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Guest art by Ramon Sierra (Cocor)
Episode 10: Magical Crab
As the mysterious orange balls hanging from the tree outside Hana’s house were beginning to concern her, Hana invited James – and James’ baseball bat – over to her place to help her inspect them. Together they looked up at the branches, leaves and orange balls that hung far above them.
‘And you said they’re growing there?’ James asked as he squinted up at the orange balls. The sun was breaking through the cracks between the leaves, hampering his vision.
‘No, not growing,’ Hana once again explained, for what felt like the tenth time that day. ‘They’re attached to the branches with green thread. Someone must’ve put them there, but I can’t figure out why or how. I first noticed them the day we fought the lizard in the park. I was sort of hoping you could knock one down so we could check it out.’
James slapped the palm of his hand with the weight of his trusty baseball bat.
‘We’ll see what I can do,’ he said with experience and confidence in his voice. ‘Do you still have those rocks I gave you?’
Hana nodded but made no motion to retrieve them.
‘Can you get one?’ he asked.
Hana breathed in, paused, and then stepped towards James with her head lowered. She breathed out and felt around her neck for a string, which, once found, she pulled up and out from beneath her jacket. Tied to the string was one of the stones that James had given her. Hana sighed in quiet embarrassment.
‘Er, we’ll find another one,’ James said, and he quickly cast his gaze on the row of rocks that lined the path they were standing on.
Hana tucked her homemade necklace back under her jacket and looked with him. Together they found a white rock that was about the size and shape of a baseball.
Ever since her family had unknowingly caught her with a dandruff umbrella on a particularly rainy day, Hana made a point of never utilising her powers in open areas near her house. Otherwise she would have scraped up a dandruff rock for James in a heartbeat.
‘Ready?’ she asked, herself ready to pitch the white rock to James’ aluminum bat.
‘Always,’ James replied.
Hana threw the rock as a fastball and James sent it flying even faster, so fast that it not only took down one of the orange balls but a piece of the branch it was hanging from. Hana resisted the urge to clap and James resisted the urge to strike a cool pose. Instead they walked over to the fallen ball so they could prod and inspect it.
The orange ball was completely smooth except for a hairline crack that ran along its side. From the crack came the line of green thread that had tied the ball to the tree like a Christmas ornament. Hana nudged the ball with her foot, causing it to roll down from the tuft of grass it was perched on. The ball settled by James’ feet and he poked it with the tip of his baseball bat. Nothing happened.
‘I guess this is the part where I pick it up,’ he said, and this time Hana resisted the urge to nod. Instead she watched with some nervousness as James bent down and wrapped his hand around the stray bauble.
‘Ow!’ he suddenly cried out, and Hana immediately bent down in a rush of worry to see what was wrong.
‘Just kidding,’ he said with a smirk.
Hana narrowed her eyes at him as he stood up with the ball held loosely between his thumb and fingers.
‘That’s not funny,’ she said, but her curiosity for the ball won over her other emotions. She stood up and stared at it.
‘I wonder if there’s going to be some kind of magical crab or something inside,’ James said as he turned the ball over in his hand. ‘I guess there’s only one way to find out.’
He then held the ball out to Hana. ‘There,’ he said. ‘I picked it up, so you get to open it.’
‘You get to open it since you’re being a jerk and pretended you got hurt,’ Hana said with her arms crossed. ‘Okay?’
‘Okay,’ James said, with the hint of an apology mixed into the word. He let go of his baseball bat and tried pulling apart the ball with both of his hands; all he ended up doing was strain himself, and soon gave up with a chorus of panting.
‘Here,’ he said, again holding the ball out to Hana.
‘Why don’t you try pulling on the string?’ Hana suggested, referencing the green thread.
James figured he might as well try, even though that seemed like the easiest thing to do. He pulled the string and the ball fell apart in twin halves. Sitting in the middle of the halves, its legs tickling the palm of his hand, was a small and possibly magical crab. It looked at both James and Hana with googly eyes, its pupils capable of looking at two different objects in two different places at once.
‘I . . . guess I was right?’ said James uncertainly.
Hana poked the crab’s exoskeleton and the creature shivered with what appeared to be ticklishness.
‘It doesn’t look very dangerous,’ she said. ‘Except for those two sharp claws, anyway. I guess we should try to keep our fingers away from it.’
James, now worried about the safety of his fingers, bent down and lowered the crab onto the grass before them. The crab walked gently off the palm of his hand and gazed up at the giants that were James and Hana.
