"Y-yeah. My name's Lazar Willis, and I'm 13 years old. Thank God I got you. There's barely any signal out here."
"Is there an emergency?" the woman on the other end said.
"Kind of. Yes. Definitely. I'm in the middle of the woods. I'm lost." He'd woken up in his cabin and seen a strange light through the window and wandered out to the woods, only to lose the trail in the darkness. Then he'd dropped off a ledge and rolled down a steep slope. Now he sat leaning on a tree trunk, with no clue where he was.
"You said you're lost? Are you injured?"
"I don't think so. Nothing serious." He could still move all his arms and legs and fingers. That was a good sign. "A little dinged up, but I can move."
"All right. Stay put. Where are your—" Static fuzz blocked out the operator's voice. Lazar didn't have to guess what she was asking.
"My parents are back at their cabin in Wylde Cove. I've been trying to call them, but the signal's so bad I haven't been able to reach either of them." And Dad kept his phone turned off at night. If anyone knew he'd wandered off, he'd be in a ton of trouble. They'd probably be in a ton of trouble, too. "I don't know what happened."
But no one heard him. The phone had disconnected. Instead of showing him signal bars, it said NO SERVICE. The whole reason he'd been allowed to own this phone was to make sure he could call somebody in an emergency, and now he couldn't even do that. 911 was his last chance.
He turned on the flashlight. A deep fog had descended on the forest since he slipped out the window. Even with the flashlight, he could barely see three feet in front of him. He could hardly tell which direction he'd come from.
The operator had said to stay put. Lazar supposed that was a good idea. All he could do at this point was guess where to go. The wrong direction could get him even more lost, even killed. There might be mountain lions, or coyotes, or bears. His phone was only at 20% of its battery life, and he knew a weak signal could suck the battery dry. He turned the phone off. No sense in wasting juice or drawing attention to himself. He'd just have to wait until sunrise.
It was about 2 AM. He'd be waiting a while.
Lazar craned his head back and gazed at the sky. The clouds shrouded the stars, and only a sliver of moonlight peered through. He hoped it didn't rain.
But before long, another light emerged ahead of him—the same strange light he'd seen from his bedroom in the cabin. It glowed with an odd shade of blue.
Lazar stood up. Could someone already be looking for him? No. It wasn't moving. It rippled and flickered like a torch, but it never changed position. Still, a light was a light. It could be a spotlight, or maybe the porch light of a cabin or a farmhouse. Plenty of people lived out in this cove. Surely a kind soul would be there to help a lost child reunite with his family.
He started walking toward the misty light. Somehow, in that direction, he could swear he heard… laughter?
Lazar cleared the trees, and found a pool shining like polished glass. The light came from a flower standing on a branch above the water. A group of children was swimming under this light—or at least, Lazar thought they were children. If it weren't for their pink and green and blue skin, and the odd shapes of their heads, or the occasional tail, he'd have thought they were ordinary grade school kids. Their swimsuits could have come from any Wal-Mart. All these unusual kids, swimming in the middle of the night… Was he even really seeing them at all?
A boy with skin the color of a red apple burst from the water, splashing all over the other kids. A single horn projected straight out from his head. "Hey, look! A big kid! And he's human!"
"Wow." A small blue girl with hair that resembled a moth's wings and a set of feathery antennae waded toward Lazar. "I knew the flower would bring somebody!"
"Took him long enough," a violet boy with the same moth-like hair said. The girl's brother, maybe? "How about it, you wanna play with us?"
The other children cheered. "Yeah!" "Play with us!" "Please! Please!"
Lazar's feet stayed locked to the ground. "I… uh…"
"What'sa matter? Didn't bring trunks?" The red boy ran his fingers around his waistband, then pulled, and suddenly he was holding a second pair of swim trunks identical to the one he was wearing. "Here you go. Put 'em on." He tossed them over, and Lazar caught them. "I even made 'em your size."
"Um, well… thanks, but I don't know. I'm kinda lost, and I need to get home."
