Ort’s Last Undertaking
by Taylor Hood
will you be quiet?”
staring. You said they
kept his head buried in the map, tried
to trace their route along the oddly planned rectangular streets through the
eyeholes of his mask. He couldn’t concentrate with the boy whimpering at his
knees. Yes, they were staring, what did he expect? Asking them not to would be
like asking Mrs. Gloam to stop sighing at the moon or Floris Fragul to stay
whole whenever someone dropped a plate or slammed a door. Abruptly, he realised
what he was thinking—understood what was wrong. “Fool boy! Where’s your mask?”
can’t make me wear it!” Isaac cried.
flung out an arm to silence the boy,
fingers spidering over the little mouth. He wrenched him into a hedge and
hoarsely said, “Now you listen. This is my last day. I was in no mind to go,
but the mayor begged and begged. Said I was the only one for the job, best of
the best. You should be honoured. Anyway, it’s not as if you’ve
been gone long.”
boy’s bottom lip trembled. Ort knew
he’d let his temper get the better of him, but he’d spoken the truth: young
Isaac still had the look. His skin was still a shade too peachy and the
eyes were dull with a certain listlessness. The ‘unlight of unfulfillment,’ as
he liked to say. Yes, this half-boy’s only saving graces were the two extra
fingers on his right hand and the birthmark in the shape of a beetle beneath
the dark fringe.
do I have to wear it?” More sobbing.
Ort’s throat rattled. “You
remember when you were found? How do you think we got there in the first place?
Could your deliverers have just waltzed into that playground without masks, do
you think? So just put it on and things will go a lot smoother.” Under his
breath he added, “And I can get back to my books.”
boy finally put on his mask and Ort
breathed a sigh of relief. It was a shield-shape painted sunny yellow and tied
at the back with black string. The eye and mouth slits were crescents or
sickles, the former downturned, the latter upturned. It was much like his
own—that was the point. They would’ve looked like Muse masks except not one
that had ever been produced looked sad. The mask hid Isaac’s beetle birthmark
well, but there was still the matter of the fingers. He’d forgotten gloves but
decided it wouldn’t matter so long as the child kept his hands in his pockets.
I’m still like them,” Isaac said, voice
slightly muffled now, “why do I need to wear a mask at all?”
aren’t you? Let’s go.”
neck telescoped out from the corner
of the hedge, trousers riding up his hairy stilt-like legs. The street was
vacant, but they’d have to move quick. Making their way back on to the pavement,
he unfolded the map. Ten minutes later he’d got no further; it was either outdated
or someone had got something seriously wrong. Where they stood didn’t seem to
correspond at all with where they needed to go. The obscuring mask didn’t help,
nor did the sweat running down his back in the summer sun. They walked for some
time, following the street signs, backtracking, retaking this route and that,
until they were utterly dumfounded. The fact it all looked the same, had the
same curious orderliness, made their failure even more acute.
guarantee you, kid, I would’ve found
this house in an instant if that damned mayor had only sent me to Brightview
or Merry Grove. You don’t know it?”
boy looked around, scratched his head,
tugged at his mask. “No, sir.”
we can’t leave until we find her.
And stop pulling at that!”
that moment, something visible around
his eyeholes caught Ort’s attention. Curtains shifted in the upper story of a
detached house. He groaned and led the boy by the arm until they were well out
of sight, coming to a stop under a lamppost. They sat down and he tried to
refigure their location on the map. Meanwhile, Isaac, squatting over the
pavement, picked up a stick and tried to play it like a flute. “Will you pay
attention?” Ort breathed. “Sometimes I don’t know why we bother. Do you have
to make my last day as annoying as possible, boy?”
Isaac giggled and blew a little weoo-whoo
on his flute. When he saw the look on Ort’s face, he quickly added, “Sorry.
I won’t do it again.”
down, three across… 14 Plain Drive.”
crushed the map in his bony fingers.
“I’ve a mind to send you back if you don’t knock that off!”
we go back?” asked Isaac.
“We’ve been here for hours.”
I didn’t mean to Othertown.” Ort
wished the boy could see his grin. “No, we can’t, not yet. And that’s final!”
braying, barking sound smothered Ort’s
last word. He unravelled, spun to his feet, tugged the boy close and held him.