‘What were you doing trapped inside a ball on a tree, little guy?’ James asked it.
The crab clicked its claws and continued to stare at them in response.
‘If only it had index cards,’ Hana said. ‘I don’t think we were taught Crab well enough in school to understand what it’s saying.’
‘Maybe it’s something like Morse code,’ James suggested. ‘One click for “I come in peace, please don’t eat me” and two clicks for “I’m a spy sent by the Caton army”.’
‘Well, you were right about it being a crab, though there’s no way of telling how magical it is just yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were able to translate for it as well.’
James looked at her, hoping she was joking.
‘Yes, I’m joking,’ she said, and they refocused their attention on the crab.
The crab did not seem to want to take its beady, stalk-y eyes off them. When it did move its eyes, there was a strange, light whirring sound, like that of a security camera focusing on a point of interest. With all of its clicks and whirs, the orange ball crab was the noisiest crab that either of them had ever encountered.
‘If only it could talk,’ Hana said. ‘I mean, cats can talk, so why not crabs? Look at its little mouth.’
‘I’m looking. It’s kind of gross-looking.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. I think we should take it to Henri to see what he thinks about it.’
‘He’ll probably just think it’s a gross mouth as well. I don’t see how that’ll solve anything.’
Hana sighed. ‘That’s not what I’m talking about, James. We need to figure out what this crab was doing up in that tree.’
‘In that case, I’m still not sure Henri will be able to help. I think we should take it to someone who can actually understand sea creatures.’
The imaginary light bulb that James had just placed over Hana’s head suddenly turned on.
‘The way king!’ Hana exclaimed. ‘He’ll know what the crab is saying. He seems to understand lobsters well enough, anyway.’
James took up the broken halves of the crab’s orange ball and fitted the crab back inside them.
‘Let’s go see the deus ex catina,’ he said.
The way king was the feline king of an alleyway that had no convenient entrance and did not actually lead anywhere, and his sole servant was a lobster that communicated with a seemingly endless assortment of index cards. Despite this, the way king knew an awful lot about the city, always keeping his paw on the pulse of the local absurdities. It was the way king who had helped Hana save Henri when he was kidnapped by fanatical lobsters, and it was the way king who had revealed the origin of her powers. It was also the way king – along with Daniel Druff – who had helped Hana defeat the giant raisin.
In the culture of cats, weight reflects knowledge, and the way king was the fattest cat Hana and James had ever seen. Once he had grown so fat that they had to beat it out of him, slimming him down from an impossible wall of flub to a more agreeable fifteen pounds.
It did not take long for the way king to bring that fifteen back up to thirty – still quite reasonable, all things considered –, and it was at this gluttonous size that Hana and James found him when they brought him the crab.
‘You’re looking very good, Mr. Way King,’ Hana said, bowing to the grotesquely overweight tabby cat.
‘Your compliments are a wonder for my fur,’ the way king replied in thanks, his voice as deep as thunder and his body jiggling contentedly at the compliment. ‘Now, what brings you to my humble alleyway? Has another friend been lobsternapped?’
At this last question he seemed to lean forward in his throne, which was really just a pink chair.
‘No, unless you know something we don’t,’ Hana said.
‘I won’t lie to you, dear Hana – I know many, many, many things that you don’t. But one of your friends being kidnapped is not one of them. Please set your fears to rest.’
Hana nodded. There was a loud splash behind the way king and Hana and James could make out the lobster swimming in its saltwater tank near the end of the alley.
Getting to the alley again had been a minor ordeal. They had to ambush Gorey in the forest to find out where the lobster was, as the lobster was the only creature capable of leading people to the alley. It did not seem to matter how well they retraced their steps – if they went to the alley without the lobster, there would be nothing there; not a trace of fur nor puddle of water. So Gorey let them know that the lobster would be out getting groceries for the way king at a nearby Very Convenience Variety Mart, and Hana and James ambushed the crustacean as soon as it exited the store, carrying a plastic bag in a wicker basket on its back. The lobster begged for its life with a short series of cards: PLEASE, NO and STOP being particularly notable for their use of red ink. Then the lobster opened its beady, fearful eyes and recognised its old friends, at which point it gladly took them back with it to the way king.
The way king looked at James, and more specifically he looked at the orange ball in James’ hand.
‘And what is this?’ the way king asked.
