Landon lightly gripped the pads on his thighs and tensed, awaiting the quarterback’s cadence.
“Blue twenty-two, blue twenty-two. Hut. . .hut—hut-hut!”
Landon bolted forward, positioning his arms to receive the ball against his belly. As the ball struck his gut, Landon clamped his arms down, squeezing his hands over the ends of the ball. He continued moving forward, lowering his head and shoulders for the charge. The offensive line did their work and opened a hole in the defense. Landon darted up the middle, running through the lane. The goal-posts came into view fifty yards away, and Landon raised his upper body for the run, cradling the football in his left arm. Sensing movement on his right flank—stomping, breathing, grabbing—Landon tucked the ball into his belly again and curled over it as he plummeted to earth.
“Oof!” he said as he struck the ground.
A body lay on top of him. Pads clicked as the tackler stood, but not before rapping Landon’s helmet and taunt-ing him. “You’re too slow, Landon Snow. I gotcha!”
Landon smiled despite himself. “Jake,” he muttered to the dirt beneath his face mask. “I’ll beat you next time.” He knew Jake from Cornhusk Trail Elementary School, where they had been classmates. Now Landon was at Winterwild Middle School, while Jake was across town at rival Tan-gleriver.
Landon had made the first down, and the next play had him running the same route again. This time, he would burst through all the way for a score, he thought. If the linemen did their job and he got a good running start—
“Hut. . .hut—hut-hut!”
Landon sprang ahead and lined up his arms for the ball. As his fingers encased the points of the ball, however, a very strange thing happened. Rather than jerseys and helmets crowding in front of him, the dark shapes of sev-eral animals appeared. Five bears on their hind legs stood facing away from him, lunging and pawing, apparently try-ing to keep some other animals at bay. Landon stopped, frozen in his tracks. He could only watch, his heart para-lyzed with fear, as a wolf leaped between two bears on the left. Then a panther came leaping around the right end. The wolf arrived first and knocked Landon flat on his back, where he lay staring at the sky. A big broad head ap-peared with a long muzzle and fuzzy, pointed ears.
“Icky—la boom bah!”
Landon became aware of something in his arms. The football, he thought with relief. At least he hadn’t fumbled. Except that the football felt sort of furry. And it was panting or snuffling and seeming to curl itself up as if it were trying to burrow into his stomach. It tickled. Landon would have giggled if he hadn’t been staring face mask to muzzle with a grinning, gloating wolf. The wolf narrowed its gleaming yellow eyes.
“Icky—la picky wicky!”
Its breathing came like the rasping of sandpaper.
“Uffa—la guffa wuffa!”
The furry creature against Landon’s belly clawed at him, and Landon reflexively flung it out from beneath the wolf. The creature yelped like a rubber squeeze toy. The wolf glanced at the rolling ball of fur and rose on its hind legs. Placing its forepaws on its hips, the wolf looked down at Landon.
Landon closed his eyes. This was too weird. When he opened his eyes, Jake Adams stood with his hands on his hips, leering at Landon. Jake’s big-shouldered form blocked the afternoon sun.
“What did you say?” asked Landon weakly. He was still trying to catch the wind that had been knocked out of him.
Jake leaned over, and the sun burst from behind him. Landon squinted.
“I said, ‘You’re too slow, Landon Snow.’ And, ‘I gotcha again!’ ”
“Oh,” Landon groaned. As Jake jogged off, Landon rolled his head to his right.
A few feet away, the football rested on the grass. Landon moaned again. The referee appeared over him, stooping and scowling. His black-and-white stripes sud-denly narrowed to points, and his face became long like a horse. Landon almost broke out laughing. He chomped on his mouth guard and muttered, “Zebra.” Then, maybe be-cause he felt like laughing, he said, “Hyena.”
“What’s that?” asked the zebra. “Are you all right?” Af-ter Landon blinked, he saw the ref again. He was waving his hand in a circular motion off to one side. “Coach! Player down here!”
Landon hardly remembered getting up or walking to the sidelines. He recalled Coach Huddle (yes, that was his name) patting his shoulder pads and asking him if he was all right and—what had happened out there? It was like he had hit a brick wall.
Not a brick wall, thought Landon. “Animals,” he mum-bled.
