There’s a massive maple tree outside Nudgee’s new house that’s covered in golden orange and yellow leaves nearly as big as his wicker lunchbox. With wide brown eyes, he stares up into the twisted branches trying to locate the source of an odd clicking sound he’s been hearing since they moved into this small, yellow house two weeks ago. It’s driving him crazy.
He catches a brief glimpse of something shiny and black, but a gusty breeze makes the leaves wiggle and sway and he loses it. Shoot! This place isn’t anything like his real home. He picks up a small rock and throws it at one of the branches, but he’s small for his age and it doesn’t go very far.
“I know you are up there!”
“Who are you talking to?”
Holding her favorite “Live, Laugh, Love” coffee cup with both hands, his mother appears in the doorway wearing her old faded blue bathrobe. Her thick, black hair is rolled up into dozens of pink foam curlers and she’s wearing a pair of dad’s old, grey socks which are too big and floppy. Nudgee thinks she looks like an alien and wishes she’d go back inside.
“It’s going to be okay, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“First days are hard, but you got this.”
His mother’s neon blue nails flash in the morning sunlight and Nudgee stomps away in his brown, leather boots to the end of the driveway. He’s 11 years old and that’s old enough to know his mother can’t be sure things will be okay. Why do adults insist on saying things that aren’t true? How about being more honest by saying “I hope it will be okay” or “it might not be okay but you are strong and can handle it.”
Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!
Nudgee turns around to see his mother leaning against the small rectangular doorbell. With a kind of stumbling shuffle, she steps back and spills her coffee down the front of her robe. Her big blue eyes look droopy with dark smudges of yesterday’s mascara. Nudgee’s worried she might start crying again.
“Ouch! Damn it! Shit! Sorry, lovebug! I’m okay.”
Go inside. Go inside. Go inside. Nudgee turns away from his mom and chants the words like a magic spell and when he doesn’t hear anything for a few minutes he turns back around to find she’s gone. It worked.
The familiar rumbling sound of a school bus turns his attention forward. He straightens out his green plaid jacket and tucks his thick, tawny curls inside a bubble-shaped tan hat. A fluttering of nervous energy makes him feel jumpy and he considers simply running down the street. How long would it take to run 100 miles? Didn’t his best friend’s mom say he’d be welcome back anytime?
All morning Nudgee didn’t actually think he’d be going to school. Things have been terrible since his father left, and part of him expected his dad to show up in his black El Camino saying it was all just a big misunderstanding. Yes, mom cheated, sure, but dad wouldn’t leave his little “pollywog” behind forever. He loves him. Right?
The yellow school bus door opens outward with a loud swooshing sound and a lean man with small, round glasses stares down at Nudgee blinking softly. He’s got grey hair, a large bushy mustache, and pale pink lips. Tipping his colorful plaid hat with a gloved hand, he gives the boy a wide warm smile.
“Are you Nudgee?”
He pronounces his name perfectly with a smooth, deep voice, and Nudgee nods. There’s a small golden pin on the collar of the bus driver’s blue shirt in the shape of a snail. Nudgee’s old neighbor, Mr. Arnold, used to pay him a penny a snail to collect them from his garden and destroy them, but he always let them go in the park instead. He liked their weird stalky eyes.
“Oh, good. All aboard!”
Drawing out the last word like an old-timey train conductor, Nudgee smiles. He likes this bus driver. His feet, however, don’t want to cooperate. It’s as if he’s been cemented to the sidewalk and all he can do is look at his boots in frustration while picturing all the kids inside the bus staring at him and making the determination if he will or won’t fit in. His stomach hurts.
With smooth, careful movements the bus driver gets out of his seat, walks down the three stairs, and reaches his gloved hand out to Nudgee. Before he can really think about it, he’s followed the old man onto the bus. He walks down the narrow aisle, staring at the creased lines of the black floor toward the rear of the bus while trying hard to not make eye contact with anyone.
There are no strange whispers or points as he walks, just the regular sounds of kids talking and laughing with each other. It makes Nudgee feel better. As he reaches the rear of the bus he looks up to see two girls playing on some kind of touch screen to his left, and a large boy with fluffy blonde hair sleeping to his right. With a red, white, and blue sweatband around his head, the boy hugs his backpack like a stuffed animal and snores slightly. Nudgee almost squeezes in next to him, but a low calm voice stops him.
“Don’t do it. Roger will drool on you. I, unfortunately, know from experience. It’s a bad idea. ”
Taking a step forward, Nudgee finds a small-framed boy sitting alone against the window of the very last seat with his hands folded on his lap. He’s got shiny black hair, cut short, and small dark eyes. With a wink, he motions to the seat beside him and Nudgee sits down.
“Do you know what Krav Maga is? I didn’t either until I looked it up. It’s some kind of fighting thing the Israeli military uses in battle. Well, Roger says he studies it, but I doubt it. He mostly sleeps and grunts. I think he’s sad.”