‘It’s why we’re here,’ Hana explained. ‘There are a lot of these things hanging from a tree at my house. James finally knocked one down today and we . . . we found a crab inside. A very strange crab.’
‘May I eat this crab?’ the way king asked.
‘What? No! We were hoping you could talk to it!’
‘I do apologise, dear Hana – I meant see. I’d like to see the crab.’
James stepped forward, letting the tips of his shoes touch the line of tape that separated the way king from his audience. He pulled open the halves of the orange ball, revealing the crab, its eyes blinking at the sudden exposure to the sun. The crab clicked its claws a few times as it looked around the closed-off alley.
‘This is not a crab,’ the way king said without hesitation. ‘It is a robot.’
‘Pardon?’ James asked, as if he had misheard the two very simple sentences.
Hana tried to clean out her ears with her fingers, expecting she had misheard the way king’s statements as well.
‘I know crabs very well,’ the way king told them, ‘having eaten – I mean, having met them – many times. They are a flamboyant and talkative lot. This crab, on the other hand, is a robot. Judging by the whirring sound it makes when its stalks twist around, and by the way it blinks when focusing and refocusing on an object, I’d say it’s a recording device of some sort. Have you checked it for a manufacturer’s stamp?’
‘Um.’ James turned the crab upside-down and looked at its belly. There was a MADE IN BRUSSEL’S SECRET LABORATORY sticker on it.
‘Huh,’ he said. ‘I wonder if that means anything.’
‘What?’ Hana asked. She peered over his arm to look at the crab’s exposed stomach, and gasped when she saw the sticker.
‘As we are unsure of just how villainous this crab is, and as it seems to be recording everything in my kingdom, I feel it would be most advisable to dispose of it,’ decreed the way king.
‘Should I whack it with my bat?’ James asked.
‘Yes, but not here. I try to maintain a spotless alleyway.’
‘I wonder why Brussel put this crab thing in an orange ball and tied it to my tree,’ Hana thought aloud. ‘Could it have something to do with the lizard and the dandruff bear? Has he been spying on me this whole time, learning how to make things out of dandruff by watching me?’
‘Until I can look into it more, that sounds like the most realistic hypothesis,’ the way king said in its big, booming voice. ‘I have imparted as much knowledge as I personally can. Now, if you would not mind taking your leave, the lobster is to hose down my royal fur.’
Hana and James bowed respectfully to the way king before climbing up the rope that led out of the alleyway kingdom. As they found their bearings on the rooftop, the sound of a hose squeaking on and blasting water could be heard below. This was followed by the sound of a wet and wailing cat. Out of respect for the way king, Hana and James decided not to peer back down the alley, despite how loud the relentless cat cries became.
From the roof of the building that contained the alleyway, they walked onto a conjoining hill that allowed them to slide down onto a pavement parking place. They found James’ bicycle leaning against the side of the building.
‘Are you going to smash the crab now, James?’ Hana asked. Even though the crab was actually a Brussel-branded robot, Hana felt guilty about destroying something that – so far, at least – had not brought any harm to anyone.
James seemed to note this concern in her voice and tried to think of an alternative. As the act of thinking was a very time-consuming process for James, he stood like a statue while Hana waited in impatient confusion.
‘How about we take it to the river?’ James suddenly suggested, his unexpected springing to life startling Hana and making her jump a few centimetres into the air. ‘Crabs like water, I think.’
‘Y-yes, that sounds like a good idea,’ Hana said as she caught her breath from the scare. ‘I don’t think the river is too far from here.’
‘Rad,’ James said. ‘Let’s go throw the crab in it.’
He tossed the orange ball to Hana, freeing his hand so he could walk his bicycle to the sidewalk. Hana found a pocket to stick the ball into and climbed onto the bicycle after James, holding the seat beneath her for balance as James pushed off. They rode downhill, dodging fire hydrants and the elderly as they soared to the river. James said something to Hana and grinned but the rush of wind pulled the sound from her ears.
The bicycle’s front wheel caught a deep crack in the cement when James’ turned onto another street. Hana, James, and James’ bicycle all crashed messily onto the sidewalk before and after them.
Hana spent the next minute staring up at the wispy white clouds that striped the sky. The clouds seemed to be forming letters but the words never came together. She wondered if they were trying to tell her something.
She then sat up with her legs stretched out in front of her. Her left knee was skinned, a sharply painful splotch of red taking over the spot of her that had once been the most tanned with dirt. She resisted the urge to touch it and instead stared at her damaged leg sulkily.
