Chapter 14:

Chapter Fourteen

Henry Rider: Clown Hunter

Chapter Fourteen

The masked man froze.

“This isn’t real!” I said again.

“What are you talking about?” Jade asked from Ethan’s bedside. “Of course it’s real!”

I looked at her and shook my head. “Jade left five minutes ago. You’re not real either.”

“Stop this nonsense!” snapped Grandpa Teddy. “If this isn’t real, then what’s happening?”

The answer came to me in an instant. “I’m still in Feverdream Field. The fumes. All of this is just a hallucination.”

“Nonsense!” he said again.

I ignored him.

“This isn’t real,” I stepped up so close that the masked man’s rubber nose almost poked me in the eye. “So go away.”

He didn’t move.

“I said go away!”

He raised his hands and lunged for my throat. I reacted the way McGus had trained me to, spinning around with my hand held out — and Splatsy appeared in it right before my eyes. I struck the masked man in the face, and he immediately vanished in a cloud of dark purple fog.

The maiams all pounced at the same time. Calmly, I raised Splatsy over my head.

“This is all in my head,” I declared as time seemed to slow down. “And nobody gets to screw with my head except me!”

I swung Splatsy as hard as I could, slamming her into the hospital floor. A massive cloud of purple fog rippled out from around me, swallowing the room, the maiams, Ethan’s bed, everything. The world dissolved into nothing but fog, which rolled and churned like storm clouds. Closing my eyes, I brought Splatsy back over my shoulder like a baseball bat.

The toxin had done its job, showing me everything I was most afraid of. And it had hurt. I doubted I would ever forget the things I’d seen and heard today. But at the same time, I was happier than you could ever imagine. Because if none of this was real…

I swung Splatsy, and the gust of wind she created blew the purple fog away.

…then that meant I had a second chance!

The hallucination vanished, and I was back in the real world. I looked up, smiling at the permanently setting sun like it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Splatsy was still in my hand, and the wounds I’d gotten during the fight were gone. Shrinking her down and hanging her from my belt, I took a puff from my inhaler and started looking around. It didn’t take long for me to spot Ethan.

I sprinted over to him and laughed with relief when I saw he was breathing. His eyes were closed, and he tossed and turned, probably having the same kind of nightmare I had just escaped from, but that was fine. He would survive that. All that mattered was that he was alive!

“Oh, thank the whoopie cushion in the sky!” I said, wrapping his unconscious body in a hug. All his laughter was right where it should have been. The maiams were gone too, erased from existence now that my mind was clear.

“Didn’t mean to kill you,” Ethan mumbled deliriously.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m going to get you out of here. You’ll be right as radishes.”

With a grunt, I hoisted him off the ground. Turning in a slow circle, I immediately spotted the hill I’d come from — and Aesop and Jade too! They were standing on top, shouting my name and waving their hands. Grinning, I started their way.

Almost immediately, ten maiams materialized in front of me.

My smile faded, replaced by a scowl. The maiams surrounded me, claws and teeth glistening in the dusky light.

“No,” I said firmly.

They exploded into purple fog. I sighed in relief, then realized that probably wasn’t helping. I’d bested the toxic fumes, but they were still in me. I’d have to be careful not to slip into dreamland again. A few steps later, my phone rang. When I ignored it, it answered itself.

“Alicia is a much better Hunter than you’ll ever be,” said McGus.

I gritted my teeth and kept walking. “She’s also the world’s biggest poop head!”

The call ended.

“Almost there, Ethan,” I told him. I didn’t care if he could hear me or not.

I took a few more steps, and found Jade and Aesop lying on the ground in front of me, torn to pieces. That made me stop, but all I had to do was look up to see my friends cheering for me at the top of the hill. When I looked down again, the fake Jade and Aesop were gone.

“Come on, Henry,” Aesop was yelling. “Hurry up and get out of there!”

A dark figure appeared by my side, walking with me. I knew without having to look that it was the man in the clown mask.

“We,” he said in his rough and raspy voice, “find ourselves surprised.”

“Go away,” I snapped.

“We were convinced that it was not possible for one of your kind to care for a human.”

I spun to face him. “I said go away!”

This one was persistent. It stayed right where it was, looking me in the eye.

“Perhaps we could work together,” he mused.

I balled my fist. “Get…away…from us!”

He leaned forward. “Next time you see them, ask about the farms.”

Clenching my teeth, I stepped forward to punch him.

“Henry!” Jade yelled.

I looked up the hill at her, and then back down. The masked man was gone. Nodding in satisfaction, I kept going. It only took another minute to reach the edge of Feverdream Field, and Jade and Aesop rushed down to help me the rest of the way up the hill. Once I was at the top, I set Ethan down and then collapsed beside him.

“Guys,” I said, out of breath, “let’s never do this again.”