The boy points at the seat in front of them and gives a sort of pained look. He’s got deep dimples, dark thin eyebrows, and delicate small hands. The boys smile at each other.
“Oh, thank you.”
The boy puts out his hand and Nudgee shakes it. There’s something familiar about him as if they’ve met before, and it makes the jumpiness inside him calm down. He sighs and settles back in his seat with his lunchbox on his lap.
“I’m Akiamo but most people call me Aki. My mom says it’s not okay to change your name, but I didn’t exactly change it. I just think it’s easier to have a short name. You know? People can never say my name right anyway. Are you new?”
He’s wearing brown and white striped pants, a brown button-up jacket, and shiny brown shoes. There’s a leather knapsack on the seat beside him which is slightly open exposing books, notepads, and several glass jars. Nudgee nods and sets his lunchbox next to Aki’s leather bag.
As he says his name, he braces himself for the inevitable question “what kind of name is that?” He’s used to having to explain that his parents found it in a book and thought it sounded cool. He hopes Aki won’t mention it rhymes with “pudgy” or “fudgy.”
“Wow. What a cool name! I think I’ve read it before in a book. I’m certain of it. Sounds like perhaps a warrior or an explorer. I bet it looks cool as your signature with those double e’s at the end. Can you show me?”
He pulls out a small pad of yellow paper and a bright silver pen. Nudgee writes his name several times across the paper in flowy black letters. He likes how smooth the fine tip writes. Never has writing his name felt so fun as with Aki. They smile at each other again.
“Our dog had a litter of puppies last night. They’re all fat and white with eyes glued shut. You should come to see them.”
Aki pauses for a moment and looks out the window.
“I sometimes wish my eyes were glued shut, but mom says I shouldn’t say such things. It’s just that sometimes you can see too much. You know?”
Nudgee knows and nods. He remembers the night dad came back from his business trip and found Mr. Lobel in the bedroom with mom. He was naked when he ran out the front door, his white butt looked scary and ghostlike in the moonlight. Then the screaming began.
“Are you hungry? My mom always makes me a big breakfast, but I honestly can’t eat before I get on the bus. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because up until the moment I climb into my seat I’m pretty sure I’m going to get out of going to school. I just expect something to happen, you know? Like a miracle or something. Anyway, you hungry?”
Aki pulls out a small glass jar filled with cut apples. Nudgee takes one and to his delight finds it tastes like honey and cinnamon. It’s his favorite snack.
“Good, huh? My mom gets all our fruit from this organic vendor at the farmer’s market. She knows I have an aversion to anything meat or bread related, so she gives me all these little jars of fruits and vegetables. I used to bring dried seaweed, which is my favorite thing, but kids thought it smelled weird. It’s okay though.”
They finish the apples together in silence as the bus stops several times and more kids get on. Nobody else wanders to the far back and Nudgee realizes why Aki likes it so much. If it wasn’t for the terrible bounciness, it would be almost peaceful.
When the bus stops at a red light, Aki suddenly gasps and points out the window. Nudgee scoots closer, squishing the two bags between them and looks at where he’s pointing. There’s a strange black bird sitting on top of a parked yellow VW bug. It’s nearly as big as the roof of the car. It turns and looks at them with bright red eyes and makes a loud clicking sound.
“What is that thing?” Nudgee says.
“I have no idea, but nobody ever sees it but me. It’s always making that horrible sound. You see it right? You really do?”
“Huge black bird with weird blue beak and creepy red eyes. Yep. I see it.”
It hops off the car and starts walking across the street toward them. The clicking sound increases as it gets closer. Suddenly it swoops into the air and dives toward the bus.
“Shoot!” Nudgee says.
They jump to their feet and work together to pull the big glass window closed. The bird reaches the window far before it closes, but it doesn’t try to get inside. Instead, it just hovers and watches them.
The light turns green and the bus starts moving down the street again, but the bird remains right outside the window, clicking its beak wildly. It blinks, a sort of milky membrane covering its shiny red eyes, and then disappears with a puff of blue smoke. Nudgee scrambles over the two bags and stands in the aisle holding onto the back of the seat.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. It’s never done that before.”
Aki pulls out a tattered-looking notebook filled with drawings of the strange bird. There are scribbled notes all over the margins. He puts both bags against the window and motions for Nudgee to sit beside him. Shakily, he does and realizes nobody on the bus has even looked in their direction.
“I’ve been seeing the birds for years, but usually they just stare at me and blink. I’ve taken out every book about birds from the library, including mythologies and legends, but I can’t find anything about this particular creature. Nothing at all. Have you seen one before?”
Nudgee shakes his head but then suddenly remembers the sound he’s been hearing since arriving in town.
“Not before now, but I started hearing that clicking sound the day we moved in and I think one was in my tree this morning. What do you think it wants with us?”
“I don’t know. Are you a witch or something?”
