by Andy Hollis
©2001 Andy Hollis -- all rights reserved
Air... needed air... couldn't breathe.
I heard the voice from far away and it wasn't mine. Someone screamed, a loud, high-pitched wail. "Watch out for that truck!"
I saw the cab of the semi fill our windshield. The driver lay slumped over the wheel, oblivious to what his truck was doing. I remembered the first crunch of glass, then nothing. Someone screamed again, although it felt like it came from my throat.
"Babe? Helen? Where are you?" This had to be a dream. Oh, dear Lord please let this be a dream. She was driving... Oh, God, and that truck was heading right for her side of the car. "Hello? Can anyone hear me?"
I opened my eyes and struggled against something that covered my head. Calm down. Take small breaths. Easier said than done. I let myself wake up slowly, taking stock. I had no clue where I was.
Lying on my back on something hard, that's where I was. Something was loosely wrapped around me, but still I could barely move my arms or legs. Twisting and turning, I managed to free my upper body from the covering -- sheets I thought as I crumpled the loose one under my head and I finally took a deep, life-bringing breath.
I couldn't see anything so I reached up and out with my arms to find metal on both sides and behind my head, as if I had been placed in some sort of box. A coffin? God, please let it be anything other than a coffin. Putting both hands on the wall over my head, I pushed down toward my feet, sliding for a bit, until my toes met the wall at the end of the box through the lower sheet.
Something clicked. My toes had found a catch or something. Now when I pushed the whole thing moved - no - just the part I was lying on. I felt cooler air hit my feet, then my legs as I pushed myself into the open.
Man, did I have to go to the bathroom. My bladder hurt. It was so full that when I sat up I wet the sheet that was still wrapped around my legs. Blinking as my eyes adjusted to the slightly different darkness, I pulled off the wet linen and stared at my legs, then at my arms and finally my chest. Something wasn't right here.
Duh, hello? I told myself. That was lame, even for me. Of course things weren't right here. I glanced back down at my impossibly skinny self and shook my head. It had to be a mistake, a trick of the light -- or I was still having a nightmare. I'd get back to that later, I thought and tried to peer around the rest of the room.
A slit of yellow to my left provided the only light source. It came from underneath what I guessed to be a door. I slid off the table top and walked over to the light, carefully, to find out that it was a door - locked, of course, but then I didn't want anyone seeing me naked either. Feeling along the wall, I found a bank of light switches.
Squinting, I flipped a couple, keeping my eyes closed for a moment before trying to take a look at my surroundings. It took a second to let the information sink in. A morgue, I thought as I glanced around, still avoiding looking down at myself. I saw the slab with the clean sheet crumpled on it that I had been lying on, the tables used for autopsies and even the drain on the floor where they washed away the blood. God, whoever worked down here had to be tall to need tables that high up.
My bladder demanded attention again. I walked over to the drain, did what I had to do and was forced to examine myself. For all the world I looked like a kid -- a little kid at that, a bruised and battered little kid when you got down to it. My legs and arms were covered with black and blue marks. Besides the fact that someone had beat me up, bad, I didn't look any older than eight or nine. No hair anywhere except for my head and not a sign of puberty. This was a trip.
Here I was, standing naked in a morgue in the wrong body. Somebody had made a horrible mistake and someone in this hospital was going to pay, I thought, not quite sure of my logic at that point. I read the tag that had been attached to my right toe. "Paul Towers, age 9..?"
"Get a grip, Matthews," I said aloud in a voice that squeaked in my ears. They can fix this, I told myself. Someone just put me in the wrong body, that's all.
The one thing that Helen has always said of me, is that when I get an idea I stick with it forever no matter how pig-headed it is. At that point, I had convinced myself that all it would take was some clerical correction and I would be myself again, not some dead nine-year old kid.
Shivering from the cold, I walked over to the slab and retrieved the dry sheet. Wrapping it around my shoulders might have provided for any modesty I might have, but it didn't do much to warm me up. I sat down at the desk, glanced at the clock on the wall and spent a few minutes figuring out how to make an outside call.
The phone rang three times before a man's voice answered it -- my father-in-law.
"Is Helen Matthews there?" I asked, not sure how to explain this to him.
"She's in bed with a sedative. Can I take a message?"
Thank God, I thought, she's alive. "Is she okay?"
"She's still getting over the accident and the loss of her husband. Who is this so I can have her call you back?"
"I was afraid of that," I blurted out. "Bill, it's me, Gene. Look, there's been some terrible mistake here. I'm not really dead. I'm stuck in the morgue at, I glanced down at the letterhead on some forms on the desk, "Bennett City Memorial Hospital? What the hell am I doing in Virginia? We were two exits up from Sibley when that truck hit us. They've got me stuck in someone else's body, but I'll get this straightened out. Tell Helen I'll be home as soon as I can."
"What are you talking about? Who is this?"
"It's me, Gene. Gene Matthews, your son-in-law. I just woke up from that accident and not only am I in the morgue, but in some kid's body. There has to be someone somewhere that can straighten this out."
"Look, I don't know who you are or what you're trying to prove but we buried my son-in-law a month ago from that accident. The caller id says that you are calling from Bennett City Hospital, but if you bother my daughter with this nonsense so help me I will hunt you down like a bunny rabbit. You got that, kid?"
"A month ago," I almost screamed. "I'll get this taken care of, Bill. I will. Sorry, I won't bother you again until I can prove this." I hung up the phone. Now what? I dialed zero.
"Bennett City Memorial Hospital."
"Hi, I need the emergency room or the officer in charge?"
"Who do you want?" the girl asked again.
"Whoever is in charge of the hospital after hours. I've got a real problem here."
"One moment, I'll transfer you."
"Dr. Billingsley," came the response after a couple of minutes.
"Hi, Dr. Billingsley? I've got a problem here and I need help. You gotta believe me," I said pouring it on. "My name's... Paul Towers. I'm nine and I just woke up in the morgue."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said my name's Paul Towers and I just woke up on this big slab in the morgue. Something happened to me but I'm not dead," I panted into the receiver. "See? I'm breathing and I'm freezing. All I've got to wear is this sheet. Could you send someone down here to let me out and maybe get me a blanket and like something warm to drink?"
"Okay, you say that you're in the morgue?"
"Yeah, I am. Hang on, the other phone line is ringing, although I can't guess who'd be calling at this time of night. Hang on." I put the doctor on hold and grabbed the other phone. "This is the morgue. Paul speaking. I'm not supposed to be here but can I help you?"
"No, it's me, Dr. Billingsley. I believe you're in the morgue. I'll send someone right down."
"Thanks." Better to have him think I was a little kid in trouble rather than a thirty-year old guy in the wrong body.
I walked over to one of the examining tables, picked up an empty tray and stared at my reflection for a minute before it registered. Hell, and damnation, I thought. I was downright cute -- with bangs I'd be downright pretty. I had shaggy auburn hair, bright hazel green eyes and a face that screamed "really nice kid here." That kind of face belonged on TV selling something. Hell, I could model clothes with that kind of face. A face like that would -- get beat up on a regular basis by every bully in school.
I remembered voices in the school yard yelling out, "Hey, it's Pauline, there's the pretty boy." My stomach clenched as a lot more of Paul's memories flooded through my thoughts. I slumped down at the desk again and tried to take it all in.
The pictures were brutal. So many broken bones, cuts, bruises and lash marks that I couldn't keep track. So many trips to the E. R. I heard myself pleading with the staff for them to believe it was still another accident and that my Mom had never hit me. I remembered social workers shaking their heads because there was nothing they could do. Then there were the judges that let her go, time after time. The judges who sent me back, always back, to that hell hole of a home I lived in. Then today... Once again a judge had let Mom go with a warning and told me to go home with her. I remembered yelling and screaming in court begging him not to kill me. I knew what would happen this time, but no one listened.
The moment we got home, in spite of her promises, Mom took out a hammer and crushed my skull.
Shuddering at the image, I reached up but couldn't find any trace of that injury, not even a headache, but the images and the pain were so real. I couldn't have imagined all that. After all, I was in the morgue and probably for good reason.
Oh, God, I thought as I realized once they found out I was still alive Mom would walk again. This time they'd have to. This time -- hell, this time she'd meet Gene Matthews, I vowed.
"Dear Lord," I said out loud. "Please comfort and protect Paul's spirit, wherever he is..." I felt something touch my shoulder as a flood of warmth and sympathy filled my heart.
"I'm free," a small voice said in my head, then the feeling passed on.
The phone rang. With a shrug I picked it up. "Hello?"
"Call for Gene Matthews in the morgue," said the operator's voice.
"That's me. I'll take it."
"What are you doing in the morgue at this hour, kid?"
"Not my idea. I called Dr. Billingsley and he said he'd send someone to get me out."
"You mean there really is a little kid in the morgue?" Bill's voice demanded.
"Hey, come on, Bill. I'm thirty years old for Christ's sake. You don't have to rub it in. You really called back?"
Something clicked on the phone, the operator hanging up, I thought. Bill cleared his throat. "It ate at me. There had to be more to this story than some kid making a prank call. I couldn't see anyone sneaking into Bennett City Hospital just to call me, long distance, with a story that crazy -- and that is a crazy story, Gene. Okay, you're really in the morgue, alive, but in someone else's body?"
"I know what it sounds like, but that's the gist of it."
"Tell me exactly what happened, and maybe we can straighten this out."
"Okay," I said with a long sigh. "I don't know. Helen had just picked me up from the office and we were on the way home. We weren't on the Beltway more than two minutes before I saw a huge semi jump the median and head for us. I remember screaming at Helen about the truck and, if you must know, I yelled out 'I love you' as that bastard hit us. That's it until I woke up - here -- as a nine year old kid.
"Look, Bill, I know I'm on my own from now on. I won't bother Helen with this. How could I? She'd never believe this in a million years either. I can't go back to work for at least another nine years, so what would we do for money besides mooch off you and Elaine? My life insurance should help her finances and I assume you are suing the trucking company?"
"The driver was on a suspended license for driving while intoxicated and the company knew that when they sent him out. He was stone drunk when he hit your car, and two others before the truck stopped. You were the only fatality. The driver is fine and will probably be fined and slapped on his wrist, although the company immediately settled out of court for thirty million."
"You mean we're rich?" I could go to the best schools. "I'm happy for Helen, but that doesn't sound right. I thought it would take years for that to happen no matter how much the company was in the wrong." Then again, nothing was right about this whole mess.
"Look, Bill, it's been great having you as a father-in-law. I love Helen more than anything. I just wish I had the chance to say 'good bye', but I'm in enough of a mess right now as it is."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"My name's Paul Towers, now. God, the kid that had this body before me had it rough. I really feel for him, but I guess it's my turn now. His mother beat him to death with a hammer this afternoon right after a judge returned him to her custody. She's probably in jail at the moment, but when they figure out I'm still alive I bet she walks and gets me back again. Well, if that happens, she's in for a big surprise."
"It won't happen," my wife's voice cut into the conversation. "Gene, you're my husband, no matter what you look like or how old you are. We can work this out."
"Oh, hey babe."
"What are you doing up?" Bill demanded.
"I heard you ask for Gene on the phone and I had to find out what was going on. Gene, what do you think this is -- some kind of reincarnation?"
