough out the nastiness of American society to try to start over, and there won’t be any need for cover-ups of things that are natural. We would like to make contact with extraterrestrials too----which has probably already been done. But we want to do it the right way.” “I second that. Why would any advanced race want to talk to any of our stinkin’ politicians, anyway?” “We want to promote your cryptid work too. Maybe get more involved with it. Has Katie brought in any new, undiscovered specimens?” “Not lately. But I am always waiting. I’m sure the cryptid society will be happy to have such allies as you boys…. Where does the Plus Sized Club meet? Maybe I should come to a meeting, like if you all invited me.” “Sorry. I don’t think so. Our meeting place is secret. We may have to hide someone there very soon.” “And who might that be?” “Nautica de Craquelot.” “Mind spelling the last name? Sounds like some sort of French nobility.” After Jared spelled Nautica’s last name for Eric and informed him that the T was silent, he said that Nautica was definitely not anyone’s “girlfriend” but that she was someone that he and Eric definitely

needed to talk about. “Anytime you like,” said Eric. “How about right now?” Jared was therefore prepared to tell Eric about the famous Nautica without Eric having to probe. But first the two decided to wade through the deep snowdrifts to the other side of the campus and settle behind steaming cups of hot chocolate in a tiny café run by a Moroccan immigrant who did not know it was any kind of holiday, or not one that he could recognize anyway. III. Brooke receives a surprise visit Alone in her family house, Brooke drifted about aimlessly making weak attempts to clean up the slight mess left from last night’s festivities. Her thoughts centered around her union with the now-elusive Dragonsnort, the passion that he had once again reawakened, a thing which, despite the electric warmth of Eric, she always avidly welcomed. Also, she began to wonder again about Jared and his strange club. In passing, Brooke thought about smoking a cigarette from a pack that she had hidden in her room. She had long ago given up the habit, but, as with the desire for Dragonsnort, the memory and desire for tobacco had not totally abandoned her mind. She was about to indulge, when she heard a heavy vehicle spinning its wheels on the packed snow of her driveway. Outside she spied rather huge Explorer, which she recognized as belonging to Lorelei Parmeter, mother of Ian, one of Cody’s closest friends and undoubtedly member in good standing of the Plus Sized Club. Lorelei was an old co-worker of Brooke’s from her days at the Aristock Medical Center, a loose friend, and, above all, president of the PTA at Jared’s middle school. Brooke had reluctantly become a member of this organization, which seemed needlessly intrusive to her. A bunch of helicopter mothers, she often thought, but she needed to be involved or at least give the appearance of being involved herself. It was still raining tiny pellets of hard snow, so Lorelei took some time brushing herself off and sitting down. “Sorry to bother you on a holiday,” she began, “but I think there is some funny stuff going on at school and with the boys. Ian has been acting very strangely lately. He has totally lost interest in his games and has them unplugged and sitting in a box in the closet. Brad and I think that is a total waste of money, seeing as how much we paid for all that gear. Furthermore, Ian and some of the other boys have been spending a lot of time outside of the house, wandering about town, and I worry about them. They have some kind of club…” “The Plus Sized Club,” interjected Brooke. “It’s all hush-hush. Boy stuff, I guess.” “I hope so. I hate to see these boys roaming around like some sort of gang in the making. Brad insisted that Ian stay home today and watch football with him. Ian hates football unless he is playing it, but he obeyed Brad. There is something else I wanted to talk to you about.” At that moment, Lorelei’s mobile phone chimed out a disjointed tune, and Lorelei dropped everything in order to answer and chat for a

few minutes, oblivious, as it were, to even being in Brooke’s house or presence. Brooke thought again about her cigarette. Lorelei was so wholesome, such a self-styled role-mother. It would have been fun to light up in front of her. But Lorelei ended her call and continued “Did you know that our children are going to have a substitute teacher for the rest of the semester when school starts? He’s a real young guy, a Mr. De Craquelot, and he looks way too young to teach, but they hired him anyway just before school let out, and without asking any of us.” “I’ve heard of Nautica De Craquelot.” Brooke felt suddenly annoyed that Lorelei believed that all teachers should be passed by PTA endorsement. “Who hasn’t?” said Lorelei, wide-eyed. “She is all the boys have been talking about since she started in the last two weeks.” “Is this young guy her father?” “No. We did a little innocent snooping, and it appears that he is her cousin. Far as we can tell, they live together too, and that is bad enough. Who knows who they really are or how they are related or if they even are. This should have been put up to a vote.” “That is not how they hire teachers.” “It should be. We mothers deserve a rightful say in who educates our children. What if he is some kind of pervert? The De Craquelots just came out of nowhere. No one in Aristock knows a damn thing about them.” Lorelei seemed righteously indignant and appeared to want Brooke to share her anger. Brooke gave no sign of any reaction. In truth, she wanted Lorelei out of the house as soon as possible, so that she could resume her musings about Dragonsnort and await the arrival of her live-in partner, Eric Palobay. She also knew that Jared could probably give her more information about this new substitute than Lorelei, and she passively wondered why he hadn’t. “But there is more to this story,” insisted Lorelei. “There always is,” said Brooke. “Tell me what you and the girls have found out.” “Well, to start with, we’re not girls,” snapped Lorelei. “But it involves the reason for the sub. Mrs. Ranger, their old teacher whom we all approved of, has been in the Med Center for about two weeks. And you know what? Not one doctor can tell what is wrong with her. She is partly delirious and can’t sit up. This sickness came on rapidly. She has had all the tests, and I mean all. The state plan pays for that. And as far as anyone can tell, there is not a damn thing wrong with her. She is as healthy as a plow pony. Psych has looked her over too. Her mind, when she is lucid, seems totally intact. No one knows why or how she got sick so suddenly.”

