Ch. 6: The long walk to freedom
Don’t stop no matter what!
“Bro,” Lu started as the adults left their breakfast corner. “That was close.” His eyes went googley and he let out a breath. “Man, your dad sure asks lots of questions.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Dec said. “He just wants us to be safe.”
“I know, my parents, too, I guess,” Lu thought about it for a second. “But I don’t want them to come with us tonight.”
“No, I know. Are we still really going to do it?” Dec asked.
“Of course,” Lu said, fairly certain that he was certain.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Dec said, not sounding too sure of himself.
He turned to look out the window. “Hey, there’s Li and Dan. Let’s go!”
In an astonishing act that unfortunately was not captured for prosperity by the castle’s security cameras (because the castle didn’t have security cameras), the boys brought their dishes and silverware and even glasses to the sink of the kitchen without anyone asking them to. They then thanked someone who looked like a chef and they made their way out the door.
They arrived in the hallway and were heading out back when they realized that the simplest way to get to the gardens was through the dining room. This normally wasn’t a problem, but it was full of wedding guests. It was a gauntlet of adults. It was going to be a long walk to freedom.
“What if we went that way?” Dec pointed to a direction past the door to the kitchen. As he pointed, Killian stepped out of the kitchen and saw them. He waved and it looked like he was deciding whether or not he had time to come towards the boys, then he decided and he made his way towards them.
The boys, out of politeness, waved back, but out of natural 9- and 11-year old instincts, turned the other way and Lu whispered, “Let’s go, pretend you didn’t see him.”
“But we just waved to him,” Dec said.
“I know, but,” he looked for some logic. “Maybe he’ll forget. I don’t want to talk with him,” he thought quickly and added, “I don’t want to talk to any adults. They’re everywhere!” He made a sweeping gesture with his hands rising towards the ceiling.
“He’s coming,” Dec said.
“We have to run, see you later,” Lu yelled down the hallway towards Killian.
“I just have one question,” Killian shouted as he sped up his pace.
“Sorry,” Dec caught onto Lu’s game and they had to decide which way to go.
“This way,” Lu said and pushed Dec towards the dining room.
“Bye,” Dec yelled down the hall and he took a step into the dining room.
The room was filled with clinking silverware and chatter. People weren’t dressed in suits and dresses, but in colorful headbands and shorts, running shoes and striped sweatpants.
“Hey Dec,” Dec heard near him as he walked. It was adult friend of his dad’s, but he didn’t really remember who.
“Oh, hi,” Dec said to the man, but kept going. “Lu, we have to keep going, don’t stop no matter what!” He whispered in Lu’s ear while pushing his back softly but forcefully.
“Hey, schatje!” came the cry of a woman’s voice that Lu recognized, but Dec didn’t.
“Just ignore it,” Dec whispered into Lu’s ear.
“Dude, it’s my mom,” Lu said and he went over to her table in a hurried walk. “I can’t ignore her,” he said aloud but then said only in his mind, ‘But wait, I usually do!’
“Waar ben je geweest? Ik heb je zo gemist!” she said and grabbed him and pulled him into her embrace. She was Dutch and only spoke Dutch to the boys, but we’ll spare the language lesson and keep it to English here.
“Hoi, mam,” Lu said, looking over his shoulder. In the door of the dining room stood Killian, but he was scanning the room and hadn’t seen them yet.
“You have to tell me everything you’ve been up to the past 24 hours,” she was genuinely excited to hear it all, but Lu was preoccupied with who might be tapping him on the shoulder any second if he saw them. “Have you been having fun with Dec and Dan? What did you guys do last night? I can’t believe we haven’t seen you the whole night. Did you go to bed at a decent hour?”
“Well, we did, but then I was hungry, so … ” Lu started explaining, but his mother cut him off.
“Did you find some yogurt? They have the best yogurt here. Did you put some granola on it?” she waited for his answer.
“Bro,” Dec whispered to Lu. “We kinda gotta go. Look,” he said and pointed to the door. Killian was looking right at them, smiling. Somehow a sweet smile from Killian was worse than a scowl from a killer. He wasn’t moving–yet.
“Mom, we gotta go, I’ll tell you everything later,” he said while nervously looking at the door.
“Who’s that man at the door?” she asked as she saw them looking back and forth. “Do you know him?”
Lu had to think fast and he did. “Yeah, that’s Killian. He, uh,” he searched for a believable scenario. “He wants to give us a tour of the castle, but we want to go play soccer.”
“Oh, OK,” she said. “Well, just tell him that.”
“OK, mom, I will,” Lu said. “So, we’re going to go now.”
“Oh, OK,” she said again, sorry to see her youngest son go. “Have you seen Li?”
“Yeah, we just did. He’s outside. That’s where we’re heading. We’re going to go play soccer outside with Li and Dan,” Lu looked over to Killian who was now making his way around tables and towards them. “See you later, mom.”
In a brief appearance of weakness, Lu looked at his mother’s plate and scanned what was left for anything worth picking at. “Didn’t you guys get fries?” Lu asked.
“No, do they have fries? For breakfast? Yuck,” mom said.
“They made them just for us, “Lu beamed with pride, but he was also preoccupied as Killian got closer. “Mom, we really have to go.”
“Hey, I heard Rich invited you to the ceremony, isn’t that nice?” mom asked.
“Yeah, that’s great, mom. We’ll see you there, OK?” Lu started walking away from the table.