"Beats me. This isn't the way reincarnation is supposed to work. Technically, I'm possessing Paul's body, but he isn't here anymore so it's mine, I guess. I don't have a clue as to what happened, or why I'm in this body, but I'm not giving it up since he doesn't want it and I can't get my old one back."
"It doesn't matter. All I know is that my husband is alive and I am on my way to pick him up."
"It may not be that simple, Helen," Bill commented. "We aren't any relation to this Paul Towers and I don't think they would just let us take him home with us. He may still need medical care. We can ask, but I'd think this is for the State of Virginia to decide."
"Are you coming with me, Dad, or staying here? I know the way to Bennett City Hospital."
"See you guys in a bit," I said into the phone and hung up. I glanced up at the clock. It was almost eleven, and an hour after they said they would bring me some blankets. A kid could get pneumonia like this. I dialed zero.
"Hi, it's the kid in the morgue. Can I get Dr. Billingsley?"
"They didn't get you yet?"
"Nope and it's been an hour. I'm a popsicle down here. My family is coming to pick me up, but I'd rather have them find me in the E. R. than down here."
"I bet you would, sweetie. Hang on."
"Emergency Room," the voice answered.
"This is the operator. I have an emergency call for Dr. Billingsley. He isn't answering his extension."
"Probably the same one that called him home about an hour ago," she said.
"He was supposed to send someone down to the morgue to get the little boy that's locked in there. What happened to that?"
"What little boy locked in the morgue? Hold on, let me check..."
A man's voice came on next. "Hello, this is Dr. Haynes. May I help you?"
"This is Sarah, at the switchboard, Dr. Haynes. I've got a little boy locked in the morgue, half frozen to death and he's been waiting an hour for someone to go get him out of there."
"How did a little boy get locked in the morgue?"
"The door was locked when I woke up. Look, it's cold as anything here and all I've got to wear is this sheet. I need blankets, something hot to drink and I need to get out of here. I've got family coming to take me home."
"What's your name, son?"
"Well, that's kind of open for debate right now. It was Gene when I got killed but now it's Paul. It's Gene's family that is coming to get me, cause I'm not going anywhere near Paul's Mom. She tried to kill me with a hammer. She did kill me with a hammer, for that matter, and she isn't gonna get another chance."
"I see, well, whoever you are we will get this sorted out."
"Thanks, I'm like really cold," I told him again.
I walked over to the drain again to empty my bladder. At least, I thought, I was getting used to being a kid again. In fact, I thought, with thirty million I should be able to get my own TV and a Playstation and... wait a second, I'm not that much of a kid, am I? I did have Paul's memories...
"About ready to get out of here?"
I spun around not even concerned about the sheet covering me. "Who?" There was no one except a large black cat sitting on the desk. Laughing at the humor of a talking cat, I asked, "Did you say something kitty?"
"Are you ready to get out of here?" the cat said again slowly, enunciating each word as if he were talking to a drunk.
"Oh, thank God. Thank you, thank you and thanks, cat. You have just made my whole life." I walked over to the desk and petted the animal. "I think I love you."
"Paul, what's going on?" he said, and I felt the tension in his body.
"There is no such thing as a talking cat, therefore, all of this is just some awful nightmare. Now that I know I'm dreaming for sure, any minute now I will wake up back in my own body and all of this will fade away as a bad dream. Thanks for showing up when you did, Salem. I can relax. Any minute now..."
"What do you mean your own body?"
"This isn't the body I was born into, if you must know. That kid that had it before me is gone now, poor little guy, but he's free from the hell he's been living in. As for me, I'm a thirty-year old technician for the telephone company waiting for you to go away so I can wake up and get on with my real life, no longer stuck being a little kid. Did that once, that was enough. Thanks."
"You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm serious," I said brushing my hair off my forehead. "Thanks again, Salem, but you can go back to where ever dream cats go. I'll see you on TV, and all that."
"My name is Murphy and I'm a familiar," the cat said with a touch of irritation in his voice.
"Whatever. Gene Matthews. Pleased to meet you, I'm sure. Look, Murph, my wife is coming to pick me up and she's allergic to cats, if you get my meaning. I want to go home, but as a grown-up, not some little kid -- no matter how adorable I look."
"Mr. Matthews, that is a very important little boy we're talking about. What did you do to Paul Towers?"
"I didn't do anything to him. His Mom killed him with a hammer and he's gone -- to heaven, I'd guess. I don't have a clue as to how all this afterlife stuff is supposed to work, or dreams either. So, I need to wake up..."
"This isn't a dream. It's..." the cat reached out and scratched my hand with a claw.
"Ow!" I said and sucked the cut. "Whatcha do that for?" I demanded.
"Did you feel that? I thought so. Is this still a dream?"
"Since you're still here, talking to me, it must be, but don't do that again."
"I've talked to you before," the cat said quietly.
"You never did. I don't remember you ever talking to me or Paul, either. That, I'm sure he'd remember, no matter how beat up he was. What did you say to me?"
"I've tried for months to get you to leave home to train your talent for magic," the cat said pacing the table waving his tail in the air. "You still have that talent for magic, Paul, or whoever you are. It's the strongest talent I've felt in a human for several hundred years and you need to learn to use it."
"I take it I said no to you before?"
"Paul wouldn't listen to me at all."
"Good for him. I'm not listening to a talking cat, either. So, off you go, beast, and go far, far away while you're at it. I have some serious waking up to do."
"You are awake, Paul."
"Okay, maybe you're right. Maybe I am awake after all. I feel like I'm awake. And, if I can be dead for a couple of months and still switch bodies with a dead kid, I suppose talking cats are not that out of the ordinary. From now on I'm making it a policy that nothing is out of the ordinary. Talent for magic, you say?"
"Yes, and it needs to be trained."
"Ah, is there a chance I could go over to the Dark Side of the Force with this?"
"What are you talking about, kid? This isn't the movies, you know."
"No, I don't know that at all." I paced the room for a moment. "I've seen The Phantom Menace like a dozen times now and I want to make sure I'm not in a Star Wars movie."
"No, you aren't in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, either. Okay?" the cat asked with a whine.
"Then it's some sort of second rate, swords and sorcery type novel?"
"It's not a novel or anything else like that. The Light has been fighting the Dark for thousands of years and you are now part of that battle since you wear that body."
"Oh, hell and damnation. I'm King Arthur and you want me to pull a sword out of a stone."
"Something like that, yes."
"Look, Murph. I've got thirty million in the bank and there isn't anything you can say or offer me that would make me do anything but go home and play little kid for the next nine years, and big kid after that."
"You don't have anything in the bank, Paul."
"No, but my wife does. Trucking company paid off big time for my death and I intend to enjoy it. And rich people, like myself, keep Persians or Himalayans or snooty breeds like that. Part of the rules, don't you know. So, seeing that you're only a black tabby, toodles, old thing. Ta ta. Take a hike, get a life, and get lost before the nurses find you in here, okay?"
"Paul, if the nurses find you here they will give you back to your mother and we can't intervene. Come with me, I can get you away from her permanently."
"I've got lawyers that will do that, too. So, it looks like we're at a parting of the ways, cat. I don't want to believe in magic, you can keep your battles to yourself and call me if they do send me back to Paul's Mom."
"I will, you can count on that." With that, the cat vanished.
An hour later, I was still in the morgue, waiting. I was going to own this hospital when I was finished.
Finally, I thought as I heard a key in the door. A man and a woman entered, both wearing whites. The man pushed a stretcher into the room. I stood up and looked up at them and for the first time I had a sense of exactly how small I was now.
"Oh, man, you didn't bring any blankets? I'm frozen here," I commented.
The woman screamed while the man stared at me. "Where did you come from, kid?"
"Even I know that, mister. I am, like, so ready to go. Don't worry, I can get on that myself."
"We're not here to pick you up," he responded looking at his chart. "We came to collect a body. I'm not authorized to transport live patients."
"Well, I wasn't alive when they brought me down here. I woke up on that slab there so can't you make an exception?"
"Wh... Who are you?" the nurse asked, almost regaining her composure.
"Paul Towers. I'm nine. My Mom beat me to death with a hammer."
"Figures," the man said. "I'm here to take you to the funeral home kiddo, but it looks like you're not finished with that body."
"Nope, I'm not and you can't have it either. You came at midnight to get me?"
"Trying to avoid the reporters. They had TV cameras and everything set up earlier. You're big news at the moment."
"Cool. When do I get on TV?" I asked.
"I don't think now is a good time, Paul," the nurse commented. "I'm going to check this out and I'll get some help for you."
"And blankets? Thanks, Mrs. Cooper," I called after her as she hurried out the door. "Are you gonna leave me here, too? All alone?"
"Sorry, kid, but I'm being paid to transport a body, not baby sit."
"That's okay, mister. You're going back to the Emergency Room, right? I can walk with you."
"I don't know about that." He picked up the telephone and dialed. "Hi, This is Fred Rivers from Genesis Funeral Home? Jeanne Cooper, the R. N. just walked me down to the morgue to pick up a child's body, but the kid's still alive and kicking. He's blue from the cold... Yes, I'll hold... Hello? Oh, hi Dr. Haynes. It's Fred Rivers from Genesis Funeral Home? I'm here to pick up the body of Paul Towers, but he's still very much alive. He woke up down here on a slab and he's practically blue from the cold... Yes, this is for real..."
I grabbed the phone. "Dr. Haynes? I called you, like, an hour ago and I'm freezing my butt off here."
"I don't have time for this, son. Take your pranks somewhere else."
"Oh, man, you didn't believe me? You didn't call me back like Dr. Billingsley did and you didn't even send someone down here to check out my story? You left me alone in the cold for a whole hour. Can you say lawsuit? I knew you could."
"Now just a minute, son..."
"No, you wait a minute. My mother hit me in the head with a hammer hard enough to make all you doctors think I was dead. I have no idea how I survived that, but I did. Think I might still need medical attention?"
"You're Paul Towers? You said it was Paul... I'll have someone down there in a minute. I swear it."
"Thanks. And are those reporters still there looking for a story about me? I'll be glad to talk to them."
"Dr. Haynes, sorry to interrupt, but there are some people outside demanding to see the little boy that woke up in the morgue? They want to take him home," someone said in the background.
"That would be me," I said quietly. "I didn't just call you, you know."
"Mrs. Collins, I need you to send two people with a stretcher and warm blankets down to the morgue and get that child back here. I need to admit him. And keep those blasted reporters away from him."
"He's still there?" I heard Helen's voice in the background. "What kind of hospital is this that you'd leave a little boy all alone in the morgue for two hours?"
"They did what?" I heard another voice ask.
"Sorry doc, busted," I said, grinning as I hung up the phone. I looked up at the man and shrugged my shoulders. "They'll be right here with a ride for me. Thanks anyway."
"Good. Okay kid, see you on TV," Rivers waved and wheeled the cart away.
Wrapping the sheet around me a little tighter, I walked over to the door and reveled in the heat from the hallway. After a while, I sat down in the door jam. The next thing I remember was someone shaking me awake.
I looked way up at a young man, about my age as a grownup. He smiled down at me. "Hello, Paul. I'm Greg Blake. I believe you met my cat?"
