The Skull of Truth
Charlie Eggleston looked at the frog he held cupped in his hands. “Want to go home now?” he asked gently.
The frog did not answer, which was not really a surprise.
Charlie knelt and opened his hands anyway. The frog took three long leaps and splashed into Tucker’s Swamp, disappearing under a mat of algae.
Wiping his hands against his jeans, Charlie stood and took a deep breath. He loved the smell of this place—loved everything about it, for that matter: the great willows with their drooping branches and trunks so big his arms could hardly reach halfway around them; the little paths—sometimes strips of dry ground, sometimes no more than a line of squishy hummocks; most of all the sense of magic that hovered over it, the feeling that something deep and strange here had resisted being civilized.
A lump of anger lodged itself halfway between his stomach and his throat. He couldn’t believe Mark Evans’s father was going to drain the swamp and turn it into an “industrial park.” He snorted at the words. People always accused him of lying, but the very phrase “industrial park” was a whopper bigger than any he had ever told. How could something that was going to be a collection of factories be called a park? It was a…
He frowned. What was that word Mr. Diogen had taught them last week? Something about cows or bulls. Not the swear word for baloney. Something else.
He spent a moment trying to bring the word to the top of his mind, then shrugged, knowing his brain would hand it to him sooner or later. Or maybe his dad would know. As a butcher, he knew lots of animal words.
Glancing around, Charlie wondered if it was safe to leave yet. His mother would be angry if he didn’t get home soon. But if he left before Mark and his gang had given up waiting for him, he might never get home at all.
A mosquito began drilling a hole in his neck. He slapped at it. When he brought his hand away from his neck the insect’s flimsy body lay crushed in his palm, its head and thread-thin legs extending from the small blot of Charlie’s own blood that marked where its abdomen had been.
“Little vampire,” muttered Charlie, reminding himself that he didn’t actually love everything about the swamp.
He turned to leave, stirring up a small cloud of yellow butterflies as he pushed his way through a patch of ferns. A watersnake slithered off the path and into a murky pool. Life seemed to pulse all around him, and the idea that they were going to drain the swamp made him sick all over again.
That was why he had made up the story that got him in so much trouble with Mark today: to protect the swamp. Besides, he told himself, just because I don’t have the facts to prove it doesn’t mean what I said wasn’t true. I bet it really is.
He was still trying to justify the story as he left the swamp. The effort distracted him—which turned out to be dangerous, since it let Mark and his gang catch him unaware. Charlie was dragging his bike from the brushpile where he had hidden it when he heard a familiar voice sneer, “Well look here: it’s Charlie Eggleston, the king of the liars.”
A knot of dread formed in Charlie’s stomach. Mark and his cronies were dangerous. If he didn’t get away, they were apt to turn him into something resembling road kill.
He swung his leg over his bike and began to pedal.
One of Mark’s friends appeared ahead of him.
Charlie swerved to the right to avoid him, but found his path blocked by another of Mark’s pals.
“Get him!” cried Mark—rather unnecessarily, thought Charlie, since the gang was already working pretty hard at doing just that.
Charlie spun his bike around and headed straight for the swamp. Shouting and screaming, the others charged after him. Under normal circumstances they would probably have caught him. But with fear as his fuel, Charlie was actually able to outdistance them, if only by a few feet. At the edge of the swamp he cast aside his bike and plunged in, splashing through the murky water, not caring where the paths were, what he stepped in, whether or not he was going to ruin his sneakers. The terror was on him, and he had to get away. He could hear Mark and the others splashing in behind him, but dared not look back to see how close they were.
Heart pounding, he raced through water that reached past his knees. He knew his mother was going to be furious when she saw his swamp-soaked pants, and even as he fled disaster from behind some small part of his mind was already inventing an alibi to offer when he got home.
The voices began to fade behind him. Mark’s shout “I’ll teach you to lie about my father, you snot-faced baby!” were the last words Charlie could actually make out.
He was gasping now, and the breath burned in his lungs. Looking around, he discovered he had entered a part of the swamp he had never seen before. He felt a little shiver of fear, until he realized that since he had abandoned all the regular paths he should be someplace new. The swamp wasn’t that big, so if he kept going he would find his way out sooner or later—though if it was later he would probably be in additional trouble at home for not showing up in time for supper. His father was big on having the whole family sit down together.
He slogged on, hoping his daydreams about weird creatures living in the swamp were really only fantasies after all, and that he wouldn’t find anything too big or strange before he made his way out again.
The swamp turned out to be bigger than he had realized. Even so, Charlie didn’t begin to panic until he noticed the sun getting low in the sky. The orange and pink that smeared across the horizon were spectacular, but their awesome beauty announced a fast approaching darkness, and he had no desire to be wading through the swamp once that darkness arrived.
A flutter of wings made Charlie look up. Was it dark enough for bats to be out yet? He shivered, and moved on.
Somewhere to his right he heard the hoot of an owl. When he turned to see if he could spot the bird, he noticed a strip of dry land. Maybe it led out of here!
Filled with new hope, he squished toward it.
The swarms of mosquitoes were thicker now, and he was constantly slapping at his neck and arms. The evening chill had settled, and his wet legs were freezing. What a relief it was to see the glow of lights ahead! He began to hurry along the path.
In another few hundred yards he found himself at the edge of the swamp. He crossed a grassy area to a road and looked around expectantly. The chill that shivered through him this time had nothing to do with the dropping temperature. Where was he? He had been all the way around the swamp dozens of times, and had no recollection of ever seeing this spot.
Much as he dreaded what his parents would say, Charlie decided he had better try to call home and see if they would come get him. That decision made, he set off along the road to his left, where the lights seemed closest.
Mist began to curl around his feet. Wisps of it rose before him, moving like beckoning fingers.