"That's okay," said a sunflower-yellow girl with antlers mingled with her hair. "So are we."
"We ran away from home," the blue boy said. "Dunno where we are, but no reason we can't have fun." He said "can't" like "cayn't," just like Lazar's great-aunt. "I'm Rion."
The others introduced themselves as well. The red boy was Arctur. The blue girl was Siope, and the sunflower-yellow girl was Ibra. There was also a smaller lime-green boy with two rows of small horns on his head named Lynx. He didn't seem to say much. He just floated on his back.
"I-I'm Lazar." He clutched the trunks in a wad. "It's nice to meet you, but…"
"What, you like stayin dry or somethin?" Ibra waved her arm, and a glob of water the size of a soccer ball floated up in front of her. When she flicked her hand, the water launched out and hit Lazar head-on. Now his shirt was completely soaked through.
"There ya go!" Rion said. "Might as well jump in! You're already wet!"
"Okay, fine. But I need a place to change."
"So use that bush," Arctur said. "We didn't come here to see no human wingdings."
Lazar went behind the bush, changed as quickly as possible, and returned to the edge of the pool. It was only when the light shone on him again that he saw the bruises and scratches all over him. One of his palms had been scraped, and there was a cut on his shoulder, with blood trickling down his arm.
"Whoa, cool," Siope said. "So much blood!"
He saw their delighted grins, full of shark and tiger teeth, all aimed at him. Was he about to become the main course in a feeding frenzy?
"You see, Rion?" Siope said. "I told you it was red."
"If I had blood like that, you'd never know I was bleeding." Arctur raised his hand and swayed it side-to-side. "Here."
Lazar felt a buzz inside him. He looked down, and watched the bruises fade before his eyes.
Siope threw out her hand. "I got the cuts!"
The blood on Lazar's arm dissolved, and the cut knitted itself back together and vanished, along with the scrape and all the scratches. "Wow." Lazar patted his chest and arms and face. Nothing even stung. Even that zit next to his nose was gone. "Thanks." He stepped into the pool. There was no bite of cold water. It was warm right away, as if he'd been sitting in it all night. "I guess I had you guys all wrong."
"You thought we were gonna eat you, didntcha?" Rion chortled. "Oh man, you humans."
"We told you we wanna play, didn't we?" Siope said. "We can't play with you if we eat you, can we?" She grabbed Lazar's hand. "Ooh, so spongy."
"Hey, Lynx!" Ibra called to the green boy, still floating on his back. "Ain'cha gonna come meet Lazar?"
"Nah," Lynx said. "I'm fine right here."
"Is he always like that?" Lazar said.
"Pretty much," Arctur said. "He only ran away 'cuz I was going."
"Uh huh." Lazar waded around the kids toward the middle of the pool. "And why did you run away?"
"Cuz we were bored," Ibra said. "Our parents don't let us do anything."
Rion scowled as he floated out of the water into the air. "It's all learn the legends this, and pay obeisance that, and don't stick your tail there, you don't know where it's been. We'd rather take our chances in the human world." He flipped and took a dive into a deeper part of the pool.
"Yeah, you got all those cool machines!" Arctur said, splashing the water with his fists. "You can do anything with all that stuff! I wanna see those… whatchacallit… those zoomy-loomy things. Rolling thunders?"
"Roller coasters?" Lazar said.
And to think, he'd gone to Six Flags on a class trip just a month or so ago. "But you guys can do all that magic stuff. That's way cooler than a roller coaster."
"I told you he wouldn't get it," Ibra said. "Look, we're sick of stayin home, and I'm sick of thinkin bout it. That's why we called you here! We never played with a human kid before."
"Yeah!" Arctur swam closer. "We wudn't a'thought we'd get a big kid like you, but that's even better!" He waved his arms, and Lazar felt himself rise out of the water. There wasn't even anything pushing him or pulling him. But before he knew it, his feet were an inch above the water, then a foot, then five feet.
"Get ready!" Siope called.
Lazar braced himself.