James lay completely still just beyond her, his bicycle leaning awkwardly and upside-down against the storefront beside him. One of the tires was spinning and Hana could not tell if it was the front or back.
‘Are you all right?’ a blonde businesswoman asked as she stepped around their bodies to get by.
‘We’re totally fine,’ Hana responded in a slight daze.
The businesswoman looked from Hana and her skinned knee to the lifeless form of James and his upside-down bicycle. She then turned back to Hana, nodded and continued on her way.
James sprung to life and inspected his body for missing limbs, becoming content when he saw that all of his arms and legs were still in their right places. He helped Hana up from the hot sidewalk, making a concerned face at the sight of her knee.
‘We’ll just have to not do that ever again,’ he said.
He went to right his bicycle as Hana limped after him.
‘I’m fine too, thanks,’ she said under her breath. She then eyed the bicycle warily as James patted dirt from the seat. ‘I don’t think I’m getting back on that.’
James looked at his bicycle in some disappointment. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘We’ll walk you home so you can wash your knee.’
‘No, we’ll go to your place. My parents would never let me hang out with you again if I walked in like this.’
Hana then remembered that they were supposed to be bringing the crab to the river and her hand automatically went to her pocket. It was completely flat.
‘Uh oh,’ she said, sticking her hands in both of her pockets and feeling the emptiness in each.
Her eyes fell upon every inch of the crash site but the crab was nowhere to be seen.
‘I’m guessing the crab is gone,’ James said.
Ignoring the pain in her knee, Hana bent down and peered under a mailbox. She could just make out the silhouettes of twin halves of a ball.
‘Looks like it,’ she said, sighing. ‘Hopefully the way king won’t be too upset about us completely failing him.’
‘It could’ve exploded when we crashed the bike,’ James said optimistically.
‘We’ll keep telling ourselves that until we believe it,’ Hana said. ‘That way, if the way king asks us about it, it won’t sound like we’re lying.’
James nodded. They walked – and limped – to his place.
James practiced chord changes on his guitar while Hana washed her knee in the washroom. He could hear the water splashing on her bloodied skin from his room, and with each splash he tried to think of a different way of apologising for the bike crash. He considered writing a song for her, but knew he would be too embarrassed to actually play it. He considered buying a gift, but knew he did not have enough money for anything worthwhile. He did, however, have enough money for a half hour of karaoke, so he decided that he would promise Hana that he would take her.
He strummed out a simple tune as Hana appeared in the doorway of his room, a large Band-Aid covering most of her knee.
‘That’s a bit better,’ she said. ‘Where’s your mother?’
‘She’s downtown doing surveys.’
James’ mother held a variety of jobs and seemed to be doing a different one every day: one day she would be the substitute teacher for a school for dogs and the next day she would be the lifeguard at a faraway beach.
‘Do you think she’d mind if I made a sandwich?’
‘As long as it’s not made of hundred dollar bills.’
Hana looked around James’ room from the doorway, noticing new posters for The Runners and Guildenstern Tropic. Guildenstern Tropic did not look anything like how she had pictured him, especially as he was supposed to have died many years ago: instead of long, grey hair, he had short and black hair, and instead of being around two-hundred years old, he looked more like he was twenty. The way he held his guitar made it look like he was throwing a lightning bolt down from the heavens.
‘That’s a pretty cool poster,’ she said, nodding her head towards the poster of Guildenstern.
‘Thanks. It came with the fan club package.’
Hana smiled and left to make her sandwich – turkey in a forest of lettuce. She sat down with it on the back porch and James joined her, though only after prying his guitar from his hands. Together they sat and stared out at James’ modest backyard, which was basically a glorified tomato garden with a hammock. A few mosquitoes hung out with them as well, but Hana and James did not remember inviting them.
James prodded Hana’s Band-Aid and she winced.
‘Since I nearly killed you, I’m going to take you out to karaoke,’ he told her.
Hana turned away and covered her face.
‘Is that okay?’ He was beginning to think he had picked the wrong way to apologise; the air seemed to grow completely still. A mosquito landed on his arm, took a deep drink and flew away.
‘Yeah, that’s okay,’ she then said, wiping something away from her face.
James felt his heart settle and rested his hand on her shoulder. Then he slapped a mosquito that had landed on his elbow, making a face as he did so.
High above them, from the branches of the backyard’s tallest tree, came a robotic whirring.
To Be Continued In Episode Eleven: Accidental Music