“Ugh!” A cloud of dust swirled about Kit Benedict’s head as his thin body slammed into the ground. He lay prone a moment then sat up, holding his throbbing nose. This is not good. Not good at all.
“Ha! Did you see that one Clooney?” Nick Jaggers, self-appointed leader of Kit’s tormentors, slapped his second-in-command, Clooney, on the back, nearly bowling the boy over. “Did you see how I whopped him one, right on the hooter?”
Nick’s cackles were echoed by his small gang of followers—boys who, like Kit, had been abandoned by their mothers and had never met their fathers.
“Yeah, Chief.” Clooney wiped a runny nose on his sleeve. “That blow was a killer!”
“I think the little guttersnipe wants to cry.” Nick dropped to his haunches, thrusting his face inches from Kit’s.
Kit’s lip trembled but he refused to allow the tears that stung his eyes to spill out onto his face. He scrabbled backward in the copper dirt, staring with mute terror at the tall bully whose well-defined muscles, yellow hair and piercing blue eyes made him the envy of every boy at Sussex County’s School for Abandoned Children.
“You goin’ to cry little one? Eh?” Nick prodded Kit’s ribs with a thick paw. “You going to run to mummy?”
He tilted his head backward, looking up at the sky. “Wait a minute. I just thought of somethin’. You can’t run to your mummy ‘cause you haven’t got one!”
Chortling as he stood back up, Nick then turned away and a fresh wave of hoots and laughs battered Kit’s burning ears.
Something clicked in Kit’s brain, making fear give way to fury. “It’s not like you’re any better than me, Nick!” He scrambled to his feet, determined to make Nick pay even if it meant he wouldn’t live to see his thirteenth birthday next week. “You don’t have a mother either.” Kit shook a small fist. “Your mum probably couldn’t stand the smell of you.”
Shocked gasps rippled down the line of boys then petered out into silence. Nick froze then whirled around, ogling Kit like a cat would eye a bird that had just barked. “What did you say?”
Kit swallowed, forking his fingers through his mouse-brown, shaggy hair as fear swallowed his heart once more. What was I thinking? He had learned three things in the seventy-two hours since he had arrived at the orphanage.
One: Despite the fact that it was 1918 and England had emerged from victorious from the Great War as a highly modern country, no one here cared what happened to him. As the headmistress, Mrs. Richardson, had told him more than once since his arrival: “More students in my school means more money from the government. Your purpose in life is to make sure that I get rich.” Whatever happened outside of class was no concern of hers.
Two: Like himself, the boys around him had no parents, but their common woe didn’t make them any nicer. Kit was weaker than most of them, he was smaller than some and—worst of all—he was newer than everyone else at the school.
Three: Nick Jaggers was the real unofficial master of the school. While Mrs. Richardson wanted money, Nick was out for power. He had organized some of the boys of the school into a tight-knit group of human piranhas who preyed upon those too small or weak to stand up for themselves while Mrs. Richardson—and the five adults who made up the orphanage’s staff—chose to ignore what was happening. Nick’s gang could make his life really miserable, really fast.
But from the look of murder that gleamed in Nick’s eyes, Kit wouldn’t have to suffer for too long. His life was going to be very, very short.
“Well go on then, Chief.” Clooney’s tongue lolled out of his mouth like a dog’s as he looked eagerly from Nick to Kit and back again. “You can’t let the guttersnipe talk to you like that.”
Nick’s face was almost purple. “You should’ve kept your mouth shut, pukebreath.” He stalked closer, pulling back his massive fist. “If you think that nose hurts now, just wait until I’m through with you.”
Kit shrank within himself, eyes darting from the motley group of scowling boys that formed a half-circle around him to his own skinny arms and legs. There was no way he could win a fight against Nick Jaggers and his gang. Not in a million years. “Y-yeah, you’re right, Nick.” He retreated a step. “I-I should have kept my mouth shut.” He forced out a nervous laugh. “Sorry.”
Nick’s grin was pure evil. “Too late.” His fist snapped forward but, before it could connect, some inexplicable instinct made Kit twist to one side. Nick’s knuckles grazed his temple and, before the bully could regain his balance, Kit stepped into Nick’s swing, shoved his leg in between Nick’s feet and pushed… hard.