"Why am I still here?" I asked, rubbing my eyes. I glanced back inside the room at the clock. I had slept for almost forty-five minutes.
"I have no idea. There did seem to be quite a ruckus going on in the Emergency Room. I wanted to talk to you."
"So talk, Mr. Blake. I'm Gene Matthews, thirty, with Verizon(r). I've also been dead for a month. Now I don't have a clue why I woke up in this body, but I did and I told your cat to go far, far away and leave magic and battles to people, like yourself, that care for stupid fantasy. My wife, soon to be mother, is here, somewhere and I intend to go home with her."
"Do you have any idea how much sheer magical energy you possess?"
"No, and if you tell me I swear I will call the cops. Murphy told me that the Light and the Dark have been fighting it out for centuries. I figure whether or not I join the battle will not make any real difference to either side in the centuries to come.
"Look, Greg, I have to get used to the thought that I'm nine years old again, that I will be going back to elementary school and trying to fit in with kids my own age, again, that my feet don't reach the floor when I sit on a chair again and that I really want some hot chocolate, and not coffee. Isn't that enough for me to assimilate in one day?"
"No, it isn't. The other side will be after you just as much as I am and they will not be nice about it. You are perhaps the most valuable person in the world right now and a prize for either side, but if you do not start training your power there will be problems."
"Like what?" I asked and stretched. "I might sneeze and turn someone into a chicken? I can live with that. I feel like turning someone into a chicken, okay? Which side are you on, anyway?"
"I am a wizard of the Light, of course."
"Just checking," I said. "I didn't know wizards had familiars. A familiar is a demon in the form of an animal, right? Wizards of the Light traffic with demons?"
"It's not the same thing at all..."
"Okay, if I wanted to train this power of mine, would I live with you or my family?"
"With me, of course. It would be way too risky having you stay around humans with that kind of power."
I stood up and shook my head. "If I had all that power why couldn't Paul have used it to save himself a battering or two?"
"Because he was too afraid of his mother. She will get you back, you know."
"If she does, call me. At that point I will be willing to learn ballet to get away from her. Until then, walk with me to the E. R. I've got a headache."
"I can't be seen with you. You may want to call them again and see if the mess is over."
"Okay. Hey, since you're a wizard, can you zap me up some warm clothes?"
He pointed his right hand at me. "You want to be warm? How's this?"
I blinked, then found myself sitting on the floor, covered in fur. I checked out my new paws, and tugged at the ears that had stretched out forever over my head. I shuddered and sat up a kid again. "Cute, I guess every magician needs a rabbit."
"You broke my spell easily enough. Zap up your own clothes, kid. I'll be watching -- and I'll be back." With that, he popped out.
Jeez, I thought. Some people get so fussy when they don't get their own way. I thought about it for a moment, then watched in amazement as the sheet readjusted itself into a t-shirt, sweat pants and sneakers, no socks. It was better than nothing and this would save a bundle on clothes for a growing boy. At least, I hoped I was a growing boy. I'd hate the thought of being a kid forever.
I walked over and picked up the phone. "Hi, Sarah, it's me. I'm still in the morgue."
"You've got to be kidding. Hang on, I'll get Dr. Haynes for you."
"Emergency Room, we are not taking any calls from any news agency. May I help you?"
"It's Sarah, at the switchboard for Dr. Haynes. I've got that little boy in the morgue on the line. No one's picked up him yet?"
"No and he's just going to have to wait a while longer. Dr. Haynes is busy with the police, the news corps and the kid's parents. It's a mess up here and we don't have anyone that we can spare to get him. The police aren't letting anyone through at all."
"Meanwhile the kid is freezing and could die because he's not getting any attention. Don't worry, I'll handle this."
"What are you going to do?" the nurse demanded.
"What I should have done an hour ago. I'm calling 911 and I'll get the paramedics to go get the kid and take him up to the E. R. since you don't have the staff."
"No! Don't you dare do that. I can just image how that would look with all the TV cameras here. I'll take care of it, tell the kid to hang in there a little bit longer."
"Would they let my Mom and Grandpa come down here and get me since you guys can't do that?" I cut in.
"No, because then they would have to let all those reporters in, too," she said.
"I'm gonna talk to them sooner or later, you know. I won't have anything nice to say about my experience here either. Okay, I'll wait a little bit longer, but what about Nurse Cooper? She was getting me some blankets."
"She was there?"
"Yeah, with that guy from the funeral home, but she left real quick. I asked her to get me some stuff but she hasn't been back. You'd think she wouldn't leave me all alone down here but she did. I'm gonna own this hospital by the time my lawyers get through with this."
"You're probably right, kid. We will send a Gurney down in a minute or so."
Half an hour later, I closed the door to the morgue behind me and headed down the corridor looking for any sort of directory. I rode the elevator up to the first floor, then followed the signs for the lobby. From there, I found my way to the Emergency Room to find the waiting room filled not only with patients but with several camera crews and a dozen reporters, all chatting away into their microphones. There was no sign of any doctors or nurses, or my wife either. I yawned and stretched as I sat down in the chair next to my father-in-law.
He looked down at me with a big smile. "Looks like you've been waiting for hours, too."
"Yeah, and it's gonna be hours before they do see me. Say, Bill, since Helen's got all that money, could you lend me a dollar so I can get some hot chocolate? I'm freezing and I don't have any change."
Bill Mitchell jumped in his chair, and I saw his struggle to keep his mouth shut. He took in several deep breaths. "Gene?"
I didn't look at him, but said. "If you walk me out to the garage and put me in your car then come back and get Helen, we might get away clean. I don't think that's gonna happen, but we could try?"
"I'm tempted, but that would be kidnapping. I..."
A tall man in a lab coat, followed by my wife, several nurses and uniformed guards walked into the waiting room.
"Dr. Haynes, Dr. Haynes, when can we see the Towers boy?" several of the reporters called out.
"All of you please listen to me. The only fact that we have verified is that there is a little boy locked in the morgue, but we haven't verified who he is. As I have told you before, the child is sick, possibly injured but we are not going to let you vultures anywhere near him until he has received proper medical attention and we can determine if he is well enough to talk to you. This could take days. Again, I am asking that you pack up your cameras and leave the hospital."
"Is the boy still in the morgue?"
"Yes, and he will stay there until the last one of you reporters is gone, is that understood? Paul Towers' case worker is on her way over here to verify that this is really her client and to make sure that the boy, if it is Paul Towers, is protected. Paul is a ward of the state of Virginia, his mother is incarcerated and with luck she will stay incarcerated this time, but it is up to the State to determine where we go from here. Again, I am going to ask all of you to leave so that we may safely get this child the medical attention he needs."
"It's no use," Helen said taking the seat on the other side of her father. "They're leaving Gene -- Paul -- down there. They won't let us near him anymore than all those reporters."
"It's okay, sweetheart. Tell you what, this young man needs some hot chocolate and I'm going to take him down to the vending machines. We have a lot to talk about and it might be quieter down there."
"I could use a cup of coffee. Hello, sweetie, I'm Helen? Waiting for your Mom?"
I nodded my head. "Can we go now?"
No one followed us away from the waiting room as Bill took the lead. "I hope they have a dollar bill changer. I don't have that much change."
"I have some," Helen said as we rounded the corner and walked into a small snack bar. Two nurses sat at one of the tables. I sat down at the other one to wait for my drink. They both got up and left as Helen brought my hot chocolate and her coffee back. Bill followed with his cup.
"I must say," she said as she sat down, "you are the most adorable little boy I've ever seen. What's your name?"
"Gene-Paul, according to you, babe. God, it's only been a day for me but I missed you."
"Gene?" Helen half screamed before she grabbed me and picked me up into a long hug. She spent a few minutes kissing me and while I should have loved every moment of it, for all the world I wanted to wipe it off with my sleeve. "Gene, why didn't you tell me it was you. I thought you were still in the morgue. My God, you're a cute kid. What happened to you?"
"He didn't want that kind of reaction back in the waiting room in front of all the reporters," Bill commented.
"Can I get up now?" I asked trying to get off Helen's lap. "I'm afraid that this is where the real nightmare begins."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Legally, I'm Paul Towers. This is his body I'm in and although you two believe this crazy story of mine, I can't count on anyone else. So, I'm a kid. I need to go back to school, learn to act like a kid all over again -- and get an agent. I bet I could make a fortune doing commercials with this face."
"He does have a point," Bill added. "And Elaine and I have always wanted grandkids."
"But how do you get to be my husband again?" Helen asked.
"Time," I said with a shrug. Since you guys buried my body a month ago, I don't want to switch back into that one."
"We didn't bury you, Gene, we had you cre... mated," she finished. "You really are stuck as a kid?"
"Not for that long, depending on how you look at it, babe. In nine years I'll be eighteen and after I finish college I can re-marry you, legally. But, in the mean time, you get this really great kid to look after and spoil rotten. Paul's a sweetheart, and you'll love him."
"Paul?" she asked.
"The kid that was here. I've got most of his memories on top of my own, and he was a really nice kid. He wants a Play Station, but other than that, he's easy... Babe? Are you okay?"
Helen looked from Bill to me and back again. "Oh my God. We're really going to take home a little kid."
"I told you that when we drove here and you understood it then sweetheart."
"I know Dad, but I didn't feel it here," she said and touched her heart. "You can't, I mean you're not old enough... God, I couldn't... Not with a nine year old."
"Nope, you couldn't and neither could I," I said. Gulping down my chocolate while it was still warm, I said, "Look babe, Gene Matthews, by rights, was killed by that truck. I don't know why I was given his body. I don't know if I will ever find out, but I have to live with it. You don't. Say the word and I will walk back out to the E. R., tell the reporters who I am and you two can walk out of here.
"Look, Helen, I love you and I always will, but if you take me home you're getting a kid and one that's not even old enough to be left alone. That is, if the State of Virginia lets you take me home. Then again, if you get me a good lawyer, I will own the State of Virginia, or at least a good piece of it."
"When was the last time you were here, Gene?"
I laughed and shook my head. "I know. Paul could have read about that settlement and made all this up just to get away from his mother, but we were here two years ago when that school bus hit us. You punctured your right lung and I was bruised from the seat belt."
"Oh, man go for the hard ones, why don'tcha? It's July twenty-six..."
"It's the twenty-seventh and you know it, but you've always said the twenty-sixth. Gene, I'm sorry. You're coming home with us no matter what." She flashed a tender smile at me, and I felt my cheeks burn. "All my friends told me when we were getting married that a husband is just another kid that never grows up and never moves out. You will grow up again, won't you?"
"Paul. Paul Towers." I looked up to see an older nurse standing in the doorway.
"Hi, Mrs. Green," I called back.
She marched into the room bearing down on me like a protective lioness. "We heard on the news that you were dead. What happened?"
"I got better. Mrs. Green, this is my new family. Uh, Helen, Bill, Mrs. Green is one of the nurses on the kids' floor. She's always been like my Mom when I'm here."
Mrs. Green picked me up and squeezed. "Paul's our boy," she said still holding me. "Judy Green. You're taking him in?"
"Yes, we are," Helen said quickly.
"You're getting a great kid, here. Behave yourself for them, kiddo."