An old man in a tweed flat cap was coming down the pavement with a terrier by
his side. “Don’t make any sudden movements,” he whispered. “Do not take
Isaac played, and the elder was upon them,
the dog pulling its master along by the leash toward the flute music. The old
man’s wrinkled face peered down at the boy who wavered, dropped the stick,
thrust his hands into his pockets in the nick of time.
any of the old tunes, lad?” The old
man wheezed. He smiled gummily. “Nutcracker?”
that? You’ll have to speak up.”
terrier grabbed at the stick, caught it
between its jaws. Ort cursed inwardly as the boy went down to wrestle for it and
his mask was knocked. It came a little loose and the elder’s wrinkles slackened
momentarily, something giving him pause. A light of recognition in the eyes but
“Months ‘till Halloween!” the old man said,
finally reigning in his dog.
sir. It’s for the birthday party,
eh?” He whacked the dog on its side
with his cane. “You must mean little Caroline’s.”
her.” Isaac glanced Ort’s way.
“You—you wouldn’t happen to know, um, 14 Plain Drive?”
senior gave directions, pointing away
south with his cane, and Ort quickly realised his mistake. He thanked the man,
not a little begrudgingly, though he was relieved now that he knew where he’d
gone wrong. It was strange, however, when the senior addressed Isaac instead of
the adult next to him. Every time he opened his mouth, the stranger nodded as
if the boy had spoken instead. Then they were saying farewell, watching after
the man and his dog. When at last they disappeared round a bend, Ort deflated
his lungs. The boy kicked dust over his broken flute.
so useless after all.” Ort admitted.
what about my instrument?” Isaac
about it. I’ll have Creake carve
you up one of his special flutes. It’ll make the sound of beetle’s wings. What
do you think of that?”
six doors down, a perfectly formed
line of gift-bearers backed up from No. 14 to the pavement, party balloons and
bow-tied boxes in their hands. Affixed to the house itself, a banner which
read: Eleven today! Ort groaned as he drew nearer, forced himself to
confront the babbling of guests and the bright chinking of glasses and
plates arising from the back garden. One last job, he told himself, one lost
job, then I can retire.
is it now, Isaac,” he said through his
teeth. “The last thing we want is to give ourselves away.” He gave a momentary
shudder. “When we’re trapped in a box.”
boy didn’t respond. He looked
positively dour as they approached, kept murmuring about his flute. But he
could see something more vital was on Isaac’s mind, something closer to home,
as it were. When Ort realised this might be easier than expected, he quickened
his steps. If the boy were to follow what Ort said, what Ort did, Master Ort of
the Thousand Liberations, give neither a peep nor a hoot—if he could do that,
then all might go according to plan. He reached into his pocket to make sure
the black box wrapped with red velvet was still there. Then he adjusted his
mask to make sure it fit
squarely, spat in his palm, slicked back hyphal strands of hair.
got in the queue and instantly shrank a
few centimetres. He’d always been freakishly tall, but the ancient couple in
front made him feel like a giant, so he bent his knees awkwardly, painfully.
With any luck, they’d not have to wait long. Sure enough, they were sixth in
line, third in a couple minutes, second a moment later. He gave the boy a
once-over, saw that his mask was slightly askew, fixed it for him. It still
looked off: with his head tilted, Isaac looked sad no matter how wide the
smile. “Stand up straight. Don’t sulk. Isaac, I said don’t—”
neighbours!” the man with rosy
cheeks and cream sweater said. “Nice to see some new faces. You must be the,
uh, Johnsons? Moved in just a few days back? Glad you got our card. No, no,
please, go right on ahead.”
Ort was ushered in, he twisted just in
time to glimpse a family of three beaming at their host. Isaac stood with them,
a little apart from him. Amid the loudening chatter he heard Caroline’s father joke
about the sherry and the lack of it for the kids. It wasn’t clear whether he
addressed Isaac, the fair-haired boy beside him, or both. An instant later he
was ducking the lintel into the hall.
sooner we find her,” he whispered to
Isaac as he separated, trying not to think about what just happened, “the sooner
we can leave.”
had they said, the Council? This time
descriptions had been scant, for folks were scant that winter too, and they couldn’t
afford to send reconnaissance. This time everything had had to come from the
call itself. She’d sent a rook; it had been seen cawing over the pines. Black
hair then, he supposed. And she was young, but how young? He remembered the
banner. Eleven. Old enough to put up a fight if it came to it. He hoped and
prayed she would not change her mind. Things never went well when they did
proceeded stiffly down the hall trying
to avoid the loiterers in the doorways, in circles about the tables arrayed
with food and drink. Without a doubt this was one of the biggest parties he’d
ever attended. Only the Williamson’s compared—the Wormwood’s, he corrected. The
most of them were huddled in the open conservatory, beyond which he could just
see the fake-green grass of the lawn, a paddling pool, a bouncy castle half
pushed on ahead. Ort tried to follow
but, to his amazement, the gap which formed in the ranks of the adults closed
over again like a healed wound, leaving him stranded, midstride, on the other
side. He waited and the summery gaze of Isaac’s mask appeared at the guests’
ankles. Isaac shrugged. Another group sandwiched Ort in so that he was stuck.