Lorelei then stopped talking and stared at Brooke peremptorily for a reaction, and when none was forthcoming, she huffed a little and rose to retrieve her coat. It was obvious that some of the other mothers of Jared’s gang were on her visit list, despite the heavy snow. Brooke knew upon watching Lorelei regain her vehicle that the Plus Sized Club probably had the answers. Her first line of inquiry, therefore, would be the Plus Sized Club. IV. Eric and Jared “Why Aristock?” asked Eric. “Now be honest with me. Openness is part of the new era agenda you boys have.” “I’m not sure, but I think it is because you are here.” “Me?” gulped Eric almost burning his lips on the hot drink. “I think so. So do the guys. Nautica used the word cryptid the other day. I’ve never heard another kid say that word, and I don’t even use it around the guys. You are pretty famous with your bugs, and I am betting that your Cryptid Society has a pretty tough reputation too. And the vaps…” “Two things you are sworn not to talk about.” “And I don’t. But Nautica has a bunch of secrets, like where she is from, and why her cousin became our teacher so fast. She and Mr. De Craquelot move around a lot. That is something the club found out. Like something is chasing them. They live in a rented room close to downtown, but sometimes they can’t stay there. So they split up, like they have it all planned out. He goes somewhere else, and she hangs out with the club. We have ways of hiding her for a day or two.” “Like where?” said Eric, suddenly intrigued. “Like with the Plus Sized Club when we can.” “And when you can’t?” “In our houses. You may not know this but she has spent a couple of nights with us….in my room. And with Tyshawn too.” Eric Palobay was totally taken aback by the last remark. He stared ominously at Jared and started to ask a question that Jared, in his advanced wisdom, obviously predicted. “No!” said Jared firmly. “We haven’t. We are just kids. I slipped her in because she said she was in some kind of real danger, danger of being killed or kidnapped and taken away to some awful place.”

“So you let her sleep in our house without telling your mother? Is that how the Plus Sized Club operates? I mean on the sly like that? Not very upstanding.” “She didn’t harm a thing, and neither of you even knew she was there. Let’s drop the subject unless you think it is real, real significant. I have something else to tell you. Mr. De Craquelot got real friendly with us boys on his first day or two just before Christmas. I can tell you that he knows your name and your job at the university. He wants to meet you, and Nautica wants to meet you. But not in private. He wrote a note and copied it for the whole class just before the break.” With this Jared reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a folded piece of printed paper. It read “Sixth grade animal day. Every sixth grader will bring in either a family pet or some other animal that he has been keeping. Strange and exotic pets are especially encouraged, like turtles and tropical fish. Every student will show his pet and give a brief description of where he found it and what it is. Snakes are welcome!! All parents are urged to attend.” The final sentence was circled in red and next to it was handwritten “Dr. Palobay: I hope Jared has something interesting to show off and that you attend. Your presence is truly requested!!!!” The date for this classroom exercise was only eight days away, January tenth, as it were. Eric read over the note once again. Then Jared resumed. “Nautica says you must attend. Like it is urgent or something. I didn’t want to show this to Mom because she would have taken your place. They, Mr. De Craquelot and Nautica, want you to be there. They have made that more than clear.” “What animal are you going to take?” “The iguana,” replied Jared dismissively. “Don’t you see? It really doesn’t matter what I or the others bring. Nautica has a cryptid. They want you to see it in a public place. They want its existence to be known. The assistant principals have also been invited. The classroom will be full.” “Nautica better not be exposing everyone to dangerous hybrids,” said Eric, somewhat bothered. You saw what the thing I brought to the convention in Philly did. Cryptids can be dangerous.” “Nautica said to tell you that this one isn’t. She guessed you were going to say what you just did.” “Smart girl. Too smart. Keep her out of your bedroom---unless, of course, there is some kind of real emergency, and tell both her and your teacher that I will be there. I love being a celebrity.” Jared seemed more than satisfied. He had achieved his own agenda for once, and an adult had both listened and consented. As for Eric, he realized he had a few quiet phone calls to make once away from Jared. Something indeed strange had come to Aristock once again. Eric could sense it. Before the two got up to leave the café, Jared looked squarely into Eric’s eyes and said “Thank you.”

Then he added a little something else. “By the way, the Plus Sized Club is going to admit her. She will be the only girl. And we are going to protect her too. After the show and tell, she says she is really going to need it. The club learned, and don’t ask me how, that there is some real funny business going on with her cousin, like how he became our teacher so fast. These are not people like us. They have some kind of power to slide into places. It makes the club very curious.” “I can well imagine,” said Eric calmly as they left the little café. Eric remembered what it was like to be stalked. The bulging parasite on his back had not always been so well hidden, and clubs, gangs and organizations of all sorts had kept him out of harm’s way for decades. He knew that even though it was an eleven year old boy thing, the Plus Sized Club needed to be taken seriously from this point on. V. Eric and Brooke re-united in love and passion That afternoon the skies over Aristock cleared considerably, and a bright but leaden sunshine fell across the waves of crusty snow that blanketed the entire landscape of the city. The temperature, however, remained below freezing, and a certain hazy blackness in the clouds gave hint that perhaps another fierce storm was on schedule. It did not matter, however, to Jared, who politely asked Eric to drop him off at a small park near home where he was going to meet with members of the Plus Sized Club to discuss some other "strategies" for protecting Nautica from whatever it was Nautica needed protection from. Eric, growing desirous of intimacy with Brooke, consented to leave Jared to his friends. They had shared a most productive morning together, and Eric was debating in his mind just how much of it was shareable with Brooke. After Jared left the truck and disappeared behind some snow-laden spruces at the edge of the park, Eric decided that a summary would be about all Brooke would need. Something undisclosed was in the offing, and when it finally became clear, he would withhold nothing, but for the moment he felt that Jared's revelations were better conveyed in the abstract. Of course, Brooke would need to know about Nautica being in the house and the possible peril that the boys were ostensibly protecting her from. But on arrival, he was greeted not by the curious Brooke but by the seriously amorous Brooke. Her affection for Eric was boundless and often burning, just as her affection for Dragonsnort, and there had been an absence, and something close, warm and immediately physical needed to be done about that. Eric shared the same yearning which heightened the excited coupling even more. 2011 needed to start with some zeal, and between Eric and Brooke, it did. Later, over glasses of hot spiced wine, Eric offered up his summary of both the Plus Sized Club and its goals as well as the enigma of Nautica and her older cousin, now Jared's substitute teacher. He was not surprised when Brooke gave an account of Lorelei's visit. "Snoopy, over-protective and empty-headed bitch," he sighed. "Boys like Jared and Ian need space. A mother like that just gets in the way." "So you're taking next Monday off and going to this animal show and tell?" asked Brooke. "I suppose I am not invited." "I think Jared may be trying to protect you from something," said Eric. "Or maybe he is just breaking