“Good idea,” Jade agreed.

Aesop, however, had other ideas. “Are you kidding? That was the best thing I’ve ever seen! You were down there fighting imaginary maiams, Ethan was flopping around like a fish, it was amazing! We’ve got to find more people to send down there!”

Jade and I shared a look.

“Fine,” I said. “You first.”

Aesop laughed. “What, you think I’m stupid enough to—”

I gave him a push.

“Not cool!” he yelled as he went rolling down the hill.

He landed in a big cloud of mushroom fog. We waited a few seconds, and sure enough…

“Shut your mouth!” he yelled, getting to his feet. “I am too Irish!”

I chuckled before lying back down. Even Jade gave the faintest hint of a smile.

“I’m going to sleep well tonight,” I muttered. And not just because I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. Going through that nightmare felt…good, in a weird way. Like it had been some kind of trial. I’d had all my worst fears shoved right in my face, and I’d come out on top. I felt stronger.

“No, no!” Aesop screamed. “Not the ponies!”

“Should we go get him?” Jade asked.

I shook my head. “Nah, let him suffer a little longer.”

“You sound…bitter about something.”

I sat up again, frowning. After all the hurtful things he’d said in my dream, it was easy to carry that anger over to the real Aesop. And Jade too, I realized as I looked at her.

You already beat Feverdream Field, I thought to myself. Don’t let it win now that you’re out.

“Ugh. Henry?”

I jumped. “Ethan! You’re awake!”

He was lying on his back, blinking up at the orange sky. It took a minute for his eyes to focus, but when they did, he asked, “What happened?”

I sat down, sighing. “I was an idiot, that’s what happened.”

He coughed. “I…I saw them. My parents.”

“I know,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t real.”

He didn’t reply, and we just sat together for a few minutes, resting.

“Where’s Aesop?” Ethan finally asked.

I grinned. “Down there.”

He nodded. “Good. Hate that jerk.”

“How do you feel?” Jade asked, leaning over him.

“Like my feelings got ran over by a steamroller,” he said. “I wish I’d—”

I slapped my hand over his mouth. Ethan’s eyes went wide in surprise, and I looked from him to Jade, who was sitting like she’d swallowed a broom, teeth clenched.

“You, um, know what they say about wishes!” I gave him a weak smile. “Everyone has one, and nobody wants to hear it.”

Ethan raised an eyebrow, and I slowly took my hand away from his mouth. “That’s not how the saying goes at all.”

For some reason, that made Jade snort with laughter. I raised my eyebrows at her, but she just shrugged. I looked down, and winced when I saw a tear rolling down Ethan’s cheek.

“Ethan, I’m so sorry,” I said, hanging my head. “This was all my fault. I’ll never make you do something like that again.” I reached out and took his hand in my own. “From now on, I’m going to protect you just like I said I would. I swear it!”

“So overdramatic,” Ethan mumbled without opening his eyes.

“I’m sorry too,” Jade said timidly. “Think…Think we can still be friends?”

I smirked. “Oh, I don’t know about that. After all, he didn’t bring back—”

Ethan thrust his hand into the air, and Jade and I both blinked. In all the excitement, I hadn’t even noticed what he’d been clutching in his fist.

“You…” I stammered, taking the baseball from him. “You found it!”

“Wasn’t hard,” Ethan said with a smirk.

Jade and I shared a look, and we both broke out smiling too.

“All right, fine,” I said, tapping him with it on both shoulders. “I hereby dub thee an official member of the Henry Rider Fan Club.”

“Henry!” Jade whacked my arm.

“Okay, okay!” I rolled my eyes. “Welcome to the gang, Ethan.”

“I humbly accept, and now I think I’m gonna take a nap.”

“WHERE DID MY UNDERWEAR GO?” Aesop shrieked.

For a few minutes, Jade and I just enjoyed the show while Ethan drifted into an exhausted sleep. My watch said it wasn’t even seven o’clock yet. Hard to believe that everything I’d gone through down there had taken less than ten minutes.

“By the way,” Jade said suddenly, “who was that guy?”

“What guy?” I asked.

“The guy you were talking to just before you got to the hill. Aesop thought he was a cop.”

“A cop?”

“We are trespassing, after all.”

“There was nobody out there but me and Ethan,” I told her. “Are you sure you’re not hallucinating?”

“Not unless Aesop and I were having the exact same one.” She hugged her knees, smiling as Aesop spazzed out for us. “It’s weird. It didn’t seem like the mushrooms were affecting him at all. Maybe it was the mask he had on.”

I froze. “Say that again.”

“What?” She tilted her head. “He was wearing a mask. It was white and kind of looked like it was smiling. Almost like a—”

“Clown,” I finished for her, horror creeping up inside me. I was on my feet in an instant. “Help me get Aesop. We’re leaving. Now!”