Chapter 28: Shadowlands

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Ring around the Grove
A bed to rest my love
Rich and deep, my enemy keeps
His head upon that green pillow

Cord's last words to me hum in the distance: "Remember who the enemy is!"

Where can I find the pillow of a giant creature I grew up thinking was God? I've seen Wasters at work in the lumber yard, but where do they actually live?

The current takes me to the river where the rapids begin, but still I don't know where I'm headed. Do I want to go all the way down valley? Is that where Wasters live?

In the Grove Sunday School, we're taught that God lives by water and we can find him there. We color in the river and rainbow with crayons next to the word, GOD. Maybe that's why I started swimming the summer Lemon left me for more popular friends. Maybe I was looking for God.

Little did I know God wasn't God at all. God was simply Wasters. The real God doesn't behead and leave us for dead.

Think. What are the signs of Wasters? Greasy food wrappers, humongous tire marks and thunderous voices. But where do they live?

In all my swims, there's one place I'd pass that was out of scale with the Grove. Everywhere else, the banks are landmarked with normal-sized bridges and places I walk by every day, but not this one section at the edge of town with a terrifyingly massive stone wall that shoots all the way to the sky, a giant shadowing structure.

We call it the Shadowlands, a forbidden place. No one ever went who came back so there isn't even a law about it, only a horrific legend involving bodies not only beheaded but uprooted and piled in heaps against the wall. I've always swum by as fast as I can, holding my breath until the Shadowlands are behind me.

Whoever built that stone wall is as large as Wasters and now I know I must go there. An ache tells me Cord should be doing this next suicide mission with me. He's been arrested and it's my fault for breaking us into my own home. If we ever survive, he'll probably never forgive my stupidity.

My pity party is interrupted by the urge to prove myself worthy, to be brave for our tribes. That means I can't miss the wall. It's coming up after the last bridge and if I don't start moving past the current to the left bank, I won't be able to find a Waster's pillow and save Mom and Mr. S.

But the water churns faster now and the force slaps me around until I can't understand where I'm headed in the dark. I tangle with some rocks that scrape my knees, leaving shots of pain behind.

The wall must be further than I thought. There's no looming shadow.

A wave smacks me and then another swings me to the right. I lose my balance and catch a current that tumbles me into moonlit rapids. For the second I'm able to surface, I catch the silhouette of a mountain against the night sky. Only, it's not a mountain, it's the Shadowlands, somehow larger in the dark than in daytime.

The rapids end at a boulder I'm going to crash land right into without something to hold onto. I reach for a smaller rock but my fingers slip in the roar and rush. I try to get my feet in front of me to cushion the blow, but can't will my body to fight the rip tide. I'm pulled under and sputter for breath. I'll never make it to the wall now. I'll fail my mission and Mom and Mr. S will die, and Cord will never forgive me. That's fine. I'm done. I'm so over this lost cause.

The crazy river's about to get the best of me when a force as smooth as silk lifts me up and slows my thrashing. I look down to see a gorgeous shimmering pattern of spots in the moonlight. A bubble rises to calm me with the verb "to help".

"To thank you, kind Trout. How did you to know?"

"To sing, your blverse I to blheard."

"Right, you heard the verse I sang," I say and then sigh from the weight of my task. "To get into the Shadowlands, Please do you to know how?"

"Blas you blish," it answers, waving fins to bring me to a stop in front of the great shadow of that menacing wall. "To climb."

I look up and see how large the stones are. "How?" I ask.

"To bluse the bladder."

"Bladder? Oh, ladder." I squint and scan the shadow until I find a line traversing the wall.

"To climb ble third floor. Under ble door to your bright is ble room you seek. Good bluck." And the Trout is gone in a flash.

I must climb that horrifyingly high wall only to find head-picking Wasters on top? I slog up the bank and, grasping for crevices in the stone with wet hands, hoist myself up to the metal ladder, following icy treads that snake their way two floors up the wall. An opening as large as Grove High pool reveals a set of massive stairs. I boulder up each one, mindful of the silence. At the top, I spy enormous shoes of Wasters – big as cars - abandoned on the outdoor rug.

Under the crack of a wooden door as tall as Aspen, I enter the building and head right. But a low growl stops me cold. A furred shadow lurks in the corner and bares its glistening fangs.

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