free of his own mother. This whole New Era Plus Sized Club is just trying to distinguish itself from their parents. Every generation does that, even mine. I was in dozens of gangs when I was a kid." "I bet you were," laughed Brooke. "You sounded like a real hoodlum." "Totally," said Eric sharing the humor. He rolled over and pointed to the vap hump on his lower back. "That's how I got this." Jared, alone, came in later, kissed his mother, hugged Eric and went to his room. Later he came down for dinner and dialogued pleasantly about being anxious about getting back to school the following week. The animal show and tell was only momentarily mentioned. "Eric's coming," he said. "I know," said Brooke. VI. A trip into the future and a vision of the absolute otherworld The promised snow never fell, and Aristock settled under a gloomy ceiling of clouds that obstructed the sun for the next two days. During each of these vacation days, Eric went to his university office for a couple of hours, and Jared ran outside as soon as breakfast was finished to meet his friends. They really are roaming around on the streets, thought Brooke. Maybe Lorelei is right. We are raising a pack of animals, but then she remembered Eric's words about boys needing independence and busied her mind with other thoughts, many of which were affectionately and equally divided between Eric and Dragonsnort. On Thursday, the skies suddenly cleared, allowing another bright bath of cold but cheery sunshine to fall upon the city. Eric had informed Brooke that he would be away the entire day on "vap business," and Brooke knew that any kind of vap-wearers' meeting was best conducted in secrecy at places unknown…..just like the Plus Sized Club, it suddenly darted into her mind, and a connection between the two clandestine activities formed in her brain. Everyone needs secrets and secret meeting places, she thought. Mine is probably right here in this house now. But her reverie was interrupted by the sound of young voices outside the back window in the yard. Peering out from the kitchen, she saw not only Jared but all of his close friends. She named them mentally as she observed: Tyshawn, Cody, Subaru, Malachi, Ian----and there was another with his back turned to her. Who had she forgotten? She was happy to see the boys once again in her yard instead of wildly speculating about them wandering the streets. She had known all of them since Jared had begun school. She remembered that she had a full tray of Christmas cookies left over in the refrigerator and threw on her coat to go out and maybe hurl a few snowballs with them or at least invite them all in as she always had for snacks. They were all eleven and in the sixth grade, but to Brooke they were still the same little boys she had always known. Just as she was leaving the house by the back door, her cell phone rang. Mechanically, she picked it up. It was

Eric, driving somewhere to his vaps meeting. Routinely, he wanted to give her a list of things to do in the office when she finally went back to work for a few hours on Friday. She held the phone to her ear and walked toward the group of boys who were clustered together and sitting on her outdoor picnic table. The unknown boy still had his back turned. Closest to her arrival was Jared, who stared at her expressionlessly, as if he had lost all interest in who she was and what she meant to him. Still talking to Eric, she faintly perceived a stony look in Jared's otherwise loving eyes. Then little by little she looked at the other boys. Cody first. He had always hugged her like a son, but this time he seemed to be imitating Jared in the disdain which reflected in his eyes. The other boys turned toward her to with steely regards that hardly resembled the boys she had known since they were in kindergarten. The unknown boy kept his back turned. One by one, Jared, followed by the other boys, glanced ruefully into her eyes and then, shockingly, turned their heads away as if to pretend not noticing that she was there. Their conversation ceased, and she perceived flinty looks of disgust on their faces. What had she done so evil as to repel them so? Then Jared slid down from the table and pointed at the cell phone, still stuck to her ear. Brooke suddenly became aware that the phone and only the phone was the offending object. She glanced at it and then again at the boys. Yes, it was the phone. Making a quick excuse to Eric, she closed the call and shoved the phone in her pocket. "Hi, Mom!" blurted Jared, brightening. Other eyes illuminated as well. "Hi, Mrs. Nescott," said the others in one way or another. All were at once smiling and coming forth with spread arms for a hug. She squeezed them all warmly and kissed Jared, who did not mind being kissed by his mother in front of his gang. "The lesson," began Jared without prologue, "is either talk to us or talk on the phone, but not both because it rude and annoying." Brooke stood back somewhat aghast, but then she remembered just how much she hated conversations being interrupted by phone calls herself. As a product of the pre-mobile phone era, she loathed the intrusion of these devices into the interface of everyday encounters, but here she was with the boys doing what she had always hated most. After Jared had admonished her, the other boys shook their heads in avid consent. They were clearly all against cell phones. Her consternation was such that she automatically blurted out a general apology, which was roundly accepted. "Is this a Plus Sized Club thing?" she asked innocently and with some embarrassment. "Yes, it is," said Malachi quietly. "We can let it drop. But no more multitasking with phones, okay? One or the other. The live person in front of you or the distant electronic voice. It’s your choice." "You too!" stammered Brooke in amazement, not concealing the fact that Malachi had always been the least verbal of Jared's friends and that a phrase like "distant electronic voice" just did not match with his personality or vocabulary as she had always known it. Then she asked if they wanted to come in, eat some cookies, drink some chocolate and warm up. The boys huddled once again, asking one another. The consensus was yes, but first they had one more item of

business to clear up. Then suddenly all eyes turned toward the street. A black compact pick-up truck with darkened windows rolled slowly by the yard fence, stopping only briefly when it reached its closest point to Brooke and the boys. Then it resumed its route at a faster pace. "That's the fifth time," said Subaru. "I've been counting." Brooke looked questioningly at Jared. Was someone stalking the house? Why was a truck with dark window glasses cruising around the street by her house? "Never mind," said Jared definitively, "Let's get inside." Brooke felt a sudden bolt of fear rise up through her frame. What was it that Eric said about danger? What exactly were these boys facing now? She preceded them into the house and tried to forget the incident but made a mental note to watch out of the front window for the same truck to pass again. As the group entered the kitchen and proceeded into the dining alcove, they all halted abruptly as if on cue. Almost as a one, their still-hooded heads turned toward the entrance to the living room. None of them removed their coats but rather stood there in the doorway to the alcove abruptly immobilized. "Sit at the table where you always do. I'll get the snacks and chocolate," she said a bit apprehensively. "Take off your heavy coats." Not one boy sat down nor took off a scarf, coat or gloves. Like a frozen zombie pack, they all just remained standing there. What on Earth? thought Brooke. This is getting stranger and stranger. It was Jared who first tipped her off. He raised a mittened hand and pointed into the living room at his side. In the living room, the television, which Brooke often kept on during the day whether she was watching it or not was blaring. It dawned on her that this may have been the problem, and she pushed past the boys and walked into the living room and switched it off. At once, the tension faded. Coats and gloves were removed and folded neatly and placed over the backs of chairs. Laughing like boys do, the group sat down, smiling and happy to be in a warm and familiar house. "You tell her," said Jared to Malachi. So it was Malachi once again who gave odd proof of some sort of evolution which had overtaken him. "There is no need to use a television as background noise, Mrs. Nescott. Too many adults and kids do that. They do it with music as well. We either talk and listen to one another or we watch television and listen to music but not both at the same time." And then more like the old Malachi he finished: "It eats up your brain." The boys had really matured, and things which they themselves had done all their lives were now forbidden it seemed. But an even larger shock was in store for Brooke when she returned from the kitchen with the warmed-over tray of cookies and steaming pot of chocolate. The extra boy whom she had seen in the yard with his back turned toward her was not a boy at all. Rather it was a girl with deep topaz eyes and a rivetingly serious expression, high cheekbones, full lips. A more than striking little girl with long flowing, flaxen hair which she had previously kept hidden under her stocking cap. A girl that,

