Edward and Amelia sat down under a big maple tree on the hill overlooking the town. They both felt wobbly now that their adrenaline rush was over, and hungry, too. They shared more water from Edward’s canteen and then they each had a protein bar. Now that they were out of immediate danger, Amelia thought about losing her backpack on the hill in the forest. They were lucky to get out of those woods in one piece; they were also very fortunate that they had already found a town and, presumably, someone who would help them, but losing all of her gear filled Amelia with bitter regret. Even if they didn’t need the pack and its contents to survive, they couldn’t afford to replace the equipment. After their father disappeared one sunny, completely normal day in March, they found out that he had been let go from the bank in January and that they were deep in debt.
John Lockheart had continued to leave home wearing a suit and tie every weekday at 7:30 AM, just as if he were going to the bank as usual. When he came home, he told his family the same silly stories as always. His job as a loan officer was quiet and tedious, but over dinner he described the interesting things that happened at the bank that day — goats wandered in and ate thousands of dollars, a boy came in and tried to put his baby sister into a safe deposit box, the bank manager got locked in the vault and had to relieve himself in a trashcan. Where John was really going, and what he was doing, they had no idea to this day, but somehow their father made enough money to pay the bills. The week after John disappeared, things got even worse. Steve, one of his co-workers from the bank — who also had no idea what John had been doing for two months — came to talk with Lucy at their old house on Dunbar Street about a mountain of debt that Lucy hadn’t known about. Lucy and Steve went to the kitchen and sat with coffee to talk. Edward and Amelia tried to listen from the dining room; Amelia peeked around the corner and saw her mother, who seemed to shrink under the weight of the trouble that Steve was heaping on her. The children overheard words like “double mortgage”, “underwater,” and “bankrupt.” They watched Lucy sob quietly as Steve tried awkwardly to console her. One week later, they were standing amid piles of boxes that contained their former life, most to be stored away, in case things were ever normal again.
Amelia tried to stop mentally calculating the value of what she had left in the woods and turned her attention back to the village ahead of them. “Well, let’s go and meet the locals,” Amelia said, standing up and stretching her long legs. “And hope they have a phone shack or whatever, because I’m still not getting a signal.” That reminded Amelia of the call she got from her mother; she wondered again how Lucy was able to call them, and apparently see them, too. For now, however, she and Edward both seemed to have moved past how they ended up here in the first place, and on to finding out where they were and how to get home.
Watching Amelia fiddle with her phone again made Edward wonder what time it was, and then he thought to check his pocket watch for damage. Edward fished out the shoelace, thinking about all the bumps and spills he’d taken this morning and anxiously drew the watch out of his pocket. He inspected both sides for damage, then opened the cover and breathed a sigh of relief to see that the crystal wasn’t cracked and the second hand was sweeping smoothly past the two moons, which were almost full. “Hey, what time do you have, Em?”
“It’s 8:42,” she said, and then put her phone in her pocket. Edward frowned, the watch had never been off, even by a minute, but now it showed 9:27. “That’s weird,” Edward said, and took a step toward Amelia, the watch open in his palm, when something darted down from above him, so fast it was a just a blur, and snatched the watch right out of his hand. “Hey!” he yelped. “What is it?” Amelia turned to see her brother looking up into the branches overhead. “That — monkey stole my watch!” Despite the strange things that had happened since they woke up in the woods less than two hours ago, Amelia still thought Edward must be mistaken. She came to stand beside him and look up into the tree, but there it was, and no doubt about it — a large monkey with silver fur and a white-tipped tail. It sat on a branch three feet above their heads, holding the watch carefully and paying no attention to them at all as it examined its prize with distinct purpose.
Edward jumped up as high as he could, arms stretched up, and the monkey looked down at him coolly. “Hey! Give that back!” The monkey blinked at him and opened the cover of the watch. “Careful with that!” Edward was both baffled and angry. “What is a monkey doing here? I mean, I don’t know where we are, but this isn’t a rain forest!”
“Maybe it escaped from a zoo?” Edward gave her a look she was used to seeing — Is that the best you can do? “Could be somebody’s pet?” Amelia shrugged.
“What are we going to do, Em?” Edward moaned. “We have to get that watch back!”
Amelia looked at the lower branches, considering the possibility of climbing up, though chasing a monkey around in a tree seemed like a foolish proposition. Meanwhile, Edward grabbed a stick, but it was barely long enough to reach the monkey’s perch, even when he jumped. Edward jumped up and down, swinging hard, and finally managed to hit close enough to draw an angry screech. “Give me back my watch, you stupid little thief!” Amelia told her brother to calm down and give her a moment to think of a plan, but Edward was in no mood to wait. He quickly scouted around the base of the tree and when he came back with three hefty rocks, the monkey screamed at him and ran to the end of the branch as Edward threw the first stone, which hit a clump of maple leaves and disappeared.