“Bye Saskia,” Dec said and pushed Lu towards the direction of the door leading outdoors. “We’ll see you later.”
“OK, boys. Have fun playing soccer. Don’t forget to eat lunch,” she pleaded.
“OK, mom, I won’t,” Lu said as he sped up. Killian was just two tables away.
The boys sped up their pace and weaved in and around tables and waiters and people and rolling carts. Maybe weaving in and out of orange cones at soccer practice did have some practical value. They made it to the huge double door leading outside.
“We made it,” Dec said and they stopped and turned around. “Oh,” Dec started, “Killian’s talking to your mom.”
“Oh,” Lu said.
“Is that bad?”
“I don’t know,” Lu wondered aloud. “Well, I don’t know. I mean, what could he say. It’s not like he’s going to arrange with her that we do something with him later.”
“You mean like arrange that we go downstairs with him?” Dec said aloud what they both didn’t want to hear.
“Exactly,” Lu said as they stayed put in the doorway and watched Killian talking to Lu’s mom.
“Let’s go,” Dec said and tapped Lu on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” Lu said and took one last look. Just then, Killian looked up from talking with his mother and focused exactly in the direction of the door and his eyes met Lu’s at just the wrong moment. Killian smiled. Again.
Lu turned so quickly that he twisted his feet and fell to the floor at the top of the steps. His eyes were at the level of the top step and as he focused, he recognized shoes. He realized they were shoes that he knew, but it took him a second to register their owner. He exhaled as he figured it out. His brother.
“Hey bro,” Li said to his little brother. Lu looked up and saw his brother’s shoes, then ankles, then legs, then shirt then face and his perfectly coiffed hair.
In what was probably only a few seconds, it seemed to Lu that everything was going in slow motion. It looked like his brother’s lips were moving, but he couldn’t focus on what he was saying. Dan was also standing next to Li and Lu saw him and looked at him, but couldn’t speak. Maybe he fell on the ground too hard. Had he hit his head?
At that moment, Lu didn’t want to hear any more about castles or secrets or anything involving parents or grown ups in general. No more word games, no more questions. No more riddles and no more new people. He didn’t even want fries or yogurt. He just wanted one thing and it didn’t involve anyone but the four boys who were there on top of the grand stone staircase of the Markree Castle.
Lu blinked as he tried to focus and it looked like Li was now talking to Dec and pointing at Lu. Lu looked at Dec who looked at him and he had a look of concern on his face. Dec also spoke, but no sound came out. Maybe this was what it was like to have a concussion. He heard about them from American football games, but didn’t know what it meant.
In the next instant, he heard sounds again and movement started to speed up back to regular speed. He heard voices, but they were still a little slurred. He looked back to his brother and then the words started to make sense.
But what his brother said was exactly what he wanted to hear and that meant that it must have been a dream because his brother almost never said exactly what he wanted to hear. He blinked again and tried to focus. The words came through loud and clear and they were the words he longed for from his state of delirium.
“Dude, soccer. Me and Dan play against you and Dec,” Li said and he looked at Lu more closely. “Didn’t you hear me the first time? Are you out of it? Dude, wake up. We have the soccer ball and it’s pumped up. The grass is awesome, it’s huge and, oh,” his face lit up, “we can play soccer on gravestones. Is that cool or what?” He was genuine and friendly, excited and ready to go.
Lu’s response came from deep in his subconscious, from a place that he accessed on a regular basis, but one that didn’t often live to see the light of day, to make it out into the world as a spoken word. The words came out of dazed and hazed Lu as if from another body, from another being living inside of him. In fact, the thought came from what he heard so often that it lived inside of him, words that he didn’t even fully understand, but knew them when he needed to because the concepts were engraved into his young brain. Just three little words escaped Lu’s mouth and entered into the world.
“Dan and I,” Lu said.
Li’s eyes scrunched up and he shook his head as he truly had no idea what his little brother was talking about. He looked at Lu as if Lu was the confused one.
“Dan and I,” Lu repeated. “You said ‘Me and Dan’ but it’s Dan and I.”
There was a moment in time when Li knew what Lu was talking about, but he was shocked that Lu dared bring up such a thing out here in adventure land, away from classrooms and school books, homework and crossword puzzles–away from grammatically correct parents and grandparents.
Before Li could say something witty or hurl a clever comeback at his pronoun processing little brother, he couldn’t help but smile. ‘Lu’s throwing grandpa grenades at me!’ he thought. He hid that smile even more quickly than it came about, but it had made a brief cameo, there was no denying it.
If only for that fraction of a second that shines through, just a sliver of time when grandpa’s grammar lessons poke through the noise of the day and pop their smiling heads through the clouds only to be quickly covered up by the rolling storms of life and regular 11-year old existence, even that sliver of a memory made it all worth it to be a grandfather.
Li knew Lu was right and only the smile gave away that knowledge. Even Lu didn’t notice the smile or understand its meaning. But it was there. Lu didn’t know why he said it, but now deeply enjoyed the fact that he was right. In the constant hand-to-hand ground warfare that was also known as brotherhood, he quickly thanked grandpa for the quick ammunition that he got in on his brother. One tiny victory, even if something as horrendous and embarrassing as knowing grammar rules, counts as victory.
Li was a strategic and cunning warrior and he knew that if he fought this battle, he would lose. The best plan of attack here was just to admit defeat and move on.
“Bro, are you coming or what?” Li said as Lu remained motionless, at complete peace with the world, and grammatically correct.