like the others, looked far more mature than her years. A girl that was sure to age into a true beauty, a girl with a supernal face and amazingly awakened eyes that caught one's own and captured one’s interest almost completely. She was young still, but gorgeous. Brooke had been a pretty girl and later woman all her life, but she had never seen a child as symmetrical and flawless as this. The wideness of her aqueous green eyes. The fullness of her poised lips and mouth. The shape of her chin and head. There was something magical in this girl…something unreal. "Meet our friend and new club member, Nautica De Craquelot. Her cousin will be our new teacher when we start back. Mrs. Ranger is still sick," said Jared. "And turn off your phone so that it doesn't ring again if you don't mind." Brooke felt herself gaping at Nautica as she extended her hand for the girl to shake. Nautica stared unflinchingly up into her eyes and said "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Nescott. Jared has told me a lot about you." "Everybody eat and drink," said Brooke trying mostly to relieve her own stress. Boys that she had known practically all their lives were now transformed into…into what? Not quite grown-ups, but, in reality, something beyond the intellectual boundaries of the dull adults that she knew. Ian, for example, was already superior in attitude and speech to his nosy, probing mother. The others had happy smiles, but broad, serious brows. And it was then, finally, that Brooke felt herself get much older while observing the boys and Nautica. They were tomorrow. And tomorrow was going to be something far, far different from today. Tomorrow would be populated by a new breed, a positive evolution and fortuitous mutantcy. Eric had given her the outline of it. A tribe that owed nothing to anybody in the past or present. A generation apart. An enhanced generation, one which vowed to both support her in her waning years and make small if not huge steps to transform the insanity of a world she had always openly hated into something richer, more stable, more meaningful and more worthy of human continuity. She saw it in their eyes and in their faces and heard it in their voices. The future in its infancy, one that she had once played a huge role in salvaging, was seated around her dining room table. The nucleus of new age, a better age. Had she not made the right decision years before when confronted by representatives of two different versions of a future time which only her choice of marriage and bed partners could determine? Already it was happening. The change had come. The winds of transformation were blowing. Everything old, grotesque, materialistic, misguided and ugly was gradually being sanded away---and god speed the day. Change was far overdue. Brooke had known and felt this all her life, but she had not expected it so soon and from her own son and his friends. How great would it be, the future!! Her trip today had been there, to the future, in the presence of these children….or once-children. She had been privileged to have a glimpse into the absolute otherworld, and what she now saw pleased her immensely and left its indelible mark on everything that she would think or feel from that point on. VII. Monday, January 10, 2011: Lykes Middle School The vengeance of winter had somewhat abated by the re-opening of schools that Monday in Aristock. Wet slush lined the streets and the early morning gave assurance of a semi-sunny day with moderate

temperatures in the lower thirties. In front of Lykes Middle School, among the usual number of parents’ cars discharging their children, there began to arrive other cars carrying usually unseen parent visitors whose plan it was strangely on this workday to attend a pet and exotic animal show and tell in the sixth grade class of one Mr. Gene De Craquelot, substitute teacher. Two uniformed Aristock cops stood, unaccustomedly, at the main entrance of school, watching the legions of children arrive and wearing expressions of a rather dreary post-holiday boredom. “I don’t see why we are here,” said one policeman to his companion. “Terroristic threat over the phone,” yawned another. “Nothing new these days. What really is stupid is all these kids bringing out their rats and hamsters on a day like this. Those animals have to be freezing. Couldn’t they have chosen a better day?” “Yeah, some class with a lot of parent visitors and kids talking about animals. That’s what I’m assigned to after this.” “Lucky you,” said the first cop. “Yeah, lucky me.” But there was something slightly paradoxical in the officer’s tone that was briefly noted by the other, something that to a suspicious cop said that his duty partner knew more about why they were actually there than he did. He made note of his feelings, as cops do, and went about his business watching anxious, and often over protective parents drop off their kids. Marching down Ivory Street came six boys with boxes wrapped in towels. Inside these boxes were, of course, various animals. A snake, an iguana, a chameleon, a tarantula and so on. It was, naturally, Jared Nescott and his friends from the Plus Sized Club, who among so many other resolutions for the year to come had vowed to never again depend on a parent for a ride to school. Moreover, they had all tramped out of their way to collect Malachi, who lived the farthest away. It was all part of their new era agenda. Obesity, which none of the boys suffered from, was caused in part by lazy kids getting a daily ride on a school bus or in a car. Henceforth, these boys would walk to school, and as a compact group at that. The cops signaled for each to enter the building after quickly examining their packages. “Your spider looks dead,” said one cop. “They aren’t designed to withstand the cold.” “If he’s dead, he’s dead,” said Subaru with a kind of cold determination. “I’ll talk about a dead spider.” Inside the sixth grade classroom of Mr. De Craquelot, many new and more comfortable chairs had been placed for guests and administrators, two of which were already seated and waiting. “This is going to be boring as hell,” said one to another. “Who gave this guy permission to hold such an event on the first day?” “Beats me,” said the other. “Someone higher up, I guess.”