Charlie shivered and walked on.
A moment later he found himself standing in front of a store he had never seen before. That wouldn’t have bothered him if the store had looked brand new. But this store looked old, very old indeed, and that was a little frightening.
Even so, the place was so fascinating that he couldn’t resist stepping up to look through its window. That window, divided by thin strips of wood into many small panes of glass, curved out from the front of the store. Printed on it in old-fashioned lettering were the words:
ELIVES’ MAGIC SUPPLIES
S.H. ELIVES, PROP.
A small bell tinkled overhead as he stepped inside.
Charlie began to smile. The shop was filled—crammed, really—with great stuff. Chains of jewel-colored silk scarves draped gracefully from the ceiling. Every available surface—not just the tabletops and the countertops, but the walls and most of the floor as well—was cluttered with magician’s paraphernalia. To his right he saw a whole wallful of cages. Some held doves and rabbits—for pulling out of hats he assumed. But the majority of the cages held a weird assortment of lizards, toads, snakes, and bats.
Charlie wondered briefly if this Elives guy collected them from the swamp, or if they were some kind of special animals.
Straight ahead was a large wooden box for sawing people in half. Charlie chuckled. It would be fun to try that on Mark Evans… especially if it didn’t work.
To his left a glass counter held big decks of cards, Chinese rings, little books that hinted at ancient secrets, and a human skull labeled “The Skull of Truth.”
Cool, thought Charlie.
At the back of the shop stretched a long counter made of dark wood. It had a wonderfully detailed dragon carved on the front.
On top of the counter sat an old fashioned brass cash register.
On top of the cash register sat a stuffed owl.
At least, Charlie thought it was stuffed—until it turned toward him, blinked, and then uttered a series of low hoots.
Behind the counter was a doorway covered by a beaded curtain. From beyond that curtain came a voice that reminded Charlie of the wind whispering through the willow trees in the swamp. “Peace, Uwila. He can wait while I finish this spell.”
“It’s all right!” shouted Charlie. “I’m in no hurry. I just—”
His words were cut off by a small explosion at the back of the shop. A cloud of sour-smelling green smoke drifted through the beaded curtain, accompanied by the sound of muttered cursing.
“Do you need help?” called Charlie.
“Don’t be silly! I’ll be out in a moment.”
Charlie shrugged. The longer the man waited the better. He only had a dollar or two in his pocket, almost certainly not enough to buy anything here, and he was afraid the owner would throw him out when he realized that he was just looking, not buying—especially if he also noticed Charlie was dripping muddy water on the floor.
He wandered over to the display counter and stared at the skull. The lower jaw was missing, which made it look even more spooky. It gave him a delicious shiver to think this bony thing had once been inside the head of a living person.
He kneeled to look at it more closely. “Who were you?” he whispered.
He jumped back from the case as he felt a kind of buzzing in his brain. He shook his head to clear it, and stared at the skull nervously.
“Like that, do you?” asked a scratchy voice close to his ear.
Charlie jumped again. Turning, he found himself face to face with a man no taller than himself, and so old that the wrinkles in his walnut-colored skin probably qualified as historic landmarks. He had dark, astonishing eyes, and white hair that hung loosely about his shoulders. Charlie noticed a smudge of green above one bushy white eyebrow.
“I said: `Like that, do you?’” repeated the old man.
The old man—Mr. Elives, he supposed—gave him a sly grin. “Well, it’s not for sale. Now, what are you here for?”
Charlie hesitated, then said, “Do you have a phone I could use?”
The old man shook his head. “I don’t have any use for such things.”
“Not even a pay phone?”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “You heard me the first time. Now why are you here? No one comes into this shop by accident. No one comes here to use a pay phone. No one comes here just to `look around.’ What do you need, boy?”
“Do you have a spell for getting rid of bullies?”
“Not one that you can afford,” said the old man, as if he really did have one.
Charlie smiled. He appreciated that kind of answer—though he would have appreciated the spell even more. “Then I guess I don’t need anything,” he said. “Though I might buy that skull if I could afford it. Can I take a closer look at it?”
“Bend down and put your face to the glass. You’ll see everything you need to see.”
Startled by the old man’s rudeness, Charlie was trying to decide whether to make some smart comment in response when they heard another explosion from the back of the shop.
“Fraxit,” muttered the old man. Moving faster than Charlie would have thought possible, he turned and hurried back through the beaded curtain.
Charlie stood for a moment, wondering if he should go back to see if he could help the old man, despite how cranky he was. Instead, he found himself doing just as the shopkeeper had suggested, pressing his face to the glass to take a closer look at the skull.
He shivered. The skull’s eye sockets, so big they looked as though you could tuck a duck’s egg into each of them, seemed to stare directly into his. Charlie felt something stir inside him, and recognized it as a deep desire to possess the skull. Maybe he could use the thing when his mother got on him about the way he made up stories. The next time she moaned “Why can’t you tell the truth, Charlie?” (as she did nearly every day) he would hold up the skull and say, “This is the Skull of Truth. Do you want me to end up like him?”
He smiled. That was a good idea.
Then he did something that astonished him. For though he lied constantly, Charlie Eggleston had never stolen anything in his life, never even had the desire to do so. It was almost as if someone else’s legs were carrying him behind the counter, someone else’s hands sliding open the unlocked wooden door, someone else’s fingers reaching into the glass case to lift the skull from the polished wooden base on which it was mounted.
What am I doing? thought Charlie in horror as he drew the grisly item out of the case. His horror increased tenfold when he heard the rustle of beads that signaled the old man coming back into the room.
How could he possibly explain what he was doing? He would be arrested for shoplifting!
Looking around wildly, Charlie spotted a door at the side of the shop. Spurred by fear, he bolted for it, tore it open, and shot through into the darkness.
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