Both boys laugh at the absurdity of the question but quietly consider it. Nudgee knows his family history does include “healing women,” but he’s never really considered what that means. Aki has heard similar things about “mystics” in his own family. Could they be magical in some way?
When the bus pulls into the school, the boys gather up their bags and follow the other kids as they slowly exit the bus. Before Nudgee can take in the enormity of the brick schoolhouse, Aki grabs his arm and guides him away from the front entrance. He doesn’t want to be late to class, but he has a feeling this is more important than school.
They follow a dirt path along the edge of the building behind a row of large, spiky hedges. Aki runs his left hand along the bricks as he walks and Nudgee copies him. It feels cool and rough.
This is not how Nudgee pictured his first day of middle school, but there’s something about this new friend he trusts. After all, they just saw a magical bird together and that’s more exciting than anything he could learn in school today. Aki stops at the sharp corner of the building and Nudgee bumps into him.
Aki smiles but puts his finger up to his lips.
“It’s okay but be quiet. Follow me.”
“Where are we going?”
Aki doesn’t answer but instead holds his bag to his chest and sprints across an empty cement courtyard. Nudgee follows. They reach a small grove of scraggly trees with peeling white bark. The ground is covered with chip bags and candy wrappers.
Aki walks through it without pausing, stepping over garbage and through a large row of dense bushes. They climb down a small rocky embankment and walk a few more minutes until they enter a grove of old oak trees. Aki stops to pick up an acorn and hand it to his friend.
“I come here to think,” he says. “I want to show you my favorite spot.”
Stepping through streaks of golden sunlight and over dozens of fallen logs, the boys wind their way through a dense forest of tall trees until they reach a small clearing. A narrow creek flows between two large moss-covered boulders making a gentle babbling sound. Dropping their bags, the boys kneel down and put their hands in the cold water. Tiny tadpoles and minnows swim by. Nudgee feels a sudden surge of happiness, the first time he’s felt this good since his father left.
“Wow. It’s beautiful here.”
Before Aki can answer, the sound of clicking fills the air. The boys look up to see the strange black bird perched on one of the boulders staring at them. Without standing, the boys hold hands and listen as the clicks become softer and then start to sound like words. It’s a high-pitched voice wobbly and unclear at first, but then it suddenly shifts and they can understand it.
“Hello, my friends.”
The boys say nothing as another large black bird lands on the second boulder. Both birds stare at the boys. Wind rushes through the forest releasing brown and yellow leaves from the trees to dance around them with a low rustling sound.
“We mean you no harm,” the bird says.
Aki squeezes his new friend’s hand and then lets go. He stands up and steps slowly forward, putting his hands out in front of him. Both birds shift slightly and lower their heads in a small bow.
“We don’t want to harm you either. Leave my friend out of this. What do you want with me?”
“You both need to come with us. We’ve been waiting for you. We need your help.”
Nudgee stands and takes Aki’s hand again, grasping it tightly. They are in this together, and although they are both still scared, it’s hard to not be excited by a talking bird and the possibility of adventure. It sure beats schoolwork.
“Go with you where?” Nudgee says.
“Our world is in danger and you are the only two who can save us. There isn’t time. It might be too late already. Please, we need your help.”
With a silent flapping of their wings the birds swoop down, landing in front of the boys. Tucking their legs underneath their bodies, both birds spread out their massive wings and lower themselves onto their bellies. Aki and Nudgee embrace, giving each other courage and encouragement. One bird speaks quickly while the other makes a series of clicking sounds.
“Climb on, please. We have to go. There’s no time.”
With a final look at each other, the boys climb onto the backs of the giant black birds. Grabbing a handful of the soft neck feathers, they brace themselves as the birds gently stand and soar into the cool autumn morning. With a puff of blue smoke, they are transported to a pink sky over a sea of bright blue. The adventure has just begun.
Author’s note: I was stalled on this prompt for most of the week while my kids both suffered from a pretty intense case of strep throat. For some reason, I was interpreting “magic in everyday occurrences” in a very narrow way trying to make it be a coincidence or perhaps the kind of magic you feel when falling in love. Neither of those ideas was working for me though and I turned to my kids for ideas.
My son blurts out, “two kids see something magical out a window on a school bus, easy, boom!” Just like that, I was off and this tale was born. Partway through I realized it could also be a nod to one of our family’s favorite children’s books we’d read when they were sick, “Frog and Toad.” That story of friendship is magical in so many ways and so Nudgee (Aboriginal word meaning green frog) and Akiamo (Japanese for autumn mountain) were born.
I hope you enjoyed this story and thanks so much for reading. Your comments and likes mean the world to me. Have a wonderful week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 39
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about magic in everyday occurrences. We had to include the words Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, and sweatband.
Write With Us
Prompt: The villain is really the hero
Include: witchcraft, recommend, sand dollar, fisticuff, paprika, eyeball, nightlight, gibberish, infuriating, and dreadful
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room
- Week 37: With a Touch of the Tapestry
- Week 38: Meet Me at the Elephant Ears