Behind the teacher’s desk, De Craquelot and his arrestingly stunning cousin Nautica busied themselves shuffling papers and were at least acting busy. Nautica had arrived early with her older male cousin and had thereby evaded police examination of whatever she was carrying in a burlap sack now nested comfortably in an open desk drawer. Furtively glancing at the administrators already present, De Craquelot occasionally took out a can of spray room deodorizer and spritzed it around the desk and bag. Whatever Nautica was to exhibit that day must have carried an odor of some sort, and a quick look at the bag it was stuck into revealed that the creature was active and probably trying, though in vain, to escape. Little by little the spacious classroom filled with children, pets, and parents, and nearly all were seated. A final five minute warning bell rang, and the taciturn police officer from outside, wary no doubt of the phoned-in threat of the night before, took an authoritative stance at the back of the room. He glared knowingly at Nautica and her cousin, then hid his concern behind a compassionless police face once again. “It’s them,” whispered Nautica to De Craquelot nervously. “I know it.” “Yeah. Just hold on. This place is full of witnesses. They aren’t going to try anything just yet. We need to do this. Where is he?” The substitute teacher glanced at his watch. Someone was late, and that someone was, of course, Dr. Eric Palobay, department chairman of entomology at the university and principal activist of the International Crypto-Zoological Society. Little did the cousins know that among the parents seated at the back of the room were planted two other, unknown representatives of this usually low-key and clandestine group. When a final bell had finished its thing, a loudspeaker voice boomed throughout the school beckoning all students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Six boys and one girl in Mr. De Craquelot’s room did not. It was quite a chunk of non-participation in a usually orderly class. “The Plus Sized Club,” whispered one of the more amenable students, hand on heart ready to recite the Pledge. A bald administrator grimaced and made a written note of each child who was not standing. He would deal with this omission later. Many of the parents in attendance were military veterans, as was he, and the refusal to pledge was an outrage. Someone would pay for this---but later. The animal thing needed to be gotten over first and the guests sent home. The same administrator would later hear from a lawyer about the children’s First Amendment rights, but that would be much later and after events that were about to make the matter at best insignificant. Then De Craquelot introduced his class, explained the nature of the event, and asked the first child, an innocent looking girl named Avatar, no doubt after some early-decade computer nonsense, to begin. Avatar was, unsurprisingly, intimidated by the crowd. She brisked up to the front of the room and pulled a woebegone puppy from her bag. It was, she said, a “shit-zoo” and its deep wrinkles were natural, as was its tortured expression. “Shit-zoos come from China,” she said. “I have a history of the breed.” Avatar then proceeded with stultifying timidity to read a printed web page about her kind of dog. It was

short and sweet and would have been perhaps informative if her voice had been even moderately audible, which it was not. Avatar, relieved, concluded her presentation in great anxiety and hastily regained her seat. Then it was one child to the front after another, each with an animal and a brief written description to read. None of the animals were unusual in the least. One boy named Rocky had a small boa. The highlight of his presentation was when he explained that the skin of boas carried bacteria and that they needed to be wiped off with sani-wipes before being handled. He wiped down his patient snake and asked if anyone wanted to hold it. Few did, but the one brave child who volunteered, mostly out of bravado, found his neck briefly encircled by the boa. Rocky snapped the reptile in the snout, and it released its hold. “Grabner likes to hug people,” he muttered, giggling. “Until his love kills them,” came a snicker from the back. Then the parade of children and pets continued. When Cody, Malachi, Subaru, Ian and Tyshawn took their turns, each boy was blunt, brief and factual. Joking around was not part of the agenda of Plus Sized Club, at least not in school. And, yes, Malachi’s spider did appear dead and gave no signs of life. Malachi, unmoved, dispassionately read its description and provenance anyway. “Tarantulas are tropical,” he said. “This one may be dead. Things die.” Jared’s presentation of his pet iguana was likewise dispassionate. The reptile seemed listless, but that was ordinary, Jared explained. “They come from Mexico and farther south. We really should not have them in Pennsylvania. I’m going to send this one back home tomorrow. Keeping it here was a dumb and unfair idea to start with. We should only have pets that can withstand our climate.” It was, of course, the Plus Sized Club once again speaking. Suddenly another tall and handsome adult slipped into the room and took one of the few remaining chairs at the rear of the classroom. It was Eric Palobay, and he did not escape the rather contemptuous scrutiny of the police officer in attendance. A small and barely audible sigh of relief arose from the boys of the Plus Sized Club, and if one had been seated close enough to either Mr. De Craquelot or Nautica, one could have heard it shared by them as well. A couple more kids came to the front. The last child, a young Asian girl, whose name no one had ever been able to pronounce, brought only a picture of her pony and explained in broken English that the pony was naturally too big to bring to class. Then Mr. De Craquelot took the podium. He smiled at the entire class and visitors, darting an apprehensive look at the policeman, and began. “The final presentation is going to be a bit longer, so please bear with us. My own cousin Nautica has an animal with her that comes from a far away place that she will tell you about. It does not have an official scientific name. It is a cryptid. A cryptid is an unknown creature out of time and place. I’m sure you will find her presentation to be most interesting.” Eric Palobay shifted attentively in his seat. He did not give any signs of acknowledging his colleagues from the Crypto-Zoological Society, but it was clear to any observer that this was what Eric had been

waiting for. Nautica, radiant and beaming as usual, pulled her brown burlap bag out from under her desk and walked confidently up the aisle to the front. “It smells like bathroom deodorant,” sneered one voice as she passed. She poised herself and began untying the heavy twine which held the sack closed. “My animal is not known anywhere on Earth,” she began, “except in one place, and I will tell you about that directly. It is called by the people there a bladder bird because it flies through the air using its natural compressed gasses…” “You mean farts,” scoffed the same mocking child’s voice which had mentioned the smell. “I guess you could say that,” replied Nautica, unruffled. She then produced a dull-complected slate colored bird-like creature which appeared to be struggling for freedom in her hands. The animal had the shape of a small football or blimp. Its head was diminutive like a walnut and its eyes were red and bulging. On each of its sides were small, pointy primitive fins. It was covered by a light dusting of long-stranded fur. Its yellow beak opened and closed as if to take in gasps of air. Its body, a bladder, seemed to be ever expanding. The stolid police officer at the rear of the room placed his hand over his gun, switched on a concealed recorder, and took one step forward. A radio message in his earphone must have told him to stop because he did. Nautica would continue. There were too many witnesses present. Both children and adult visitors sat galvanized in rapt attention. Eric Palobay removed his cell phone from his pocket and openly began snapping pictures. Other adults were using video recorders. Yes, there were a lot of witnesses. Nautica continued. “Bladder birds are harmless,” she said. “They do not smell very good because they are full of methane from the decomposing material they eat. It allows them to fly. Do you want me to release this one so that you can see?” A loud general YES! arose from the Plus Sized Club section, drowning out the No’s of several adults, including that of Dr. Eric Palobay. Without further delay, the charming, green-eyed girl let the bloated bird free. It sputtered from orifices in its rear and launched itself toward the ceiling of the room, spreading a foul and gassy redolence at it passed. In wide circles it propelled itself in the air just under the classroom ceiling. The smell of the bird became almost overpowering, and Mr. De Craquelot began spraying deodorizer everywhere. The bird sputtered and sputtered and circled and circled to the aghast amazement of all present. Then suddenly it landed on an overhead light and remained perched far above the class and visitors. The cop curled his lips and glared at it, his hand still on his gun. It was what he was waiting for.