"I will, you know that. She means I can't afford to blow another foster family," I added with a wide grin. "I don't think that's gonna be a problem, Mrs. Green. I've known Helen for years and she's been taking care of me too. Oh, could you do me a big favor?"
"Anything, Paulie. What?"
"Mom bashed my head in with a hammer this afternoon, right after she promised the judge - again -- that she wouldn't hurt me. You know how that goes, but it was bad enough that everyone thought I was dead and I woke up in the morgue. I called the Emergency Room over and over again, but they wouldn't come get me and they left me there to freeze my butt off for, like, three hours. I knew Helen and Bill were here so I just walked up, but I still have a headache and..."
"I'll take care of that, now. Going to sue the hospital again?"
"Of course," I said.
"This kid is going to be rich when he turns eighteen with all the trust funds that are in his name - assuming he lives that long. We're going to the E. R."
"How long has this been going on, with Paul, I mean?" Helen asked.
"What -- five years now? His dad passed away when he was almost four and his mother started beating him right after that. He's been through the wringer, haven't you?" she asked and put me back down on the floor.
"Yeah, but that's over now."
"That lady. Mrs. Towers," Judy said trying not to make it sound like a curse. "She's been convicted of child abuse a dozen times over the years, yet each time she gets a suspended sentence and Paul back in her custody. It's been criminal. Paul has successfully sued Virginia -- five times?" I nodded. "In spite of all the money he's won, and all the publicity, the courts are still insistent that he's better off at home with his mother rather than in a foster home. Maybe this time even Judge Wight will think twice about sending you back home with her."
I shook my head and sighed, "Maybe." I yawned, and Helen picked me up and carried me back to the Emergency Room.
The reporters were still in the waiting room as we walked through. Only one thought to ask, "Paul? Paul Towers?"
"Are you from channel seven?" I asked him.
"No, but we are," said another guy.
"Tell the morning weather lady 'hi' for me. She's nice."
"Paul," Helen said, shocked. By this time the cameras were rolling. "I thought you liked the weather lady on channel nine," she added, going with the flow.
"Nope, the one on channel seven."
"Did you really wake up in the morgue?" another man asked.
"Sorry, but Paul really needs medical attention," Judy said quickly. "I'm sure that once he's been checked out he can answer your questions. This way." She slid her ID through the lock on the Emergency Room and pushed the doors open.
The place was empty. I saw one old guy on oxygen on one bed, but the rest of the room seemed deserted. "I thought this place was gonna be packed. They could have sent someone down to get me when I first called Dr. Billingsley."
"Clara?" Judy called out.
Eventually, a nurse came out from the break room. "Judy? What's going on?"
"I have a patient for you. Where's Dr. Haynes?"
"He's eating," she said and looked at me. "Oh God, the kid from the morgue?"
"He walked up from the morgue himself," Helen said. "This is the most outrageous case of deliberate child neglect I've ever heard of."
"We were under orders from the doctor not to do anything about the kid until the reporters were gone. Are they gone?"
"I have a headache," I announced. "I still feel frozen from waiting down there all that time. As much as I love this place, maybe it would be better if they took me somewhere where I can get checked out."
"Shady Grove," Helen said. "I'll take him to Shady Grove and if he didn't have enough of a case for a lawsuit, he does now."
"That's an excellent idea," Dr. Haynes said from behind us. "And take all the reporters with you."
Helen turned around and handed me over to Bill. He held me tight and I settled in with my head on his shoulder.
"You don't weigh anything, do you?" He noted rubbing my back.
"He never has," Mrs. Green said. "Okay, Rick, are you refusing to see this child? You know his history."
"And how much his lawyers have won from this hospital over the years. He's already threatened to blab everything to the reporters. We don't need any more bad publicity over this."
"Too late for that," Bill said. "He's falling asleep..."
"Am not," I muttered.
"Are too. Why don't we take him home, watch him tonight and bring him back here or to Shady Grove in the morning. Helen needs to make the arrangements with her insurance and I'm sure he needs clothes and food. Lots of food from the way all his bones stick out."
"Sounds like a plan to me. He really should have a skull series done, but watch him closely tonight," Dr. Haynes said. "Better bring him back here in the morning."
"We will," Helen said. "I'll talk to the reporters Dad. Would you take Paul to the car."
"I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that," Judy said. "He needs to be seen now. I'll admit him to the Peds Ward, on my authority. Dr. West will write the orders, so you don't have to bother, Dr. Haynes. He goes upstairs, now."
"Never argue with Mrs. Green," I told Helen with a big grin. "You can't win. I know."
After three million x-rays and a bunch of pokes and prods by Dr. West, they finally put me in a room. I actually had to wear little green pajamas with animals on them. The worst part was I liked them.
I think I crashed the moment I lay down and closed my eyes, but a second later I found myself walking on nothing but a huge band of golden white light. I could see nothing but space around me, stars twinkled in the distance and I spotted a few shooting stars as well.
Having no choice, I kept walking until I felt a presence with the light under my feet. Vibrations flowed from the light to my toes and then through the rest of me.
"Welcome," I understood the presence to say.
"Who are you? Where are we?" I blurted out, then shut my mouth before I said anything else quite so lame.
"You are within the power of the Light."
"Why? And, while we're at it, why me? I never had anything to do with magic and stuff before. I don't want this power that everyone is talking about."
"That is one of the reasons you were selected. You, although you weren't aware of it, have always been with the Light. That is why we saved your soul from an early death and gave you the child's body. The little one was strong, but not strong enough. You have that strength and more." The warmth emanating from the light made me feel wanted, needed, loved. It was a heady feeling.
"And if I don't use this power?"
"Then the Shadow forces will kill you and end the matter. They will be hunting with every resource at their disposal. Do not trust teachers that come to you to train you. You will find your teacher yourself. There is another one, a child with power almost equal to your own. He will be sent to you in the morning. Trust what he says, no matter how painful or insane it sounds."
"Do I have any options in this? I mean couldn't you just zap me into being a grownup again instead of a little kid?" I asked, trying not to whine like a little kid.
"What has been done cannot be undone. Gene Matthews is dead, but Paul Towers lives on. The Light can remove your memories of being Gene Matthews if that would be easier for you?"
"No, no thank you. I..." I opened my eyes and found myself on the hospital bed. A second later, I zonked out again.
"Good morning, squirt."
I blinked up at a tall man carrying an overloaded breakfast tray. "Yes.!" I shouted, sitting up in the bed. "I'm starved."
"I got extra portions, just for you. Don't tell the Dietitian," he whispered conspiratorially.
"Thanks, Dave," I said as he wheeled my bedside tray around for me to eat. I pressed the button to raise the back of my bed.
"So, how does it feel to be a 'Miracle Kid'?"
"Huh?" I asked him.
"That's what the TV is calling you. I could have told them that. You've always been able to take a licking and keep on ticking."
"Funny," I said before stuffing my mouth with eggs.
"You eat, I'll talk. You're mother was overjoyed to hear the news that you survived. She actually got down on her knees and thanked God for the miracle. She's found religion, you know."
I shook my head. "As if."
"The charges against her have been downgraded to attempted first degree murder and half a dozen more charges equally serious. The judge gave her no bail so she will be staying there until the trial."
"That's good news. I don't need her coming here and messing things up, again. Do you know if they are gonna let me go home with my family?" I asked.
"Nope, sorry squirt. Dr. West wants to keep you here at least another day, but all your x-rays were negative."
I sighed. "At least, that should give the powers that be time to make up their minds. Want a game of poker, later?"
"No, not with you, kidlet. I owe you -- what -- forty million dollars?"
"Forty-five, but who's counting?" I said and rummaged through the table for a deck. "One hand, double or nothing?"
"You're a trip, Paulie - a real trip. Speaking of which, there's someone waiting outside to see you."
"He says he's a friend of yours. He can wait while you finish breakfast."
"No I can't," said a boy from the hallway. He stood in the doorway, "Can I come in?" This one looked to be maybe a year or two older than me. Eleven, I'd guess.
For a second, I didn't recognize him. The boy had bright green eyes, like mine except that his pupils were slitted, like a cat's. The sharp points of his ears pushed out from his shaggy brown hair. "It's five dollars admission, and that's my best price."
The boy stared at me for a moment as a look of sheer delight crossed his face. "Thought so. Hey, Paul, I'll give you a gold piece but I'm short on regular cash right now. Call me Andlin, the Elven Wizard."
"Why?" I demanded.
He shrugged. "That's my name."
"It isn't. Come off it Hollis, we go to the same school. I've seen you and your brother around, you know."
"You have Paul's memories? That's a relief. We need to talk, you and I."
"So talk, Andy, but it had better not be about magic. Do you see him?" I asked and pointed at Dave. "This guy right here?"
"Yeah. Hi, Dave."
"Back at you Ange," Dave said.
"Dave is my bodyguard and my personal bouncer. You have two seconds to tell me why you're dressed up like that, elf boy, or Dave will pick you up by your little pointed ears and toss you out on your butt."
Andy lost his grin as he looked up at Dave. "You wouldn't do that to me, would you Dave?"
"In a heartbeat. Paul's our kid and if he says you're out on your ass, you're out."
"I'm not dressed up as anything. I am an elf and I came to talk about Gene Matthews."
"Okay, we can talk then," I said. "Don't mind me while I eat." I turned to Dave and waved my hand as I changed to the most "proper" English accent I could muster. "You are dismissed, David. I shall ring if I need anything. Mr. Hollis and I have some business to which we must attend."
"Very good, sir," he said playing along and bowing at the waist like a butler. "And shall I fetch your morning tea?"
"Please, and a cup for our guest. Thank you."
As Dave left the room, Andy sat down on my bed. "Hi, Mr. Matthews, Andy Hollis, here."
"So I guessed," I said relaxing. "I know, the Light sent you."
"In a way. I felt the disturbance last night when you woke up in Paul's body. I'm glad you have his memories, this will make things a lot easier. I have a good idea what you are going through, right now, and it won't be that long before you adjust to being a kid again. I know, I've been there and done that. I'm almost fifty, in my first body, going on twelve now."
"There's no way out?"
"Time," he said with another grin. "Lots of time. Elves age very slowly, and with those eyes you'll fit right in."
"What do you mean?" I asked slowly. "I don't think I want to fit in."
"Okay, it's like this, Paul. Back home I worked for the phone company..."
"So did I," I cut in. "Verizon?"
"Yeah, that's the one," Andy agreed. "I lived on Kent Island..."
"Potomac," I added.
"I also wrote and edited an online magazine, but back when I was a kid, for real, I wrote a story about a magical place called Bennett City since there wasn't one on my world. This isn't the one I wrote about but sort of, and my evil counterpart on this world cast a spell on me so I'm here, as a kid, and my best friend in the world from back home is now a great elf lord, although I can't see what's so great about him, but he's here and he's an elf kid too and so is my dad... Sorry, note to self, edit run on sentence before selling the rights. Where was I? Dad's an elf kid and so is Bobby Elliott who used to be our English teacher and Erien, of course, but he was born that way, and it wasn't my fault that Josh turned elf too, that was an accident but his father isn't totally convinced and may never forgive me for that."
"I know I wouldn't," I said staring at him. "You want me to turn into an elf, too?"
"Why not? It's the latest rage. You're not with the green light like the rest of us, but I think we can fix that."