Eventually he managed to find a way around them, hugging the wall and squeezing
through a narrow space only he could’ve squeezed through. “Insolents,” he
cursed, catching up with the boy. “Bloody insolents.”
mask was stifling as they entered the
conservatory, rather a greenhouse, its glass shimmering. They nudged and bumped
their way through the prattling lot, the tables laden with party treats,
poppers, paper plates. Outside in the garden, they found a secluded spot by the
fence where they swiftly readjusted their masks, fanned themselves. Then they
just stood, watching, waiting. Two happy faces on suited frames.
old folks ever throw a party like
this, kid?” Ort’s voice was terse. He kept himself flat against the wood
panels, his head overtopping the fence.
boy was quiet now, quieter than he’d
ever been. “No, sir. What about you, sir?”
never knew my parents.”
be out of here in no time,” Ort
said. “Don’t worry.”
gritted his teeth: twenty minutes of
good reading time he’d never make up. The girl had not made it easy for him.
When he found her peeking out from the foliage at the other end of the garden,
revealing her own hiding spot, Ort knew the rook had cawed truly.
waited and waited, the summer sun and
the inane gossip, the racket of troublemaking children beating down on him.
Isaac had fidgeted, once or twice lifted a hand to scratch under his mask. Then
all had gone quiet and the parents, rosy-cheeked and radiant, slid across the
artificial green with the birthday cake, candles arranged in two rows stuck in
the icing. Caroline stepped furtively out from the protecting leaves with a
hand over her brow, under shoulder-length black hair parted in the middle. It
looked wet, plastered as it was to her head. She wore glasses on a slightly
crooked nose, an oversize grey knit sweater, dark jeans.
gathered round the cake-cutting
table. Photos were taken, hugs given, gifts exchanged. Hip-hip-hooray!
Hip-hip-hooray! She whacked a piñata, threw some darts, ate a little cake.
All the while, she looked to the shady spot from which she’d come. Something
about her, perhaps the shadows patching her eyes, reminded him of Miss
Thornweep before she was Miss Thornweep, however long ago that had been. She
reminded him of a seed head blown any which way by the wind.
do we do now, sir?” a voice said,
jumped. “Ah. Isaac.” He followed
Caroline’s movements as he spoke.
“Right, no more time wasting. Here’s what you’re—”
Here’s what you’re going to
do. You’re going to approach her, tell her who we are. Then she’ll have a
choice to make. If the call was right, she’ll understand. Tell her to wait with
you if she can. In the meantime, I’ll try to find a way out, easiest escape
route, things to throw to cover our backs. Just like when we took you. Got it?”
What if she doesn’t want to go?”
was a black doll in the sun. She
had her head half turned to her retreat.
“She will. Now go and earn your name, Beetlebrow.”
boy darted out. As he threaded his way
across the yard, Ort sucked air, his cheekbones and outthrust jaw edged like
knives. This was it. Isaac moved swiftly, deftly through the ranks of adults.
It was not them Ort was worried about—it was the kids. Five of them huddled
around an older boy who concealed something from them in his palms. With Ort’s
other eye he watched Caroline make her way slowly from another group to the far
end of the garden. Isaac had only to pass the six, come behind the bouncy
castle, a field of strewn toys, and he’d make it. Thankfully the boy had
revealed his secret, the children were captivated. The castle was another
matter: someone was bound to call to Isaac. No—he’d managed to skirt round it
on his hands and knees. He vanished for a moment, reappeared at the opposite
end. Things were going well. Now for the last stretch, the—
wrong with your fingers!”