“Edward, wait, wait!” Amelia yelled, waving her arms. “What if you hit the watch?” Amelia didn’t think this was very likely; Edward couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but she had rarely seen him this upset — she wanted him to stop, calm down and take a breath. Edward paused with his arm cocked back, second rock in hand, then dropped the stone and went to his backpack. He pulled out a protein bar, stuck it in his pocket and then went to the lowest limb and started climbing up into the tree. “Edward, no!” Amelia protested, though she knew it wouldn’t do any good. The monkey sat quietly and watched. Its small, nimble hands caressed the watch; its bright green eyes followed Edward as he reached the limb it was sitting on. As her brother clambered up, Amelia paced nervously below. “Watch out, Edward! That thing might bite you!” Edward didn’t reply. He glared at the monkey, then sat on the limb and started inching his way along sideways. The monkey twitched the white tip of its tail, but made no move to escape, as Edward slowly came within arm’s reach. “Oh, be careful, Edward!” Amelia yelled from below, twisting her curls anxiously. Edward hooked his right arm around a branch just above him, steadied himself and unwrapped the protein bar. He took a small bite and played up how delicious it was. “Mmmm! Good!” Edward leaned forward and held out the bar. He had never bargained with a monkey before, but it seemed like food might be more attractive than an inedible hunk of metal. “Wouldn’t you rather have this?“ Edward cooed, waggling the bar. “You can’t tell time, you rotten little pickpocket, so just take this and give me back the watch, OK?” he went on in a forced tone of syrupy sweetness.
The monkey clutched the watch tightly, but slowly extended one paw toward Edward, who held the protein bar very still. “That’s right,” he said in a soothing voice. “Come on.” Amelia stood motionless beneath them, afraid to move. Wherever their mother was, Amelia hoped Lucy couldn’t see them now. The silver monkey suddenly plucked the protein bar from Edward’s grasp, sniffed it, and took a nibble. Edward smiled and nodded, “It’s good — you’ll like it.” The monkey devoured the rest of the bar in a few quick bites, then tore the wrapper in half with its teeth and licked it. Edward held out his hand, hopeful. “Good monkey.” The animal grinned at Edward, dangled the watch just out of reach on the shoelace, then gathered its long body and jumped. The monkey didn’t leap for another branch overhead, but out into thin air, over the meadow.
Edward and Amelia watched the monkey arc through the air. They expected to see it hit the ground running, and Amelia sprinted toward it. Instead, the monkey’s body blurred and flowed, changing shape in mid-air as silver fur became feathers. Jut before it touched the grass, the transformed hawk’s broad wings beat powerfully. It held the watch in its talons, the white shoelace dangling. Then the hawk gained altitude fast, wheeled back over the maple tree and screamed at the children, a shrill raptor’s cry. The sun flashed briefly on the watch as the hawk turned north, toward the hills beyond the town. Soon, the bird was a black dot on the horizon.
Edward sat on the branch, looking utterly defeated. Amelia stood in the grass, both hands on her head in disbelief. She tuned and ran back to the tree as Edward swung down from the branch. He let his feet dangle, five feet from the ground, then dropped to the grass below. “Did you see that?” Amelia said, her eyes still wide. But tears were welling up in Edward’s eyes, and his face looked hot and flushed. “Well, that’s just great,” he choked. “How will I ever get my watch back now, Em?” Edward’s shoulders dropped, and all the fear and anxiety of the morning came shaking out of him in sobs. Amelia hugged him tightly in both arms; he pressed his face against her shoulder, just as he would have done with Lucy, and Amelia stroked his hair. “Hey, it’s going to be OK, Edward.”
“How is it going to be OK? A monkey just changed into a hawk and flew away with my pocket watch! The watch that Dad –” Edward couldn’t finish, and Amelia rocked him from side to side. She realized now just how much her brother had invested in that watch — it wasn’t just that it appealed to his imagination and his endless curiosity, it was tied up with his feelings about their father’s disappearance. That pocket watch was his direct and tangible link to their father, and now it was lost, just like their father.
Amelia took his head gently between her hands, lifted his face up and looked into his watery eyes. “Listen, there is obviously a lot more going on here than we realized, but we’re going to figure this out, and we’re going to get that watch back, and then we’re going to go home.” She added with a grin, “Where monkeys stay monkeys.” Edward didn’t smile, but he had stopped crying, and he made a sour face at her joke. “Besides,” she said cheerfully, “You’re the expert on this kind of thing — didn’t something like this ever happen to,” she intentionally flubbed the name of the heroic young adventurer in the Shadow King series, “Andy Grayson?” Edward sighed, and Amelia could tell he put a lot of effort into not rolling his eyes, “You mean Adam Greystone?”
“That’s the one,” she said with a mischievous grin. “What would he do in a situation like this?” Edward wouldn’t be so easily cheered up, however, as his sister knew very well. “Amelia,” he only used her full name when he was impatient with her, “Those are just books. This isn’t a story.”
Amelia put her hands on her hips and bent down slightly to look him right in the eyes. “Excuse me? If that wasn’t a Haunted Forest,” she pointed back to the dark treeline behind them, “Then I don’t know what is. And you did notice the transforming monkey-hawk, right? Aren’t there shapeshifters in those books?”
Edward tugged at his lower lip, which was his habit when he was thinking something over. “Yeah,” he mused. “You’re right, Em. Although some wizards can also change their shape.”
“Well, all right then, what are we dealing with — plain old transmogrifiers, or magicians?” Edward did smile now at the way Amelia was twisting the terminology from the Shadowfell books. “It can be impossible to know for sure until you see them in their true form.” Edward took off his glasses and started wiping the lenses dry on his shirt-tail. “I didn’t see a ring or amulet, but a wizard wouldn’t have to be using a magical item. Still, without knowing more, I’d go with natural shapeshifter.”
Amelia smiled and poked his shoulder playfully, “See? I knew you’d come in handy, one of these days.” Edward smiled back and put his glasses on, then looked serious again. “I don’t know what in the world is going on, Em, but I sure am glad you’re here.” He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. “Even if you are kind of bossy.”
“Awww,” Amelia said, “You’re so sweet. And here I was about to carry this for you,” she handed Edward his backpack. The children looked back once more at the lone maple tree and the dark line of the forest behind them, then set off down the road toward town.