"Mess with my face or my species and die, Hollis. Look, Andrew, when Dr. West lets me out of here today or tomorrow, I'm going home with my wife and father-in-law..."
Andy shook his head.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're coming home with me. We've got the fix in. It's the Hollis Hotel and Home for Wayward Elves. Okay, you aren't an elf, but you can be an honorary elf, okay?"
"Name me one good reason why I should go home with you. I don't like elves."
"Neither do we -- stuff lot -- but we're stuck like this. You do understand that the Shadow forces want you dead. They would have won if the Light hadn't placed you in that body. The Shadow forces still want you dead no matter who's in that body. They will be hunting you down like an orc and won't let anything get in their way. Do you want to put your wife and family between you and them?"
"No, but are you going to teach me how to use my powers?"
He threw back his head and laughed. "Me? You've got to be kidding. Paul, I know this is going to be hard, and the choice is yours -- whether or not you fit in with us -- but you don't have a choice as to where you live. The State decides that, and this time they will decide in our favor. You will have seven elves and our resident wizard to protect you from the Shadow. Your wife will be out of harm's way."
The phone by my beside rang. I gulped down some juice before picking it up. "Hello?"
"Thank the Lord you're safe, Paulie. When they told me you were dead..."
"Mom? What the hell..?"
Before I had a chance to finish, Andy grabbed the receiver out of my hand. "Mrs. Towers? Hi, Andrew Hollis, here. I'm Paul's new general manager and agent. I'm afraid my client will not be able to see you for a few years. You know how it goes. His schedule is booked. We'd do our best to squeeze you in, but you know how prone to nightmares Paul is. Oh, by the way, I also represent the adventuring firm of Ace Shadow Hunters so please tell all your friends in the underworld to back off."
He held the receiver out so that could both hear the answer. "And just what does that mean, young man?"
"I thought I was crystal clear about that. As Paul's manager and soon to be close personal friend, for his sake, please go rot in hell."
I took the phone back. "Mom, I don't know how this call got through, but I'm free of you now. You're going to spend thirty years to life in jail and I hope you rot there before you rot in hell like he said."
"Listen, sonny boy, you have no cause to talk to me like that..."
"No," I interrupted. "I don't." I said and hung up the phone. Instantly, I dialed zero and told the operator to block all calls to my room. A second later I pressed the nurse call button.
Dave walked in after a minute. Andy shook his head. "Good job Perkins, but next time try to be a little quicker."
"Perkins?" I asked.
"Sure, before you came along this guy was my faithful sidekick and stalwart defender of Justice."
"I have never been your sidekick, Andrew and I never will be."
I cut in. "I don't think he liked that part about the stalwart defender. His face got all red."
"You know, you're right," Andy answered. "I've only seen him do that when I tickle him. He's ticklish right here, you know?" he said and demonstrated.
That did it, Dave's face turned a bright purple. "That's it. I refuse. I absolutely refuse to have two of you in the same room, let alone the same hospital. This has to be against my contract."
"But there's only one of him and only one of me," Andy observed innocently. "You know Allan isn't here and Paulie's not a Hollis Twin, yet."
"I meant two kids with the same smart mouth. You," he said and tapped Andy's chest. "Out. He stays because he's sick. And if I ever get you as a patient again, you are in serious trouble, mister."
"Oh, like I'm scared. Now, David, have I even mentioned all the money you owe me from poker?"
"He pays me off first," I said. "I've got him for forty million."
"That beats me. We own you, David..." Andy said and backed up. "Okay, okay, don't do anything you could be fired for. I can take a hint. I can tell when I'm not wanted. Watch this, guys. I've got a really great exit." He snapped his fingers and a swirl of green light flowed up from the floor surrounding Andy in what looked like a green tornado. The vortex didn't suck anything else in, but it did travel through the wall and vanished.
"That was a great exit," I agreed, finding myself more accepting of magic now.
"Okay, I'll give him that, but... What did you buzz me, for?"
"Oh, yeah. Can you find out who let that call from Mom get to my phone?"
"You're kidding. That's the last thing you need. I'll do it."
After lunch, having heard nothing from my family or Dr. West, I channel surfed for a bit and stopped on the noon news. I know the Light had given me the option to let Gene go and just be Paul, but it seemed to be happening anyway. I was pulling up his memories more and more and the last thing I wanted was to forget me, Gene.
"...coming up, we have an interview with alleged child abuser, Laura Towers. It was her son, Paul, that made the miraculous recovery last night. Mrs. Towers has some -- interesting -- things to say on the subject. We will be right back after these commercials," the news lady said.
Dave poked his head in the door. "Oh. You're watching that, too?"
"Feeling masochistic today," I said. "Can I go home yet?"
"No one has decided where you are going to go, that's the problem."
"Although Laura Towers..." the newslady said as the dancing bottles of cleanser disappeared and she reappeared, "has been convicted many times of criminal child abuse, she has always had her sentences suspended and each time her only son Paul, now nine years old, has been returned to her custody. Yesterday afternoon, after having still another sentence suspended, Mrs. Towers, according to witnesses, took her son home, and bashed his head in with a hammer.
"According to sources at Bennett City Memorial Hospital, Paul actually woke up in the morgue last night and was moved, after a four hour wait in the cold, to the pediatric ward. On hearing the news, Mrs. Towers asked to speak to reporters. With her now is our own correspondent, Jim Barringer. Jim?"
"Thanks, Katie. Good afternoon, this is Jim Barringer live at the City Jail. Officials here have been kind enough to arrange this interview for Mrs. Towers."
My mother, a massive lady in any light, appeared on screen. "Thanks for coming, Jim."
"I understand that you have a comment to make on your son's miraculous recovery?"
"Yes, I do. I know that I haven't been the best Mom for Paul, and that sometimes I did get a little rough with him, but that's between me and the Lord. The Lord God knows I didn't mean to kill my boy, but I have taken Jesus into my life and I know I have his forgiveness for what I did. But I wanted to tell everyone that the little boy in the pediatric ward is a fake. He isn't my son. He may be using Paul's body but he isn't my son."
"What exactly do you mean?"
"The Lord told me that Paul, my darling son, passed away yesterday so that's someone else that healed his body and has possessed it. That's a demon from Hell, not my boy," her tone became a shriek.
"I see. The Lord told you this?"
"I know it, because when I talked to him he cursed me out. My son knows better than to do that to his mom. That isn't Paul."
"I see," Jim said and shook his head. "You don't feel that Paul might have reason to be a bit mad at you? In fact, he just might be acting out some of that anger that has to have built up over the years?"
"No. My boy was the sweetest little boy in the world..."
Dave broke up at that point.
"And he always forgave me for hurting him. This is some demon using Paul's body for his own evil ends and I know that it's my God given duty to have my son's body exorcized. I will do everything in my power to drive that demon away."
"I see, so if you drive the demon out, that would leave Paul dead again?"
"Yes," she said slowly. "I'm afraid it would, but my son is gone. All I want is to get that demon out of his body so he can be buried properly."
Dave stared at me. "If you start hurling green stuff and do a three sixty with your head, you're so out of here."
"Man, you spoiled it. I was saving that for later. Come on, Dave, you have got to call channel seven."
I saw the light bulb go off in his expression. He grinned and picked up the phone.
Mom said, "I know what that sounds like, that I want to finish the job from yesterday, but I can assure you that this is completely different. What I did is between me and the Lord, but this -- this creature is something from hell."
"Hello, Ms. Langford?" Dave asked. "My name is Dave Wilson, and I'm an orderly at B. C. Memorial. In fact, I'm with Paul Towers right now. I've known Paul for years and I can tell you that this is the same kid. I mean, the staff here has had quite a while to get to know him as we've set his broken bones, tended his burns, stitched up his cuts and generally patched him together after his mother -- got a little rough with him."
I snatched the phone out of his hand. "Hi, is this the news lady?"
"Yes, this is Katie Langford."
"Hi. Would you tell that guy at the jail to tell my mom to get a grip and stop calling me names?"
"For you, son, I'd love to. Hold on..."
A moment later, the reporter cut in, "Excuse me, Mrs. Towers, but we have a message from your son. He wants you to get a grip and stop calling him names."
Mom's face turned dark purple. I had never seen her so outraged before. "You spawn of the devil. How dare you imply that I'm crazy?" she screamed into the camera. "I am going to personally drive you back to hell, you demon. You think I've been hard on you before? This will make your whole life look like a picnic."
"Katie? Can you patch the boy through?" Jim asked.
"No," Mom shouted. "This is my interview, not his. I know how you people work, you want everyone to feel all sorry for that little brat. He's a lousy bastard that should never have been born. I don't know who his father was. That idiot I was married to took him in as his own, but Paul has always been an abomination in the eyes of Heaven and I have made him pay dearly over the years. Now, as soon as I get out of here I will take care of that demon once and for all.
"This interview is over. Guards, take me back to my cell." she added.
A tall man knocked on my door. He stepped into the room and closed the door after him. Even though he wore a priest's collar, I could feel nothing but cold and hatred from his dark gray eyes.
"Who are you?"
"Paul, I'm Father Ashe. Your mother sent me..."
"Get out. Get out right now or I'm calling the cops."
He smiled at me and I felt a shudder run down my spine. "My son, I assure you that I am here to help you and that the hospital knows that I am here and has approved my performing this sacrament."
"I don't care. I don't like you, mister. Get out." I picked up the call button but nothing happened. The phone was dead as well. The man simply walked out into the hallway, brought back a large carrying case, and closed the door.
"I know that an exorcism can get scary, Paul," he said as he set up a makeshift altar. "But no harm will come to you."
The window by my bed opened by itself. A second later a large crow flew into the room, circled twice and landed on the alter. "Crow 271 reporting to Arch Demon Ashes. Are you Arch Demon Ashes?"
"It's Ashtar, you stupid bird. What is it?"
The crow cocked its head and looked the man over. "You got religion, Ashes?"
"In two seconds I will wring your neck and wait for the next message."
"I have a message from the Lord of Shadow. Do you have a shiny thing for me?"
"No, what's the message."
"Come on, Ashes," I cut in. "Give the bird a tip. He flew all this way, after all."
"Thanks, small person," the bird said looking at me.
"Here's a tip -- I love roasted messenger crow. The message?" Ashtar asked pleasantly.
"Lord of Shadow says forget the kid. Not important. He needs you now on Shadow World. If not there go see Duckett of Northlake. Kill the Duckett, kill the Duckett," the bird screeched.
"Why would I want to kill Duke Leonard? I happen to like him."
"That message. Forget kid, see Lord of Shadow. Now."
"I will be back," the man or demon or whatever said to me, then vanished.
A second later a flash of green light brought in two more elves. Like Andy they wore t-shirts, shorts and sneakers, but one had a long sword attached to his belt, and the other carried a shoulder bag. The elves were more than twins, they were carbon copies of each other right down to the little curls in their hair.
The elf with the sword gave me a quick salute. "Hi. I am Paulin, and this is my brother Erien. Who are you?"
"Uh, Paul Towers," I replied.
"No, that's impossible. Andy knows better than to put another character named Paul into this series. It confuses the readers and it will drive me nuts." He turned and stared down the crow. "Okay, Ange, you have two seconds to get out of those feathers and give me an answer. I mean now."