Then Nautica assured everyone again that the bird was harmless and took out a sheet of printed paper. The cop moved closer, but was once again informed by radio to desist. Nautica then began to read her paper, but in truth, she only glanced at it. She knew what it said and didn’t need to simply read. The police officer was not the only one recording her talk. Eric Palobay and two of his colleagues also switched on their recorders, as did Mr. De Craquelot and the two administrators in the room. Nautica’s calm and earnest presentation was more than shocking and it was faithfully recorded by many present in the room. It told a bizarre tale about an unknown place buried deep in the Earth called Crackland. So fascinating were her crystal clear words that not even one joke came forth about the name. Therefore, the exact transcript of her talk became a matter of document, and a full transcript of it will be given shortly as a part of this tale. But first it should be mentioned that when Nautica had finished, there was no instantaneous applause. Instead, a loud gunshot rang out, and that was duly recorded too. The police officer had finally come forward, drawn his service revolver, aimed it at the bladder bird on its perch and shot the creature dead just after Nautica finished. The large caliber bullet left virtually nothing intact of the cryptid creature, whose splattered remains rained down on the class in unreconstructable chunks of flesh and bone. Then there were screams and the voices of administrators ordering children out of the room and into the gym for safe haven. Lykes Middle School was subsequently evacuated for the rest of the day. Later, Eric Palobay would note that there was practically nothing about the shooting or school closing in the Aristock news that night or thereafter. A child had brought a dangerous predatory bird to school and an intrepid police officer had killed it with timely precision. Order had, thus, been restored. VIII. Chaos hidden beneath apparent tranquility The following day both Brooke Nescott and Eric Palobay were at work in Eric’s campus office. As noted, very little was reported of the previous day’s commotion, and Jared had marched off through the snow on his way to the re-opened school, accompanied of course by members of his Plus Sized Club, now determined to walk each day to school despite the weather, which itself remained in a insipid, gray winter holding pattern, neither snowing or getting any warmer. Brooke had been fully apprised of what the local news had omitted and was slightly worried about her son, Nautica and the others. Eric Palobay, in his usual direct style, told her that she had every reason to worry. Two forces were obviously at work in Aristock. One had promoted the public revelations of Mr. Gene De Craquelot and had, in fact, secured him a hasty role in becoming Jared’s sixth grade substitute. The other had tried to suppress everything that De Craquelot had schemed to reveal.

Palobay wasted no time in establishing contacts. He made hasty calls to both the Vaps Society and to his colleagues in the Crypto-Zoological organization. The former was prepared to shield and hide both Nautica and her cousin for however long it took. They had a long history of making people disappear, and Palobay knew that something of the kind was probably going to be needed. Around ten o’clock, Brooke, still carrying her cell phone, received a hasty call from Lorelei Parmeter, Ian’s mother. Mrs. Ranger was now in total recovery and would most likely be back into her classroom by the end of the week. Her unidentified illness had dissipated almost as quickly as it had appeared. Her problems were handily credited to “temporary food poisoning.” Lorelei, who had not been present in the classroom the day before, had the official and sanctioned version of the events: An unruly child had trapped a bird of prey and brought it school, and a police officer had killed it before it could harm any of those present in the classroom. Of course, Eric Palobay and a score of others knew differently, but the story of what actually transpired was not circulating, and other parents who had been on hand were strangely voiceless on whole matter. Many things happened in Aristock which were best forgotten, and nobody knew that better than Brooke. Brooke, for her own part, was eager to listen to the recording Eric had made of Nautica’s presentation. She asked several times if they, being alone that day in Eric’s office, could hear to it. Eric said they would as soon as he had made some inquiries. So he kept on telephoning until a call finally came back to him. “Better turn on the television,” said a disembodied voice on the other end. That was all. Eric switched on the small portable TV on his shelf. A local newscaster, standing next to a snow bank in a flashing scene of police cars, reported that the body of one Gene De Craquelot, of late substitute teacher at Lykes Middle School, had been found dead head first stuck in a snow bank near the coal yards on the south side of town about seven AM that morning. The cause of death appeared to be thermal exposure, but investigators were unsure, etc., etc. Brooke made another call to an office secretary at Lykes. She came away reassured that De Craquelot’s class had not yet been informed and that there were no absentees. And yes, even the little cousin Nautica was present and had not heard the news. A team of grief counselors was on its way to break the sad news to the eleven year olds, and the woman, a lifelong friend of Brooke’s, promised to call back if anything else developed. It was sad about De Craquelot, the secretary said. No one knew he had a nighttime drinking problem. “Yeah, sure,” said Palobay on receiving this information from Brooke. “Whatever. That is how the cops make people disappear.” Much to Eric’s displeasure, Brooke lit a cigarette which had been secreted at the bottom of her purse for a long enough time that it was dry, and flakes of tobacco fluttered out from it to the floor. “I want to hear that recording,” she said firmly. “Something bad is going to happen at the end of school today. We need to be prepared.”