“Aagh!” The bigger boy’s arms pinwheeled, flailing about like a windmill as he tried to keep his balance. But then he fell, face forward, into the dirt, arms and legs spread out like a huge scarecrow.
Run! Kit pivoted on his heel and sprinted toward a thick line of trees to his left. His pale bare legs jutted out from beneath his checkered short trousers, pumping up and down as his feet skimmed over the grassy fields, moving uphill as fast as he could. He glanced over his shoulder.
“I’ll kill him.” Nick staggered upright, rubbing his forehead. “I’ll kill him dead!” He glared about, cheeks flaming. “Well don’t just stand there, you muttonheads. Get after him!”
With a rumble that sounded like a dragon’s roar, the infuriated boys surged forward hurtling pell-mell up the grassy slope of a nearby hill and toward the forest’s edge. Kit bent over double, running through his heart felt like it would burst out of his chest. Almost there… almost…
He drew up short at the forest’s edge, chest heaving. He had never been inside a forest before. Up close it loomed over his head, dark and intimidating. What if there were wolves or bears inside? Worse yet, what if there were… snakes? He shuddered and glanced over his shoulder again. They were almost on top of him.
“Snakes or… Nick?” The choice was an easy one. With a yelp, Kit dashed into the trees.
The forest was a dark labyrinth of winding trails overshadowed by massive oaks whose gnarled roots reached out like claws, determined to trip him at every step. Kit paused to catch his breath, panting as he doubled over, resting his hands on his knees. The shouts of his pursuers sounded closer now than ever before.
“I’m going to rip your arms off one by one, guttersnipe!” Nick’s not-too-distant shout made his blood run cold. “I’m going to pull your toenails out and eat ‘em for breakfast!”
Kit straightened up. “Th-they’re gaining on me.” Panic made his voice shrill. What should he do? He glanced around. A dim path split in front of him, winding its way ahead as far as his eyes could see in both directions. He hesitated a second, then veered left and dashed ahead, pushing branches and leaves aside as he ran. Clouds of mosquitoes swirled about his head. He waved them off, but still they hovered about, dogging his steps like the boys behind him.
“G-get away!” Waving his arms like a madman, Kit staggered forward, not noticing the tree root in front of him until it was too late.
“Wooaah!” He tripped and flew forward, landing hard on his side. His momentum made him roll downhill, scraping dirt and bumping against logs.
Kit screamed as he picked up speed. “Ahh!” Closing his eyes, he stuck both hands out, trying desperately to stop himself. His fingers scraped against rocks, branches but, instead of slowing down, he rolled and tumbled faster and faster.
“Oof!” He finally landed with a sickening slop into a deep puddle of mud. Kit opened one eye cautiously, then the other. “Oh no. Oh, no, no.” The patches of light that streamed through the canopy above revealed that he wasn’t in a puddle of mud at all.
“Quicksand?” He whimpered the word, trying to pull himself out of the muck that already sucked him down. He couldn’t. “Help!” Kit screamed with all the force in his lungs. “Somebody, help me!” How many times had he wished that he was bigger? How many times had he wanted to be stronger? Maybe then he would be able to get out of this mess.
“Help me!” He didn’t care if Nick heard him now. Even Nick Jaggers and his gang of cutthroats would be better than this. They’d beat him and maybe break a few of his bones but, if he didn’t get out of this swamp… he would die.
Panic swelled within him as he went down. Each movement only made him sink faster into the brownish-green bog. It was above his shoulders now. Kit knew he should be still, but he couldn’t stop himself from struggling. The muck rose to his chin.
“Please… Please God, d-don’t let me d-die.” But God had never cared about him. He was just a scrawny runt that even his own mother hadn’t wanted.
His eyes rolled around looking for a branch. Nothing. Nothing that could save his life. It covered his mouth now. He couldn’t scream if he wanted to.
Kit inhaled a deep breath through his nose then made one last effort. Only his head moved. Then the muck reached his eyes, pulling him under with invisible hands.
Nick Jaggers cautiously moved forward, motioning for his men—overgrown boys really—to come closer.
“What is it Nick?” Clooney’s attempt at a whisper was more like a shout. “Have you found the little cockroach?”
“Shhh!” Nick pressed a finger to his lips. “I thought I heard somethin’.”