“What?” asked Coach Huddle.
“They were a bunch of animals out there, Coach,” Landon explained.
As his coach frowned at him and scratched his head, Landon thought he caught a glimpse of a black-haired go-rilla peering at him and flaring his nostrils. Then the go-rilla—er, his coach—turned and hollered, “Strasser! Get in there for Snow! Come on, hustle, hustle!”
The rest of the game went by in a blur. Landon wasn’t even sure of the final score—he was so distracted by the animals he’d seen. On the way home, the questions con-tinued from his father.
“So,” said Dad. “One minute you’re charging up the middle like there’s no tomorrow, and the next you’re stopped cold like your feet had turned to lead. So. . . ?”
Landon knew his dad wanted an answer, but he re-mained quiet. He was wondering about it himself.
They slowed to a stop at a red light, and Landon’s dad turned toward him. Landon stared straight ahead. Finally, his dad said, “So? What happened?”
Landon took a deep breath. The light changed, but still his father waited. “It’s green,” said Landon.
His father sighed. “And it was green for you on that last run, too.” He pressed the gas, and they moved forward. “No,” he said, glancing at Landon. “I’m not mad, but I am curious. And concerned, of course. Your mother will probably want to know why her son was pulled from the game.”
Landon always felt funny wearing his padded pants without the shoulder pads and jersey. He felt half-naked and bottom-heavy. When he looked into the mirror like this, he thought he resembled one of those mythological crea-tures—what were they called?—that were half man and half animal. The bottom half goat, Landon thought, like a faun. He looked like a scrawny-topped faun with thick, un-gainly legs.
“I saw animals,” he said. He didn’t add that they were big, dark, and scary animals, other than the referee. He didn’t know if he’d ever look at a referee’s uniform the same again.
“Hmm,” said Dad. Then with a slight smile, he added, “Well, you were playing the Tigers, you know.”
Landon grimaced. “I didn’t see any tigers,” he said. “I mean, not like this. These animals were. . .different.”
“Hmm,” said his father again. They turned onto their street, passed three houses, and then eased into the fourth driveway. “You weren’t on a field trip to the zoo to-day, were you?”
Landon groaned audibly.
“At least you didn’t suffer a concussion. I was glad to hear that much.” Landon’s father sighed with relief as he parked the car. “The trainer said he didn’t see any signs of physical trauma—other than the wind being knocked out of you.” Landon’s dad held the keys in midair as he turned to-ward Landon. “So, any other clues? Something you ate ear-lier today?”
Landon shook his head. “I don’t think so. It’s kind of hard
to explain, Dad.”
His dad nodded. “All right. Well, maybe you could ex-plain
it to your mother in more detail.” He raised his eyebrows.
“Maybe,” said Landon. He climbed out and retrieved his pads and helmet from the backseat. Or maybe, he thought, approaching the door, I’ll tell Holly in more detail. Because the truth was, he and his sister had been talking more and more about the possibilities that lay before them this weekend. And Landon wondered if he had just seen a vision that might be related somehow to the weekend’s events.
What was so significant about this weekend? Landon’s family was planning to visit Grandma and Grandpa Snow in Button Up, Minnesota. Which meant, of course, that Landon was hoping to sneak into the Button Up Library—the BUL—in the middle of the night, perhaps with Holly tagging along. This time, however, he would make her promise—cross her heart and hope to die—that she would not follow any slink-ing shadows into dark corners or down creepy stairways. At least not without Landon at her side with his trusty flashlight at the ready. Yes, Landon was anticipating another exciting midnight adventure at the end of the secret tunnel behind Grandpa Karl’s bookcase. . . .
By the time Landon had put his stinky uniform away and showered and finished eating dinner, during which his father apparently decided to not even mention the “animal incident” from the football game, it was already getting dark outside. The family was eating somewhat hurriedly and quietly, the only real discussion being about who was re-sponsible for getting the dishes loaded into the dishwasher (Holly) and how they wanted to be packed and on the road within the hour. They didn’t want to arrive in Button Up too late. Otherwise, Grandma Alice was prone to worry and complain of a stomach ulcer.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” Landon whispered to Holly as he handed her his empty plate, which she promptly slid into the rack.