IX. A native child’s history of Crackland Eric pulled out his pocket recorder, set it on the desk and put his legs up. “Get ready for Crackland,” he said. He punched a button, and an echo-y child’s voice piped up in a hollow sounding room above the coughing, shuffling and people-noises that enhanced the background of the recording. At first, the little girl was obviously reading, but then she became louder and more fervent as the delivery went on free style: The bladder bird and the history of where it is from. My cryptid is called a bladder bird in the place where it lives and breeds with others of its kind. It is totally harmless, as I have told you, and it is native to a natural crevasse under the surface of the Earth, a place called Crackland, where both my cousin Gene, our teacher, and I were born. Crackland is a pleasant underground world that has been beneath the frozen surface of Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic since the beginning of time, or at least that is what our grandfather [Here the child’s voice became impromptu and much more passionate] said when he was living…because, you see, it was our grandfather, a professional geological surveyor named John Crack, who first ventured into the place. Our family name has been changed from Crack to De Craquelot over the years for our own protection, and we have been refugees from our homeland since I was six years old. If we ever went back, they would kill us because a very mean and nasty government has been established there. Our own fathers and mothers were arrested and beheaded because they were among the first real settlers following my grandfather’s discovery. All of the earliest settlers and their descendants were hunted down and slaughtered in the years from 1958 to 2005. We were lucky to get out alive. The also killed my grandfather when he came back to America for the last time. These people will stop at nothing. They have a vicious king and are ruled by a pack of ruthless businessmen and motorcycle clubbers. If they found me, they would kill me too. That is something they have sent someone to do right now, and after today my life will really be in danger. But it is important for all of you to know about Crackland and its discoverer. My grandfather had been tramping around the Arctic in search of fallen pieces of a meteorite since the early 1950s. He had made friends with different tribes of Inuits…Eskimos, and I think he even had some children by some of these, and that would make them my cousins too. Too bad I will never get to see them or know their names. My grandfather had been sent to the Arctic by the International Geological Survey to look for this fallen meteorite, which contained some kind of rare metal that scientists wanted. It had something to do with President Eisenhower and the Cold War. My grandfather was not a bad man. He was not a drunk or a renegade or a racist, as the new government has made him out to be. He took his best friend along with him in his explorations, an African-American named Jabari Cutler, who was the only person to remain in Crackland and escape the murders done by the royal government. Many people think that Mr. Cutler still lives there now and is a refugee from their crazy king’s justice. Crackland is a fertile and enjoyable spot where it is always springtime, and my grandfather wanted to keep it that way. He brought only a few people with him as pioneers, and our parents were some of them. Everyone was self-reliant. The idea was that people who knew and trusted one another could live in peace, grow food and escape the madness of the surface world and its senseless leaders. There was no real government, just polite agreements until…

Then the recording was abruptly interrupted by the sound of the discharge of a large weapon and the cacophonic confusion in its wake. The little girl’s voice was heard no more. The only recognizable words to follow were those of an adult male shouting “Quick. Duck under the desks!!” These were, in effect, the last words of one Gene De Craquelot, substitute teacher and native of a miraculous fold in the Earth’s crust called Crackland. De Craquelot, né Crack, had been whisked away by the police during the mindless commotion following the shooting of the bladder bird. The rest of the story was apparently on the news. Eric turned off the recorder. What he didn’t say was easily guessed. Nautica Craquelot, née Crack, was in great danger and had probably been saved by… “The Plus Sized Club,” interjected Brooke, jumping ahead of Eric’s words. “She probably spent the night in our basement or something. Jared would know. We need to talk to Jared and the others now.” “The vap people can hide her,” said Eric. “That is what I have been working on this morning. But we have to know where she is.” “She’s in school,” screamed Brooke. “Right now! With Jared, Subaru and the rest. We have to get over there. Why didn’t you say something?” Eric, who had watched Jared calmly stride across the snow toward school that morning, knitted his brow, perhaps realizing his mistake. But no. He had had a reason. “The Plus Sized Club,” he said quietly. “I trust them. They have enough sense to hide the girl and act as if nothing has happened. They are probably her best chance. We have to keep confidence in Jared and his gang.” “Confidence, my ass,” shouted Brooke, swinging on her coat. “I’m going there right now. You can stay here and wait for these eleven year old prodigies to do their thing, but I am not.” Eric put his coat on as well. They would go together. It was now past lunchtime. They grey, snow-laden clouds above cast foreboding shadows over the dismal landscape of the empty winter campus. “Yeah. Let’s move,” he said. “But don’t act suspicious. My guess is that there are a hundred eyes on us even now. They came here for me, you know. They wanted me to see the cryptid bird. You know that someone has to be watching me, and it is probably the police. Walk slow and act laid-back. We need to play along. If we start acting panicky, they will move in. We have to do like Jared and behave as if nothing is wrong.” “Fuck the Plus Sized Club and fuck the police. That girl, Nautica, is in danger.” “Walk slow and smile,” said Eric quietly. “We’re just going out for lunch.”

And that is exactly what a uniformed Aristock policeman reported to someone else on his cruiser radio. “Suspects appear to be unruffled and going out for a bite.” Then he slowly followed Eric’s truck down the snowlined streets at a distance where he was sure he was unseen. He was not. “Drive faster,” said Brooke, exasperated. “I’m not that hungry,” said Eric. “What in the fuck are you talking about? A child’s life is on the line here.” “Lunch,” said Eric calmly as he pulled into a an off-campus diner favored by many of his best students. “I always wanted to try this place. The owner owes me a favor for sending him so many kids. It’s his day to repay. Get out, laugh, hug me and walk leisurely.” Brooke, though frantic, had always known how to keep her head, and, above all, she trusted Eric. They parked in front of a not-so-busy side street restaurant. Classes had not yet resumed at the university, and there were very few customers at the tables. “Take off your coat and throw it on the chair,” said Eric, “and go take a pee. I’ll be back for you.” Brooke obeyed and went to the tiny rear restroom and stood behind the closed door. In a few seconds, Eric returned with a ring of car keys on his thumb. Lin-Chou, the owner, had parked his Chevy in back in the usual inconspicuous place he always did. Eric’s truck remained parked in front. This was noted by two passing patrol cars. “Come out, sit down and let’s order.” Once the order was placed, Brooke and Eric joined hands and appeared to be in a rather intimate discussion. A uniformed police officer entered the diner. He was the same who had been in Jared’s classroom the day before. He walked up to the take-out counter, glancing visibly sideways to sneak a look at Brooke and Eric. “I love you,” exclaimed Eric audibly. He squeezed Brooke’s hand with an alarming jolt. It was her cue. “I love you too,” she stammered. “I have always loved you.” “I have always loved you.” The cop grimaced and turned on his heels. Moments later one heard the scattered gravel and halite crunch of spinning tires in the parking lot as he hurried away. He had nothing to report. Brooke and Eric dashed through the kitchen, only briefly nodding to Lin-Chou who stood behind a steaming cauldron of some kind of soup he was stirring. “Back later,” said Eric hastily.