The crow grew and turned quickly into Andy Hollis."
"You can fly?" I demanded.
"Well, yeah. Crows do that although I prefer being a hawk."
"I'm going to rethink this whole magic thing. Can you teach me that? How soon can I move in with you guys? What am I saying? I've got a wife."
"Paulie, you don't. You're nine years old and the State of Virginia will decide where you live."
"Why did you name him Paul?" Paulin asked.
"Get a grip, Paulin. I didn't name him. I'm not writing this part, you know. TSAT folded since most of the staff is here and can't keep up with an internet site back home. So where would I publish this story?"
"I don't know," the elf admitted.
"This is just real life happening, and in real life you get coincidences and things that you can't put into stories but how many people in this world are named Paul or Andrew for that matter? Millions and millions?"
"We don't have much time before the demon comes back, but that was a great wild goose chase you sent him on," the one called Erien cut in.
"Where is the Lord of Shadow?" I asked.
"How should I know? He doesn't send me his itinerary. Oh, don't give me that, Paulie. So I fibbed a little. I do that a lot, you know, but only to the bad guys."
"Then all of us are bad guys?" Paulin asked.
"In my book, yes. Get ready."
"Can't I get a sword or something?" I asked.
"Erien, give him your sword."
"But?" the boy protested.
"I know, but this is an experiment and I promise he will give it right back when he's finished."
Erien shook his head and reached into his shoulder bag. He took out what looked like an ancient sword, covered in rust, and handed it to me. The weapon felt solid enough and as soon as I got a good grip on it the entire blade burst into flames of multicolored lights. A beam of golden white light shot from the tip and burst on the ceiling in what looked like a quartered circle.
"It never did that for me," Erien groused.
"I knew it. I knew it. This is the kid we've been looking for."
"Uh, flame off," I told the sword and it did. I hid it under the covers as the others vanished. Ashtar popped back into the room.
"Where is that crow?"
"I don't know. He went that way," I said and pointed out the window.
"Okay, I will deal with the crow later. Since there is no further need for deception, Mr. Matthews, I will say that there is nothing personal in this, but that Light had no right to place you in that body. I am here to release you back to the Cycle of Life again, where you will wait for a proper reincarnation and we can bury Paul."
"There is something wrong with that picture. Suppose I tell you to go back where ever Arch Demons live and leave me alone before I turn you into a chipmunk?"
"You do not have that kind of power. Perhaps, if you had grown up you could carry out that threat, but you won't have that chance."
I kept my face straight as Andy popped in behind Ashtar. He pulled on the demon's shirt.
"Hey, Mr. Arch Demon, sir. Remember me?"
Ashtar stiffened, and I saw his expression grow sour. "What are you doing here, Andrew?"
"What, no social graces? Not even a 'Hi Ange. How are you?' I'm shocked, Ashes, really shocked. What sort of impression are you giving to the kid here?"
"Just get to the point, Andrew?"
"Why are you standing in this room making rude noises at my little brother? Sort of a swinish grunting, really, but still you're doing it and I don't like it."
"Paul isn't your brother," Ashtar insisted.
"Is that your final answer?"
"Andrew, I was sent by his mother and she knew what I intend to do."
"Hmmm, a little too late, old buddy. Did you know that at 9:00 this morning the State of Virginia removed Paul from his mother's custody again? She has no say in what happens to him. And do you know whose custody he is in?"
"No, but I'm sure you will tell me."
"My Mom's. There, you want to make something of that, Ashes? But look at those eyes of his and see how cute he is? Can't you see the family resemblance? I guess not, but when you mess with one Hollis twin you mess with all of us. Isn't that right, guys?"
"I guess," Paulin agreed and stepped into the room with Erien right behind him. "Can I just skewer this turkey now and get it over with?'
"Not on your life, Carmichael. Ashtar is my buddy and my pal. You can rough him up all you want, but don't kill him." He turned and glanced at me. "Ashtar is the one that brought me to this world and I'm making sure he spends the rest of eternity regretting it."
"Oh, believe me, I regret it, elf. If I ever get my hands on your counterpart I will make him suffer for this. But, I still have work to do." With that, he pulled a long knife, glowing with a black light and lunged at me with it.
I pulled out the sword, let it flame on and blocked the blow. The knife crumbled to dust. The sword pulled me up and I scrambled to my feet on the mattress. A second later, the sword almost swung itself and connected with the demon. His entire left arm, and part of the shoulder fell to the floor. It smoldered for a second then vanished. Ashtar looked pale as the sword grew brighter.
"Oh, did I mention that he had the Great Sword of the Light? How thoughtless of me -- and he is a mean one for such a nice little kid," Andy commented as Ashtar faded from the room. "Good job, Paul! Way to go. I knew you had that in you. That won't stop him for long, of course, but it does give him something to chew on."
"I thought Bobby was supposed to do that," Erien inquired as he retrieved the sword from me.
"Nope, wrong universe. In my book, he did, but he had the wrong soul in this one. It's Paul who was chosen."
"I wish you hadn't said that. Am I really assigned to your home?"
Andy sighed. "Sorry and yes, you are. That time I wasn't fibbing."
"If I went home with Helen, she would be dead in what -- minutes?"
Andy nodded. "Sorry, but that's accurate. With us and that toy of Erien's you got a good chance of making it until you get your powers trained. Then you, too, can play around with Ashes and Uncle Buttercup."
"Uncle who?" I started to ask when another kid, human and a bit older than the elves popped into the room. This one, with his coppery blond hair and sea blue eyes, was way prettier than me."
"Where is it?" the newcomer asked.
"What?" we all chorused.
"The Sword. The Great Sword of the Light. It was here, I felt it."
"Erien has it, why?" Andy asked. "Show our Cupes the Sword, kiddo."
"Cupes?" I asked. "You mean like Cupid?"
"The very one," Andy said. "Scotty, this is Paul, Paul, Scotty, the ex-Lord of Light and former God of Love."
"Here's the sword," Erien said. He pulled out the same rusty old blade that I had seen."
"Okay, don't tell me, and put that rusty old toy away. Does Teo have it?"
"Beats me," Andy said. "I haven't seen Teo in ages. You'd better ask him."
"Ask me what?" said another kid, this one a teenager.
"Do you have the Sword?" Scotty cut in.
"No, but it was here," Teo said and looked up. "What happened here?"
Andy sighed. "Can't you guys keep up? Ashtar tried to skewer Paul there with a knife, but Paul used the Great Sword to cut off Ashtar's left arm. Ashtar got sick and went home before the Sword could kill him and Paul gave it back to Erien who has had it since day one. Scotty doesn't want that sword and neither do you, so I guess it wasn't really the Great Sword, but it did the job."
"That rusty old toy?" Teo asked.
"Yes and we had better call Ashes and tell him to get a tetanus shot."
"That Sword is mine," Scotty said.
"You and what army are going to take it from the Lord of Light?" Teo said. "I can still feel it and I will get it." Both boys vanished.
I held up my hand. "Don't tell me who they are, I don't want to know."
The phone rang. I turned down the volume on the TV and picked it up. "Hello?"
"Gene, it's Helen."
"Hey, babe. Where were you today? I missed you."
She sighed. "Social Services wouldn't even let me see you. You know they wouldn't listen to us and placed in you in a foster home in Bennett City?"
"Yeah, the Hollis Hotel. Lots and lots of kids and pretty swank."
"They won't let us see you at all until you've 'had a chance to settle in', or so they said. That could a month or so."
"It's okay, babe. There is a good reason for this, you know. There are people that want to kill me and they wouldn't think twice of killing you, too. I'll be safe there and you won't be in danger. After that, we'll see. I just hope there's something left of me when the dust clears."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I'm getting to be Paul more and more and leaving Gene behind. I hate that, but I can't stop it either. In the hospital and to social services I need to be Paul. At least every one at the Hollis Hotel knows the story."
"They do? They didn't earlier."
"Believe me, babe. Andy knows and my story is mundane compared to his." I said with a laugh. "Someone's here. I'll call you back."
I hung up and took a good look at my next visitor, hoping it would be someone not trying to kill me for a change.
A tall woman, with dark, curly blonde hair stood in the doorway and smiled at me. I took one look at her and a nine year old boy fell madly in love with his new foster mother. She was gorgeous. "Hi, I'm Paul," I said with my whole face lighting up. "Are you my new mom?"
"Hi, Paul. I'm Marian Hollis," she said and walked into the room to sit down on the side of the bed next to me. I sat up and gazed into her face for a second. "I've heard so much about you."
"I didn't do any of it, either," I said trying not to blush. "Did Andy tell you about me?"
"No, but everyone at the hospital and social services have told me that you are the sweetest little boy in the world."
At that I did flush. "Am not."
She tousled my hair then rubbed my cheek for a moment. "I know how much you've had to bounce around from home to home, lately, and I wanted you to know that my home is permanent. I brought you some fresh clothes and pajamas since Dr. West is going to keep you here one more day."
"Thanks," I said. "I don't want anything from my old house."
She pulled me into a long hug. I hung on tight until Andy popped into the room.
"Here's the stuff, Mom. Hey, he's not really a little kid, you know."
"I'm nine and I'm not a little kid," I said and stuck my tongue out at the elf. "And I'm Paul no matter what that stupid big kid says."
"Ange," Marian said quietly. "Paul is going to be your little brother. I trust you and the gang will treat him accordingly?"
"What happened to Gene?" he asked me.
I blinked, then said what I had been feeling more and more. "He's still there, but he's not me anymore. I'm Paul."
Andy patted me on the shoulder with a big grin. "Okay, I understand, kidlet." He sat down on my other side, took me from Mom and hugged me, too. "I figure anyone that can chop off the left arm of an Arch Demon is okay in my book."
"Ange," Marian said. "Paul's had enough trouble in his short life without you dragging him into that. Understood?"
"It wasn't me that did that, Mom. Okay, understood. No demon for miles and miles will mess with Paul now -- except that one," he smiled and pointed at Dave. "Okay, demon boy, what do you want?"
"I thought you went away. Hi, Marian, you've got a super kid there, too bad about Ange. Paulie, expect some trouble later."
"Your mother announced that there had been a successful exorcism performed on you this afternoon and wanted to make the State verify that your body was properly taken care of this time. It would not surprise me if they need to prove who you are."
I sighed and shook my head. "That won't be hard."
"Ange, you scoot. I'm going to get Paul into some regular pajamas, I'll meet you at the house, later."
"Okay, Mom." He faded out.
"Paulie could use a good bath while you're at it," David commented.
"It's okay. Mom, Dave, I can get dressed by myself and take baths by myself."
"Paulie's a pretty tough kid, Mrs. H. He doesn't need to be babied," Dave offered.
"I've been doing this for my kids for years and years, and this is a good way for me to get to know my newest kid. You," she said and tapped my nose. "There's a bath with your name on it." She tugged at my shirt and for a second I started to put my arms up.
I shook my head. "It's okay, Mom, really. Maybe Dave had better do this."
"Sweetie," she said and rubbed my cheek. "I'm going to need to know the extent of the damage sooner or later."
I nodded and with my lips pressed together I let her pull off my shirt. A second later she started screaming, then sobbing and finally screaming some more.