“So did I.” Jelly, a giant of a boy with more blubber on him than a whale, lumbered forward still breathing deep after the short sprint. “I think it was my stomach, screaming for food.”
“Shut it Jelly.” Nick glared at him. “It was Kit, not your stomach. He was screamin.”
Clooney shrank back, his wide eyes rolling about in his skull. “Maybe it was wolves. O-or a ghost.”
“There are no ghosts, idiot.” Nick moved forward and bent low over the grass. “Aha!” Triumphantly he held up a brown leather shoe. “Look what I’ve found. He must have lost his shoe when runnin’ in the woods.”
Jelly moaned, holding his flabby stomach. “His shoe? Kit’s been eaten by a bear and that’s all that’s left of him! Let’s get out of here!”
“Jelly why must everythin’ always be about food?” Nick stalked back toward the gang, disguising his own fear of what lurked in the woods by a look of disgust. Where is Kit Benedict? “Right, you lot. Well, let’s head back to the orphanage.”
“You givin’ up Chief?” Clooney’s voice sounded almost hopeful.
“Give up? Me?” Nick threw back his head with a snort. “No, Clooney.” He made a sweeping gesture toward the forest. “But why chase him through the woods when the guttersnipe will come back to us? Sooner or later Kit will need to come home and then, when he gets back,” he chuckled and crushed Kit’s shoe in a strong fist, “we’ll be waiting.”
I’m dead. I’m totally, totally dead. Kit winced as something bright shone into his closed eyes. Then a thought struck him. If he were dead, he wouldn’t be able to think. Slowly, he cracked one eye open. “Ah!” He slammed his eye closed against the bright sunlight that had nearly blinded him. Shading his eyes with his palm, he sat up and looked around him again.
He was on a flat plateau, high above green, fertile valleys that spread out to his left as far as he could see. “What’s this? Wh-where’s the bog?” A roaring sound, like the waves on Sussex County beach, filled his ears. Scrambling to his feet, Kit looked to his right. A brilliant ocean, dazzling with shimmering hues of blue, crashed against distant enormous black cliffs that lined the edge of a sandy shore. “Turnips and tomatoes! What’s that?” Kit stepped forward shading his eyes with his right hand, as something—he guessed a family of dolphins—leapt and played about in the water, spraying mist from their blowholes.
“Where am I?” He turned slowly in a half-circle, looking about with widened eyes. The place looked oddly familiar, almost like the view of Sussex County he had seen from a mountain railroad while on his way to the orphanage. But there were no woods, no school. Only rolling, grass-covered hills as far as the eye could see to his left and a glimmering ocean to his right.
Kit’s eyes dropped to his clothes. Grime and mud spattered his formerly white shirt, checkered trousers, and socks. He had lost a shoe somewhere, probably before his fall into the bog. But somehow, falling into the swamp hadn’t killed him—had it? Unless I’m dead and don’t know it?
A frown creased his brow. Kit Benedict was an odd sort of fellow. He was scrawny, yes, but was possessed with a curious spirit and brilliant mind that reasserted itself at the oddest of times. Now was such a time.
“If there’s a hole out of the swamp, there’s got to be a door or an entrance into it.” He moved through the grass which came up to his chest, carefully examining the ground as best he could. A metallic gleam caught his eye near the spot where he had first woken up. Kit knelt, and for the moment, curiosity overcame his fear at being in an unknown place.
“What’s this?” A small round button that looked like a ruby, sat in the middle of what appeared to be a gold coin that was stuck to the ground. “Hmm,” Kit scratched his skull.“What does that do?” He leaned forward, hesitated a second, then pushed the button.
Immediately, a loud rumbling filled his ears. He fell backward as the ground beneath him cracked and shook. “Ah!”
Clouds of steam burst out of a narrow, jagged opening in the ground that continued to split as though an invisible giant stomped about, cracking the ground beneath his weight. Kit slammed his heel against the button. “Close, close!”
And it did close. The cracks disappeared until the grassy hill was as it had been before. He stared at the button, his breath coming in short bursts. “Oh, that’s just bonkers.”
It was then that he noticed that, although the earth had fully closed, the rumbling hadn’t stopped. In fact, it seemed louder than ever before and now, it came from behind him.
Again Kit pushed himself upright, wiping his moist hands on his pants as he turned to gaze at the valley behind him. What he saw next made his heart stop.
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