Natalie Morroway, middle school secretary and Brooke’s lifelong friend bolted to her feet upon seeing Brooke and Eric at the school office counter. “Your Aunt Penelope, the one with the wooden leg, came and checked all of them out ten minutes ago,” she said. “She loaded the whole lot of them in her van. That new girl too.” Brooke indeed had once had an Aunt Penelope, her father’s sister, but Penelope had been dead for years. Eric, unseen, stepped on Brooke’s foot, and Brooke kept her calm although frantic below the surface. “Here’s the note.” said Natalie, “signed by you…..I think?” “Oh yes. I forgot I had asked Penelope to get them. We’re having a little birthday party at The Fun Shack this evening. Wanted to check them all out early. They’re good with Penelope. We need to get over there now and join the party.” As Eric and Brooke calmly strode out of Lykes Middle School toward Lin-Chou’s black Chevy sedan, Natalie Morroway, “just to be on the safe side,” made a quick phone call. A few minutes later two Aristock police cars pulled into the parking lot of a kids’ restaurant known as The Fun Shack. One of them had his lights flashing for some reason. Police work at its best. In a borrowed car heading the other way, Brooke and Eric shared the same thought at the same time: The Plus Sized Club. X. Conclusion: The Plus Sized Club Aurora Delsmain, who was well past seventy and did indeed have an ill-fitting prosthetic leg as well as a sweet grandmotherly face, hailed from nowhere even remotely close to Aristock, and that was one of her problems. Following the advice of one of the eleven year old boys she had recently abducted, she took a snow covered side street “short cut” which would, he said, get her to the city’s private airport a little faster. When she was overpowered, as she was, the prosthetic leg was ripped off of its stump and tossed several yards uphill into a snow drift. Aurora had no way of reaching it. Each of the four tires of her van had been slashed with another boy’s pocket knife, and Aurora sat helplessly in the disabled van making a series of desperate phone calls. Had she been more mobile, she would have noted a stampede of foot prints leading backwards from her van on the little side street. Moreover, she would have remarked, as the police did, that at the first set of cross streets, the tracks, almost to a one, separated and led off in varying directions, mostly across vacant fields and down other dodgy streets that only the natives of Aristock knew in full. Eric Palobay also made a phone call. It was to a colleague in the vaps society, a young man with a marked delivery van, who was cruising around ready to take the hunted Nautica De Craquelot to the safety of a farmhouse several miles outside of town. But Eric had nothing to say. He had no idea of where the Plus Sized Club met or where it was, but he was certain of one thing: Six eleven year old boys

and one girl would be quite the match for an old “aunt” with a wooden leg. In that thought he trusted. He knew Jared. Jared would not be led very far, nor would his comrades…“unless eleven year old boys have changed since I was a kid,” he said under his breath. Brooke darted her eyes around the familiar streets of Aristock, where she had spent her entire life. The snow was marked by thousands of tracks. There was no way of telling where the boys would go if, as Eric maintained, they had escaped. She kept a unwavering handle on the hysteric frustration which boiled up in her chest. “Trust Jared,” Eric said again and again. “Let’s start by going home. He has hidden Nautica there more than once.” He realized at once that this was not the best idea, but kept on driving. Pensively, he repeated “the Plus Sized Club” again and again. It was starting to annoy Brooke, but she knew it had a meaning, something which neither she nor Eric could exactly get their arms around. But it meant something. Fat people, she thought. Suddenly, off to the side of Varsity Lane she saw one: A fat person. It was a lady who worked in the Arts and Sciences Building and with whom Brooke had occasionally had lunch. Her name was Marie something, and she must have weighed three hundred pounds. She was toddling over the ice-glazed sidewalk, apparently heading for the intown outlet mall where she shopped. Brooke remembered in a quick flash that Marie was very jolly about her weight and casual about her clothes, which she claimed to buy on discount at the sprawling HyperMart which was only blocks away. The walk will do her good, thought Brooke, trying to get her mind off the missing kids. Eric then repeated “the Plus Sized Club” one more time and the penny dropped. “Stop!” she cried abruptly. “Pull into the mall.” Eric, admittedly clueless, mechanically obeyed. “Call your friend with the potato chip van and wait for me,” she blurted, darting out the car and rushing toward the main entrance of the huge HyperMart complex. “Marie shops here,” were her last audible words. A brown and red police cruiser slowly crossed the space between Eric’s borrowed car and Brooke. Both cops were eyeing Brooke distrustfully. Crowds of post-holiday shoppers were tramping in and out of the massive store. There were a lot of sales after New Years. Brooke almost slipped on the slush of the walkway….left by the cattle, she thought, running into the store. Wasting no time she walked quickly down the clothing aisles until she reached the women’s section in the far corner. Then she stopped. The racks and shelves were packed with garments. HyperMart was renown for its huge selections and quantities of clothes. Brooke canvassed her eyes across the vista, an ocean of sale signs and brand names that no one had ever heard of. Then her gaze fell on exactly what she was looking for. In the farthest corner by the rear stockroom doors of the store hung a large, red-lettered sign. PLUS SIZED, it read. Pausing no more, she plunged directly into the section. Several obese women gaped wonderingly at her slim torso. What on Earth was a slender, svelte woman like that doing here. One of them even made a move to assist her. HyperMart was known throughout Aristock as store with absolutely no floor assistance. Customers usually assisted one another in the absence of clerks. But Brooke brushed on past. In the farthest recess of the department just under the sign was a huge, circular, chest-high rack of

dresses made expressly for….plus sized people. Brooke, taking no notice of the shocked females behind her, flung the hanging dresses back to reveal the underside of the rack. Strangely, it was covered with cardboard, which Brooke instinctively pulled aside, and there, crouched on some dresses strewn on the floor sat six boys and one girl in a circle. It was, of course, the Plus Sized Club, their meeting place. Brooke neither noted nor cared whether the kids were shocked to see her. She ducked back out and threw the hanging dresses back in place. Without worrying about Jared’s contempt, she made a quick call to Eric. And Eric made a quick call to someone else. Later Jared would agree that it was a wise use of the cell phone, a polite and necessary application. One that the Plus Sized Club would approve of now and in the revolutionary years to come. In those years, many changes would occur, both to the boys and to a far away place called Crackland ruled by a despotic king, but most of all to an exquisite little girl whom the boys would one day see again as an enchanting, full-grown woman. But on that day, she was still a little girl, and whatever nascent attractions to her the club felt were overwritten by their relief in seeing her climb into the back of a potato chip delivery truck and disappear, but this time in a good way. And later in absentia she was voted a charter member of the Plus Sized Club. She would remain thus for life. ___________________________ Devon Pitlor -- December, 2010 ///

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