Dr. West and a nurse came tearing into the room. "What happened?" he demanded.
"Oh my God, Paul, I had no idea it was that bad," Mom said trying to catch her breath and regain control. "I am so sorry, but what has she done to you?"
"It's okay, really," I said and hugged her.
"Uh, Marian needed to know the extent of the damages and found out the hard way," Dave explained. "We both tried to warn her."
"Paul does take some getting used to," Dr. West said. "Oh oh, those are new -- and infected from the look of it. Did anyone give this child an exam this morning?"
"No," Dave said. "Marian was going to give him a bath and he seemed okay. When did you get those slash marks on your back?" he asked me.
"I don't know. They don't hurt and I don't remember much from yesterday."
"Bed baths for the time being and get those debrided and bandaged?"
"Right away," the nurse said. "Looks like it goes all the way down to his legs," she added and pulled my pants down without so much as asking about it. "Dr. West."
"Oh. I see," he said, his voice strained. "Not deep enough for stitches so take care of it."
"What?" I asked trying to twist around.
Mom took my hand and shook her head. "Paul, your mother carved her initials on your backside."
"Figures," I said. "More scars."
"In here," said a lady's voice and a moment later the newslady from Channel Seven walked into the room with a camera crew behind her.
"Hey," I said. "I don't want the whole world looking at my butt. Turn that thing off." The camera guy just grinned and shook his head.
"And a cute one it is," Dave said and got out of the way of the cameraman as I growled at him.
"I gave no one permission to film in here," Dr. West said. "I..."
The newslady screamed and I heard someone, I think it was her, throwing up. I hoped it was into something.
"I don't suppose it matters to you that this child is sick and needs medical attention? Probably not, but officially I can say that this is Paul Towers, he is alive no matter what his mother says and I have a vested interest in keeping him that way. Now all of you -- out! Out, before I call security."
"Just a couple of questions?" the lady asked, looking pale.
I pulled a sheet over me, then flashed a smile at the camera. "I'm ready now."
"All that was done by his mother?" she asked Dr. West.
"Yes, and more. Paul has had almost every bone in his body broken, his growth plates have been shattered and so he may never grow to be very tall, yet he is far from the worst case I have. There are hundreds of kids in Virginia alone that are going through this and neither the Social Services nor Legal services seems able to do anything about it. It's frustrating since we patch them back together and pray that they will still be alive the next time -- and there always seems to be a next time -- until they're dead."
"Was there an exorcism performed here today?"
"Yeah," I said. "Mom sent someone called Father Ashe over here but he didn't stay long. Called away by some guy called the Lord of Shadow. My new brothers made sure of that, too, but Mom blabbed about it, anyway. That's her."
"Lord of Shadow?" she asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know. That's what the crow said, but we never did figure out exactly where he was. On the other hand, I don't think I want to know where this Lord of Shadow is so it works out."
"The crow said?"
"Weren't you listening? You want to rerun that tape for the lady? See, this guy called Father Ashe shows up and starts getting ready to exorcise my demon, but then this crow flies in through that window. Now the crow says that Father Ashe is also called Arch Demon Ashes, I think, but I never listened to crows before. So, the crow tells Ashes to go see the Lord of Shadow and he did. Then three of my brothers show up and we sort of made sure that Ashes went back to wherever Arch Demons live after that. I don't want to know where that is, either."
"Simple enough, when you think about it," Dr. West said. "Now aren't you sorry you didn't listen to me in the first place? Good bye and back to whoever is in the news room."
"Was it Crow One that came here?" Mom asked.
"Yes, it was, but he used a fake number."
"Crows use fake numbers?" the newslady asked. I think she was lost.
The window raised itself and large crow flew through it to land on the bedside tray. "Hello? Am I on TV? Crow One reporting to the small person. Shut up, small person. That message. Crows never give out fake numbers."
"Crow One?" Mom said.
"Yes, Mom type person?"
"You are in a world of trouble, young man. You get your tail feathers home and if I ever catch you in them again I will pluck you bald."
"Got it. Hollis Messenger Crow service is available in your area. Call me. Reasonable rates." With that, the crow tore out the window.
"Would you care to explain that?" the lady asked.
"You've got to be kidding," I said. "That was a messenger crow. Didn't you hear him? I told you that the crow told Ashes -- uh -- where to go."
"So you did. I think we've got enough tape. Thanks."
"These are really cool," I said as I pulled out the pajama shirt to look at the pictures.
"Andy picked those out for you. He's a good kid, but a little hard to take, at times. You don't have to get involved with him and all of those -- stories he tells about magic and being an elf."
I shook my head. "Already refused the ears, Mom. I'll wait for the video game to come out before I fight the Shadow again. How many kids do you have there?"
"You're my only foster child, but there are nine -- ten if you count Jeff, and only one girl in the lot. Jeff and his wife run the Magic Shop downtown, but they stay with us and his youngest boy goes to the same school as you do."
"I've spent most of my life in here," I said with a sigh. "I haven't spent that much time at school, but I have a good tutor."
"Well, it is a miracle that you're alive and an even better one that I have you now. Don't mind me if I baby you a little, kiddo. You might need it."
"Where is Crow One?" a man said. He didn't pop into the room, he was just there. He had jet black hair, and bright black eyes that darted around the room like a bird's. I swear he turned his head to look at us from one eye, then the other."
"He was here, but he left," I said.
"Who wants to know?"
"I am Togranth, Lord of the Crows. Crow One, I need you here, now!" he called out.
Two birds appeared on the side table. They chorused. "Crow One reporting to the Crow Lord. I'm Crow One, who are you?"
Mom sighed and tapped one of the crows on the back. "Why are you here?"
"Aw, Mom. I didn't have a choice. He called me. I bet you heard him, too. I'm Crow One, now and you aren't. You aren't even Crow Three. Crow Fifteen, maybe."
"Crow Fifteen?" Crow One asked and looked up at the demon. "I've been good crow. Why Crow Fifteen?"
"You are Crow One and you always will be Crow One. Whoever you are, get out of those feathers."
"But, Mr. Arch Demon, sir. I'm a great messenger crow. In fact, I'm the best messenger crow you've got, since he hasn't been around to be Crow One. I took over and I've got all the other crows organized, you know. Just ask any of them who they would rather have as Crow One."
"Ange," I said. "Don't you think you're taking this whole crow thing a little too seriously?"
"Go home now, mister," Mom said. "Mr. Togranth has his crow, you aren't a crow -- end of story."
"But Mom," Andy said, then grew into a rather large hawk. He stared at the crow for a second. "Don't remind me that I like the taste of crow," he commented then flew out the window."
"Man, he always makes the best exits. I have got to learn that."
"No, you don't and you can go, Mr. Togranth. Paul is sick enough without having more company."
"I think not, Mrs. Hollis. In fact, I think I could make good use of both of you..."
I held out my hand. "Props, please," I called out. Sure enough, the sword appeared a second later. "I think I'm finally figuring out how this magic stuff works. You want to repeat that, Mr. Togranth?"
"Don't bother me with that toy. I could..."
A flash of green light brought Erien into the room. "Oh, you have it. You really should ask before you borrow someone's things."
"I know, but do you see that guy?" I asked.
"Yes, that's an Arch Demon. I don't know which one, but when you've seen one you've seen all of them."
"Well, this one was making rude noises at me and Mom. I wanted to be sure I could skewer him if I had to and I didn't have time to call home and ask you, okay?" I asked.
"Okay, but you know, Paul, you got the last Arch Demon so this one should be mine. He made rude noises at my mother, too."
"But I'm the one they're trying to kill."
"Yes, but it is my turn and it is my sword," he insisted. "Mom, Paul won't share his Arch Demons with me."
I looked at her and grinned. "Yes. I really am part of a family now."
"Yes, you are sweetie and a big one, too."
"Okay," I said and handed over the sword. "This one is yours. How many Arch Demons are there?" I asked Togranth. "I need to know if there are enough to go around."
"That's it," he said with more than a touch of anger in his voice. "I am an Arch Demon and not a prize to be squabbled over by blood thirsty children. If you two had the Great Sword of the Light you might be able to threaten me, but you don't. I intend to take the lot of you to the Lord of Shadow."
"I don't want to see the Lord of Shadow," I commented. "Do you?"
Another flash of green light brought Andy into the room. This was getting bad. I thought it was Andy, but the expression on his face made me realize that it was the other one -- Allan. "Hey, Al. Hi. I'm Paul."
"Yeah, hi kid. Mom, when are you coming home?"
"Why?" she asked.
"It's Ange. He's really bent out of shape over something and he won't talk to me. All he says is that he can't be Crow One anymore. Can you talk to him?"
"I was planning on staying here tonight, with Paul."
"You were?" I asked, pleased. "That's really nice, Mom, but I've spent lots of nights here by myself."
"Yes, but you shouldn't have to spend any more nights here alone."
Allan sighed. "What do I tell Ange?"
"To get over it," Mom said. "He's almost twelve and he can stop pouting now."
"I'll tell him, but... Say, Erien, are you gonna kill that guy over there? If you aren't could I? I haven't had a chance at one of those before."
"Neither have I. This one is mine because Paul got the last one. The next Arch Demon that comes here is yours."
"Which should be any moment now," I said. "They're popping in from all over. First Ashes, and now this crow guy."
Allan laughed. "You're the Crow Lord? Hi, Crow Two, here. Don't kill him, Erien, just rough him up a bit like Ashtar. If Togranth dies that makes Andy the next Crow Lord and I don't want all those birds hanging around our room."
"That's it. I've had it with this nonsense from you children. Do your worst with that toy, but all of you are going to the Underworld."
"Is that your final answer?" I asked.
Togranth began to cast a spell. I could feel the power build around him. The Sword sparked into life. As it glowed a circle of green light appeared over Erien's head that looked like some sort of crown. The Sword absorbed the demon's spell, then went to work on the demon himself. Erien had no choice but to swing the thing and it connected with Togranth's side.
With a scream and look of utter bewilderment and horror, Togranth exploded into shards of black light, then nothing as the sword pulled him in.
"Crow Lord?" Crow One cawed out.
Another messenger crow flew through the window. "Crow Two Six Seven reporting to the Crow Lord. Crow One?"
"Crow Lord gone."
"I have message from Lord of Shadow."
"I'll take it," Allan said and reached into his pocket for a quarter. "Here's a shiny thing for you."
"Thanks, little demon person. Lord of Shadow say don't mess with Hollis family. One of the elves has the Great Sword."
"Too late. Sorry about that," Erien said.
"No Crow Lord? I know where Junior Assistant Crow Lord lives. I go there and tell him."
"Don't you dare, crow," Mom said. "Allan go home and tell Andy that I will not tolerate those crows at my house either."
"Tell me what?" Andy said popping into the room. "Hey, Al, I was looking for you. Where's Togranth?"
"He went to where ever bad little Arch Demons go when they explode," I said.
"Paulie, did you hurt my Arch Demon?"
"No, I didn't, Ange. He did," I said and pointed at Erien.
"Erien? Did you hurt my Arch Demon? I won't get mad if you tell me."
Erien looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry, Ange. I didn't know he was your Arch Demon. He wasn't wearing a name tag, you know. Besdies, it was my turn to kill an Arch Demon and Allan would have if I hadn't."