Tommie. Shut up.”
blood went cold. Where had these brats
come from? How many minutes, how many hours would this cost him? Why couldn’t
they just let him go home?
brushed himself down, thrust his
hands behind his back. Nearby, an adult laughed a grating laugh. A party tune
started, a repetition of beats safe and bland. The sun came out from behind a
cloud. Ort nearly chipped a tooth coarsely urging the boy onward, wishing he’d
ditch the interlopers. But they’d not let him go. They tried to catch a glimpse
from behind, so he spun round, spun round again. The music loudened. Finally,
Isaac managed to distance himself from them. But Caroline—where was Caroline?
ache throbbed in Ort’s brain, a line of
sweat tickled his cheek. His eye twitched as images flashed in series, of
interrupted peace, of measured breathing exercises. The ones recommended by his
therapist before the change of name and change of place. He tried those
techniques now. He must’ve forgotten how to do it because it didn’t work. There
was that laugh again. The inane drum and clap. His strained gaze fell on
someone who looked a lot like Mr. Addison, a man he’d never forgotten, a man
from before, with the same ridiculously smug and carefree grin.
last job! Damn it!” He reached for the
closest object. The stone whistled and cracked glass.
heads turned in unison toward Ort; they
seemed to look past him rather than at him. Then he understood, realised why
they’d all ignored him, why they’d not moved aside. Yes, it had been long since
he had been taken, longer than he could remember, and, yes, there had been
rumours about those who held greatest tenure in Othertown but had not retired
from rescuing. Few had ever got to that stage and mysterious circumstances
wrapped round those who did. More than the idiot smiles, the ignorance and
obliviousness of Caroline’s inner plight, this was what unhinged him. He threw
the pointless mask to the ground and grinned a thin-lipped grin. Could he
really be invisible?
he was aware of someone moving
near the boy. That Isaac had won over to the girl, that a wondering,
mischievous smile now grew on her pale face, was an inconsequential side-effect
of his rage. Before he lost his mind, he did think that her being able to see
him was sign enough that the old rook’s message was hers indeed. But he cared
nothing for all that now. They were black dots in the red. He had havoc to
raise, payback for a thousand intrusions.
started off harmless enough. He upended
a table, knocked a few bottles. Everyone froze stiff, even the kids bouncing on
the bouncy castle. Murmurs quickly developed into frightened accusations of a
ghostly overtaking. Well, he’d make the acts of a poltergeist look like cheap tricks;
he’d turn their pampered, untroubled lives upside down, bring the dark magic
twists of Othertown upon them. He clambered over fallen chairs to reach a
pearl-earringed woman, whispered what the worms said when they lowered the
coffins. Into another ear he breathed a line from a certain ebony book and the
listener fell away in a faint. Then he grabbed the baseball bat which they’d
used for the piñata and beat Addison’s shins with it.
burst out laughing. Isaac’s face
was a smeared picture of astonishment and worry.
a voice cried. It was her
mother, distraught, reproachful.
about that screeching made Ort
stop dead his onslaught. Coolly, he relinquished the bat. He found a champagne
bottle, drained it mockingly, smashed it against a wall. As he advanced toward
the unwitting mother with the jagged weapon, held it high to strike, a bearded
face replaced the made-up face. Caroline stopped laughing.
an ambulance!” someone shouted. “Call
of glass lodged in the flesh. Ort kept
striking, kept swiping. For his books and for the ones who would never be found.
By the time he stopped the man was neither smiling nor grimacing—when he
dropped the sharded bottle there was no mouth at all. Exhausted, he sat down
and reached into his back pocket. The wailing of sirens came to his addled
mind, followed by a cracking sound as someone smashed the back of his head with
something. He reeled in white agony at what he absurdly thought had been an
impressively lucky blow. There he lay for an interminable space, the taste of
blood in his mouth, the sound of fear music to his ears.
Isaac’s tearful voice was small
beside him. “Ort, no.”
sorry, kid.” He coughed. He slid Isaac
the black box with the red velvet wrapping. “Take this and run. It’s her
contract, her name letter… You’ve earned your name.”
passed. The garden dimmed. The sirens
silenced after a while, but the partyers still cried. He hoped by now
Beetlebrow and the new girl were out of harm’s way. With any luck they’d be at
the bridge which led to the forest and beyond that, the iron gates.
before he died, he heard a rook caw
Taylor is a Scottish writer with a background in wildlife
ecology. His stories are psychological in nature, dealing with outsiders and
the myriad ways humans can be harmful to each other and to the environment. He
reviews books on his YouTube channel Oldenword Books and he can be found on
Twitter as @Sepulchrave4.