He dropped straight down, with just enough time to curl his arms and legs up. His cannonball hit with a grand splash that rained on the children to raving laughter. The waves rocked Lynx up and down, but he showed no reaction.
The kids made the pond spray fountains in the air. They raised a giant block of water into the air and dropped it on top of themselves. They built water slides out of ice and rode them down, then melted them instantly when they were done.
Lazar forgot how frightened he'd been just a few hours before. Hours? It felt like minutes. He couldn't believe it wasn't a dream. When he said so, Rion swatted him with his tail. That seemed to prove it.
Mostly he felt like a babysitter, but while they played, Lazar enjoyed hearing all about their families, about their homes, about their hobbies.
Rion and Siope were indeed brother and sister, and had a pet sporg back home they called Ropa. "He's such a sweet little sporg," Siope said. "I wish we'd brought him with us."
"My dad's a lumberjack," Arctur said. "He can carry five trees in each arm."
"I live with my grandparents in a crystal tower," Ibra said. "I hope they're not too worried."
"What about you, Lynx?" Lazar said. "Where are you from?"
"Same place as them," he said.
"You ain't gonna get anything outta him," Arctur said. "He's just a big spoily-sport. Ya hear that, spoiler-sport?"
Lynx made a gesture at Arctur that seemed to make sense to both of them, because Arctur replied by sticking his tongue out. "Honestly."
"He's just been no fun since we left," Siope said.
"Hey, don't be mean," Lazar said. He certainly knew what it was like to be left out of other kids' games… or to leave himself out because he couldn't see the appeal. "He doesn't mean any harm. Just looks like he wants to relax."
"He's right," Rion said. "If Lynx wants to start having having fun, he's welcome to join us. Until then, let's party!"
And on it went through the night. Soon Lazar began to think Lynx had the right idea. These kids just wouldn't stop. Did they ever get tired? Or hungry? Or go to the bathroom? Lazar was running on only a few hours' sleep, and still needed to get back to the cabin. Every time he stopped to rest his eyes, one of the kids smacked him in the back.
Occasionally he did manage to slip out and turn his phone back on. Still no signal, and the battery was barely hanging on at 12%.
Yet it still hardly felt like any time passed at all, and Lazar almost didn't notice when a pale light began to stream in through the trees. "Hey," he said, "the sun's coming up."
"Aw, man," Arctur said, then shouted into the sky, "Go away, Ilios! I'm not ready to go yet."
"Well, I am," Lazar said, climbing out of the pool. "I have had a lot of fun, but I really need to get back to my cabin. I'm still kinda lost. Maybe you guys can help."
"Why?" Siope said.
"Because… I'm not supposed to be out here. My parents are gonna wake up and wonder where I am."
"We ain't supposed to be here, either," Rion said. "You don't see us complaining."
Lazar put his soggy shirt back on. "Well, honestly, you need to be heading back, too." There was a bloodstain on the sleeve. How was he supposed to explain that to Mom and Dad? "Your families are probably worried. I don't know how far away from home you are, but—"
"So you're not coming with us?" Arctur said.
"Come with you?"
"We never been to Earth before. We were hoping we could get an Earth kid to come with us, show us around, help get us outta trouble."
"You don't really wanna go home, do ya?" Ibra said. "You gotta show us the rolly boosters and the bouncy castles and the airports!"
"I—" Lazar barely even knew his way around his own neighborhood! "Look, I really need to be going. You could come with me. When I explain things to my parents, I—"
"No!" Arctur slammed his fists into the water. "No grownups! They're just gonna make us go to bed early and leave the seat down… and they'll try to make us go home. I ain't goin home!"
"I understand, really." Lazar tried to remind himself, for all their strange powers, these were just kids. Just a bunch of rambunctious kids craving a taste of independence. "I just…"
Rion began tugging on one of his antennae. "I dunno, Arctur. I'm starting to miss Ropa."
"Me too," Siope said.
After hours of lying there on the water, Lynx pulled himself upright.
"Oh come on," Arctur said. "You backin out now?"