“What?” She plunked in the silverware, filled the soap cup, raised the door, and clicked the switch. The machine began to whir and swish.
“Um. . . ,” Landon started but then waited for his mom and dad and Bridget to leave the kitchen. They had all converged here for seemingly no reason and bumped into each other, bouncing away to different doorways like bil-liard balls retreating to their pockets.
“I saw animals today!” The dishwasher had dropped from a loud whirring swish to a quiet hum and swish just as Landon had spoken. “I saw animals,” he repeated more softly. “A panther, wolf, zebra, gorilla, and bears. Lots of bears.”
Holly stared at him while mindlessly wiping her hands on her sweater. “Bears,” she said. “And a gorilla?” She made a face. “What do you think it means?”
Landon grinned. “That’s what I want to find out.” He left Holly standing there, happy in their shared confidence. What could it possibly mean? Seeing animals at a football game. . .
Time to pack for the big trip to Button Up. The sooner he was ready, the sooner they could be headed north.
As Landon stuffed his duffel bag, his mind replayed the weird images from the football game. Landon paused, holding a pair of rolled-up socks, as he remembered the bundle of fur he’d been “holding” when the wolf tackled him. It wasn’t a cat; he was quite sure. It had seemed rather light and springy, though. Was it some sort of ro-dent, perhaps? A rabbit or a squirrel? No, it was different from those, too. Landon smiled and shook his head as he noticed the socks in his hand. He threw them into the bag. It was a football, you dummy.
Landon jumped. His mother had just disappeared from his doorway when she popped back in again. “By the way, how did your game go? Did you win?”
“It went okay,” said Landon.
His mother raised her eyebrows as if to say, “And. . . ?”
“I’ve got to finish packing,” said Landon evasively.
“That’s right. We gotta get on the road, Snows.” Her voice trailed down the hallway. “Let’s load up!”
Landon forced himself to concentrate. Did he have everything he’d need for the weekend trip? He rifled through his clothing and found the plastic case of his flash-light, heavy with fresh batteries. What else did he need? Oh yes, one more item. Closing his old, worn leather Bible, Landon lifted it from the desk and nestled it among his clothes inside his duffel bag. All he wondered now was which pages the Bible would turn to in Grandpa Karl’s study. For he knew that the underlined words he found on those pages would determine the course of his next ad-venture.
By the time Landon, Holly, Bridget, and their parents reached Grandma and Grandpa Snow’s house in Button Up, it was late and dark. With their tummies full from their quick dinner, even Landon and Holly didn’t stand a chance of staying awake for three hours in the car. As usual, Bridget had fallen asleep within ten minutes of leaving the driveway. When their father opened his door and let in a wave of chill air, Bridget bristled.
“What? What happened? Where am I?”
Landon smiled to himself. A trip just wasn’t complete without Bridget’s disoriented questions upon arrival. “Get out of the ca–ah–ahhhr, Bridget,” said Landon, breaking into a yawn. “We’re he–ee–eere.”
Landon couldn’t believe how tired he was. Even Grandma Alice’s delicious lemon bars—of which he ate two—washed down with milk for a bedtime treat didn’t wake him up. He only felt more tired. He and Holly eyed each other lazily across the table. Then she went upstairs without a word to him, offering only a halfhearted “good night” to everyone. Bridget had already gone up to bed and was assuredly out like a light.
With one creak toward the top, Holly’s steps receded up the stairs. The house fell quiet save for the soft tick-tock from the clock in the hall. “Well,” Grandpa Karl said finally. “I suppose it’s too late for a story tonight.” He cocked an eyebrow at Landon as if this were a question. Landon could only slowly shake his head.
“I’m tired, Grandpa. Maybe—ahh-ahhhhhh—excuse me. Tomorrow night?”
Grandpa Karl’s eyes lit up. He tugged at his gray beard thoughtfully. “Tomorrow night,” he said.
After saying thanks and good night, Landon shuffled to the study. He barely had the strength to brush his teeth and change into his pajamas. Thankfully, the sleeping bag had been laid out on the sofa for him, and he climbed will-ingly into it. One small part of him said he should check his Bible for mysteriously turning pages before he fell asleep, but that small part was quickly snuffed out by darkness and dreams.