Andy looked at his twin and shook his head. "Man, this is just so unfair. I had a great deal for Togranth and now he's out of the picture for at least two hundred years. Sorry about that, guys," he said and patted a crow on the head.
"Crow One reporting to new Crow Lord. Do you have a shiny thing for me?"
"You bet I do, Crow One. Allan, give the crow a shiny... New Crow Lord? I was the Junior Assistant Crow Lord but Togranth never knew that. Yes, I guess I am the new Crow Lord now." I could see the calculations going through his thoughts at a million miles per second and they were written all over his face.
"Ange," Mom said and tapped the elf on the shoulder. "You can play all you want with your crows, I don't mind that, but not one of those birds is going to live at the Hotel, do you hear me?"
"It's okay, Mom. I'll work something out. Come on guys, we'd better tell the other crows." With that Andy changed to crow and took the others with him as he flew away.
"I have got to learn to do that," I commented.
"No, you don't," Mom insisted. "I get to have one normal kid around the place, okay?"
"Me? Normal?" I asked her.
"She meant me," Allan said. "I'm just the elf along for the ride while you are in this Light and Shadow thing up to your eyeballs."
Mom laughed. "Okay, Mr. Normal Elf, take your partner in crime home and tell the staff that I will be staying here tonight. I'll bring Paulie home as soon as Dr. West releases him."
"Will do, Mom," Allan said and gave her a quick hug. "After you, Mr. Abnormal Elf." Erien sighed, hugged Mom and they both vanished.
The phone rang. This time Mom picked it up. "Hello..? Oh, I see. Thanks for the warning." She turned on the TV and flipped the channels.
After a few commercials, and local interest stories on the news, the news guy said, "To recap our top story tonight, convicted child abuser Laura Towers escaped from custody tonight while being moved from City Jail, to a more secure facility. Mrs. Towers received numerous death threats this afternoon, and a promise to 'throw the book at her' from the judge who released her yesterday, after we aired a special report on her son, Paul.
"The Police Department has not said if they are sending security forces to the hospital in case Mrs. Towers heads there to complete her threat to exorcise her son."
"Don't worry, kid," Dave said from the doorway. "I'm staying an extra shift tonight. She won't get through."
"I knew I could count on you, Dave," I said. "Think she's really dumb enough to come here? Of course she is. She's like that. Can I go home with the Hollis' now?"
"Not until you eat, at least," he said as the kitchen staff brought in a tray. He left the room.
"Paul," Mom said as I started to eat. "There are a lot of things I need to know about you. Like your birthday, for instance. When is it?"
"April third," I said automatically, then had to think for a second whether it was Paul's or Gene's.
"So you just turned nine. How about your bed time?"
"I don't have a bed time," I said. "I'm nine -- remember?'
"Yes, I remember, and you do now. Eight-thirty."
"Eight thirty? But all my favorite shows come on at nine. Does everyone go to bed at eight thirty?"
"No, the others go to bed at nine on school nights, but you are younger than they are and you do need your sleep. Eight thirty. What's your favorite meal?"
"Steamed crabs, suicide buffalo wings and Helen's meatloaf, in that order."
"Okay..." She said with a frown. "Not hamburgers and hot dogs or pizza? Who's Helen?"
"She -- was gonna be my mom before they assigned me to you. I can get the recipe from her if you want it. I..." I stopped as my mother and a tall man in a business suit walked into the room.
"Who are you and what are you doing in my son's room?" the woman demanded.
"She is part of this project," the man said in a deep gravelly voice. He must have stood seven feet tall and wore a full black beard, although the rest of his head was bald.
"Uncle Buttercup?" I asked him as I felt the power that seemed pour out from him.
He frowned, irritated that I had recognized him.
"You're this Lord of Shadow guy, aren't you?" I asked.
"Very perceptive, young man."
"I don't suppose you'd be impressed if I told you I had a really great magic sword?
His scowl grew deeper, if that was possible.
I didn't think so."
Mom cleared her throat. "Actually, Mr. Hades, this is an honor for me. I know this isn't a social call, even though you brought your hippopotamus along, but I have heard so much about you. Did you really have a three headed dog?"
"I still do, as a matter of fact. The reason I am here, however is to invite both of you to share my hospitality for dinner. I know Mrs. Towers wishes to get re-acquainted with her son and I will be more than happy to answer your questions, Mrs. Hollis."
"I assume you know my kids will come get me," she said.
"I'm counting on it, Mrs. Hollis. One of them has a sword I'm interested in and I know that he will bring it to rescue you. Your life for that sword is a fair trade, wouldn't you say?"
"And Paul?" she asked.
"I suppose that depends on what shape he is when his mother is finished with him -- casualty of war and all that.
"Not again," I said as I felt power flowing along my nerves from the Light. I started to point my right hand at her when one of the older boys from this afternoon popped into the room.
"Well, hello, Uncle. So nice to see you. That does sound like a sure fire plan to me, but I will be taking the Sword."
"Eros, must you be so rude?" the man asked. "You no longer have the power to threaten me and I must say, after all these years, I will be more than happy to show you what your new place is."
"I do have my father's ring still, Uncle Hades," he said and displayed a large gold ring covered with colored gemstones.
"A trinket, at best," Hades answered.
I looked over at Mom, took her hand and whispered. "I think I missed the first part of this movie. They can fight it out all they want. Let's go home." I released the power, felt the world spin around for a second, then everything went blank.
We stood in the middle of a large kitchen. People were rushing everywhere with trays and pots and pans as I stood there wearing nothing but my pj's. "Maybe I should have put some clothes on first."
"Good work, Paulie," she said and hugged me. A second later she went to the wall and pressed a button. "Attention in the hotel. Mercenaries of the Light, assemble in the kitchen in three minutes. Move it."
In less than two, the kitchen door slammed open as the first of the elves ran in. Andy, with a large crow on his shoulder ran in next, followed by Allan, Erien and Paulin. Allan took a place next to Andy, Paulin and Erien lined up next, then three new elves. An older man with a flowing white beard, entered the kitchen carrying a wizard's staff although he wore denim shorts and an bright orange T-shirt from Syracuse, New York.
The older boy from this afternoon popped in. This time he carried a long spear with him. "You called?"
"She called us, kiddo," Andy said. "Hey, Paulie, you look great in those. Here, want something a little less embarrassing?" He pointed at me and my clothes changed to match his.
"Marian, I believe the floor is yours," the old man said.
"Yes, right now, in Paul's hotel room, the Lord of Shadow and Scotty Freeman are mixing it up over Erien's Sword. Paul thought we would be better off here and he brought us home. The Lord of Shadow threatened to turn Paul over to his biological mother again and he was going to take me to the Underworld to wait for you boys to rescue me. He wants the Sword and was planning to trade me for it. I don't know if he can fight all of us here, but the threat remains."
This means war," Andy declared. "I've always wanted to invade something, and the Underworld is it. No Lord of Shadow is going to mess with my Mom and get away with it."
"You can count me in," Teo said. "If either Hades or Scotty won the Sword we would all be sunk. Now, at least, will you tell me where it is?"
"Nope," Andy said. "Too dangerous even for that."
"Josh," Mom said. "Would you be a dear and take Paul to his room since neither of you is in on this fight?"
"We're not?" I asked. "I'm in. I've got all these powers but I need someone to teach me to use them. You're a wizard, right?" I asked the old man.
"Yes. I am Jeffmar the Mighty..."
"Is that what you are?" Andy asked sweetly.
"Hey, you can't talk to my Dad like that, Ange," one of the elves cut in.
"Sorry, Josh, but I want you to tell him he can't talk to me like that either, the next time he tries, okay?"
"He knows better than that, Andrew. If I was talking to you, and I'm not, I wouldn't lower myself to resort to cheap sarcasm. Have you found a cure for my son, yet?"
"Dad, I'm not sick. I'm an elf, get over it. It happened and it wasn't Andy's fault."
"Would you teach me to use my powers, Mr. Jeffmar?" I cut in.
"Of course, I will be delighted to take you on as an apprentice, son. I..."
Scotty Freeman popped into the room and ran to stand next to Teo. He glared at Andy. What happened to the Ring?"
"The ring Celrin won on his quest. This is the wrong one. I tired emphasizing a point to my Uncle with it and it didn't work. Where's the ring?"
"How should I know? I wasn't there, remember. Oh, well, I was a messenger boy but that was years and years ago. You expect an eight year old to remember everything?"
"You were also a rat, were you not?" Scotty asked archly.
"So? I was a viper and an elf and few other things, too. Celrin got the ring and gave it to you. End of story. Now I'm the Elven Wizard. You want me to ask our Celrin over for a midnight snack?"
"No, but the Lord of Shadow..."
"The Lord of Shadow, what?" the man said appearing in the kitchen in a flash of black light. At least my mother wasn't with him.
"Who invited you to this party?" Andy asked. "You aren't welcome here. Be gone!" Andy said with an abrupt hand gesture. Green light flooded the room, picked up the Lord of Shadow and tossed him out the back door."
"I don't think that was a very bright move, Ange," Scotty said. "That won't stop him for long."
"I know that, but I so wanted to make a good first impression."
"Ange," Paulin called. "Wouldn't it be a good idea to start running for the hills?"
"Think some little Greek God is gonna threaten my Mom while I'm around? I think not."
The roof over our heads seemed to lift up and all I could see was the gigantic form of the Lord of Shadow. He reached down with a hand bigger than the kitchen and seconds later all of us, including some staff were lifted high into the air.
"Oh, what a big, bad Lord of Shadow you are," Andy said. "You better fix this, or I'm gonna have to get tough."
"You dare mock me? See what the Shadow can do," the monster rumbled into the night sky.
"Teo, fix this big turkey, will you?" Andy said. "Erien, you take out that sword and use it."
"Now you ask me for help. You wouldn't listen before, would you. Okay, just this once, but the next time you insult this big turkey you're on your own," Teo growled. He held up his spear, waved it, and a second later we were all on the ground again. The kitchen roof flew back into place and the Lord of Shadow stood only seven feet tall again instead of seventy.
"Okay, Mr. Shadow," Teo said. "I'm sure that was all in good fun, but you can go home now. The next time you wish to get melodramatic I swear I will send all of these elves down to the underworld for a visit. I've had them for some time now, so it has to be your turn."
"Good job, Mr. Light," Scotty said. "I didn't know you had that in you."
"This doesn't end the matter, Mr. Light," the man said with a sneer. With a snap of his fingers, I found the world spinning around. I opened my eyes to find myself in a large room with no furnishings and only a door on one of the walls. A moment later, the door opened to admit the huge form of my natural mother.
"Now then, sonny boy. Where were we?" she asked.
"No one invited you to this party. You aren't welcome here. Be gone!" I said with the same abrupt hand signal. Golden white light filled the room and tossed her out the door. "Yes, he scores," I cheered as I heard her moan. Hurrying over to the door, I closed and locked it on her.
In spite of the lock, she broke down the door and stormed into the room. "That was the biggest mistake you ever made, Paul, or Gene or whoever you are." Her face split open, then her body followed to show a thing -- a creature all teeth, claws and purple scales.
I screamed as it moved toward me.