"Now that I think about it," Ibra said, "my grandparents need me. There's so much they can't do on their own. Maybe we should—"
"No! No! No!" Arctur smashed the water with each word. "We aint going home! We ain't! We are not!" He glared at Lazar with shining yellow eyes. "It's your fault! We never should have got you here." He rose out of the water and hovered over the surface. He drew up a ball of water and let it fly. Lazar jerked to the side, and it brushed his arm before bursting against a tree in a huge splash. Arctur bared his wolf-like fangs. "Maybe I should eat you!"
"Cool it, Arctur." Lynx slapped him in the back of the head and stepped out of the water beside Lazar. "I told you this was a bad idea from the beginning." He crouched and dug into Lazar's loose pants.
Lazar said, "Hey, what're you—"
"Come on, Lynx," Arctur said. "You're the one who said you didn't wanna follow the General's footsteps."
Lynx took out Lazar's phone and waved his hand over it. "Yeah, but I didn't wanna blow it up into this whole big thing. I just came along to keep an eye on you."
He pushed the power button. When it settled on the home screen, it had full bars, and the battery was at 100%.
Arctur had actually begun to cry. "B-but I wanted to see more of the human world. I wanted to meet more humans. Play some human games."
Siope said, "I did have a great time here. But Ropa… and Momma…" She held Rion's hand.
"Don't worry, I'm makin a call," Lynx said.
"You know how that works?" Lazar said. He watched Lynx type looping digits Lazar didn't recognize.
"The General confiscates 'm from smugglers, so I've tried 'm out." Lynx held the phone to his ear. "Um, hi. My friends and I ran away to Earth, and we need help getting home."
Arctur slumped his shoulders, and lowered himself back in the water, down to mouth level, and started blowing bubbles.
Ibra waved up at the flower. The light faded, and the flower shrank back into a seed, which fell down to the pool. Ibra caught it before it touched the water.
"It has been nice meeting you." Lazar yawned. "I really did have fun, and I'm glad you like my world. And… I dunno, if you help me get home, maybe we could play a board game."
All the kids gasped—even Lynx.
"Fine, I guess I'll go," Arctur said.
"A board game?" Rion said. "I gotta see that!"
Lynx said into the phone, "We'll be at Lazar's cabin. He's gonna show us a board game. I know, right? Thanks, bye." He gave the phone back to Lazar. "And thank you."
"I'm just glad it's getting a signal," Lazar said. "Except… um, how're they gonna find my cabin? You didn't give them any directions. And I don't know the way back." The GPS map wasn't giving him much to work with. It hardly showed any roads, just vast empty space.
"Don't worry, you dummy," Siope said, hopping out of the water. "If we can get there, they can find us. Here." She poked the phone. An arrow appeared pointing behind Lazar, toward the left.
"Well, okay, and what about…" He gestured at his head, trying to indicate the shapes of their horns. He had no idea how his parents would react to that.
The kids all twiddled their fingers, and in an instant the colors on their skin shifted to different shades of pink or brown. The irises in their eyes changed shape and color, and the horns faded from sight. They all now looked like ordinary children. As they climbed out of the water, new street clothes appeared on them out of nowhere, again no different from what Lazar would see on any playground.
They then patted themselves, and patches of dirt and grime appeared all over them. Anyone would have thought they'd been surviving in the woods for days.
"Lead the way, chief!" Rion hollered at Lazar.
Lazar worked his pants back on over the trunks, stuck his briefs into his pocket, and put his shoes on. As he led the kids among the trees, following the arrow on his screen, his phone rumbled. His mother's name covered up the map.
He answered. He could hardly understand what she was saying through her anguish. "I know, I'm real sorry. It's just… well… there are these kids here in the woods. They ran away from home and got lost."
"Hi Lazar's mom!" Ibra squealed. The other kids shouted their own greetings.
"Yeah, that's them," Lazar said into his phone. "I'll be back soon. Somebody's already coming over to get them. Yeah, I'm exhausted. I love you, too." He ended the call and watched the arrow.
"I still can't believe it," Lynx said. "We're gonna play a board game."