A Walk on the Outside

Just like that, he was a Shaman.

Old Hawk had died too soon, and Apple Snail was his replacement.

Apple Snail had trained with the old man since he was about four years old. Old Hawk was more like a father than his own father.

Sure, he knew how to conduct all the ceremonies, and at 13 now, he'd already completed more Vision Quests than most people would do in their lifetime.

But he knew there was just so very much that he still didn't know. He really didn't feel qualified to be a Shaman yet, and now his teacher was gone.

Too much was changing. Matthew Myers, the Protector of the People, was training a replacement who was not part of his own family. This had never happened before. The new Protector was a stranger.

Todd Brown was nice enough, and seemed to take his role seriously, but he was still a stranger from Outside.

Outside. Even that idea still eluded Apple Snail. How could there be a whole world outside?

Yet Old Hawk had told him that there was a very different world, and that he'd occasionally traveled in it. He'd even assured Apple Snail that one day he too must visit that world.

According to Old Hawk, the noisy birds were from this other world, as were some of the strange noises that the quiet nighttime breezes sometimes carried in.

Most of The People thought those sounds were from the Spirit World. Old Hawk had done nothing to discourage that belief among The People in general, but had made sure Apple Snail knew differently.

And yet, Old Hawk had never told Apple Snail anything specific about what this other world was like. He'd almost taken the boy with him on a trip Outside shortly before Todd Brown had shown up, but had changed his mind and told Apple Snail he would go the next time. Old Hawk had died just days later.

It was the middle of the night. He sat in one of his Quiet Places. No one would miss him, since it was well known that the boy often sought solitude away from the village. On top of that, no one would think it odd for their Shaman to come and go at seemingly random times.

He ignored the mosquitos biting his bare skin while he gazed at the stars. These were the same stars his ancestors had watched for countless generations. Yet according to Old Hawk, far fewer stars were visible today than had been in his youth.

How could stars disappear? He'd seen the occasional star fall, but Old Hawk had said the stars had disappeared gradually, becoming harder and harder to see over the years.

A haunting limpkin cry echoed over the nearby swamp. Old Hawk had said that the limpkin too had dwindled noticeably in his lifetime. Apple Snail gripped his apple snail necklace. His namesake was a favorite food for the limpkin. He knew there were still plenty of apple snails around - he saw them all the time. Had their numbers dwindled Outside? Had the birds dwindled from hunger?

The hardest thing to understand about all this was a comment Old Hawk had made just days before he died. He'd said only small parts of the real world were left, and that they were disappearing.

A noisy bird flew over in the darkness, its red, green and white lights clearly marking its location as it traversed the sky overhead. Apple Snail had an intuitive flash that the noisy birds were part of the dwindling process somehow.

He'd known since he was very young that they weren't normal birds. When he'd asked Old Hawk about it, his cryptic reply was that they had to be called something.

He'd also noticed at an early age that while a few of the birds seemed to fly randomly across the sky, the great majority of them flew either East or West. He knew this was significant somehow, but couldn't begin to guess how.

As he sat listening and watching, realization slowly dawned on him. He would have to go Outside himself. The idea both thrilled and terrified him.

* * *

Apple Snail knew he could follow the trail to the Protector's house, but he also expected that the Protector would consider him too young to go Outside yet.

He knew the stories about the Great Snake roaming the swamp were untrue. Old Hawk had told him so, and sworn him to secrecy. The Great Snake was a story designed to keep The People from wandering Outside. It was for their own protection.

He'd started across the swamp at first light. Even knowing the Great Snake was a fabrication, he was uneasy as he waded through. Water moccasins and alligators were very real. There were also pockets of mud deep and loose enough to sink into. His progress was slow and careful.

* * *

It was nearly dark by the time Apple Snail had reached ground that wasn't submerged. The vegetation was much more dense here, however. He really didn't want to be pushing through that in the dark, so he climbed up a tree that had branches sturdy and wide enough to sleep on.

* * *

The whining sound wakened Apple Snail. He'd heard it several times before, but only in the far distance. Now it sounded much closer. The sound gradually increased in loudness, then dropped in pitch, then gradually decreased its volume. Occasionally, there was a deep rumblimg sound.

Not surprisingly, the sounds were coming from the direction Apple Snail had been traveling toward the day before. He resumed his trek. As he walked, he noticed the whining sounds became less and less frequent.

Around mid morning, he could see a definite gap in the trees ahead. When he arrived there, he stood in amazement. Before him was an obvious path, but one like nothing he'd ever seen. It was black, with small white rocks imbedded in its surface. His bare feet could feel how much the morning sun had warmed the surface.

The trail made a sharp curve here, so it wasn't possible to see how far it went in either direction. Apple Snail wondered if the trail had somehow made the noises he'd been hearing.

He bent down and put his ear to the surface. Immediately he heard something. It quickly became aparent that the sound was coming not just from the surface of the trail, but also through the air. Something was approaching from around the corner. He remained crouched on the surface of the trail, waiting to see what would appear.

A brightly-colored something rounded the corner rapidly. It swerved wildly to avoid Apple Snail, emitting a loud, unpleasant sound such as he'd never heard before. Much louder than even a Sandhill Crane in close quarters.

As the thing sped away, he noticed a burning smell. Not smoke exactly, but some kind of burning. Two things shook him: the thing could have run over him; and inside the thing he'd seen a Very human-looking face.

He quickly scrambled to his feet and moved off the path. Then he waited to see if any more of the things would show up.

It wasn't long before the next one showed up. This one was blue rather than red like the last one. Though this one didn't have to swerve, it did emit a similar unpleasant loud sound before continuing around the bend.

As he stood, another thing approached. So far, each looked very different from the others, but all seemed to have black round things underneath, rolling on the black surface. This third object had several faces inside. As it passed him, one of the faces yelled "PUTSOMECLOTHESONYOUPERVERT!".

The words had no meaning, but the tone of voice and facial expression strongly suggested the shouter was angry. Apple Snail didn't understand why a total stranger should be angry at him. He wasn't blocking the path now, and he certainly couldn't have done anything to anyone out here.

That thought brought the realization: this was Outside! He was now in that mysterious area Old Hawk had talked about so much.

He looked around. Other than the black path, this still looked like the world he knew. The trees and grass were green, the sky was blue and clouds were white. He saw familiar birds and insects, smelled and heard ordinary things.

Then something quite extraordinary came around the curve. It was much larger than the other rolling things had been. It was as if a very large house was approaching. The front of the thing was bright red, like one of the earlier objects. The rear was longer than several village houses laid end-to-end.

As he stared transfixed by the mammoth object rolling past, he was startled by a loud rumbling, then a long, loud unpleasant blast of sound the thing suddenly emitted. It was louder and lower pitched than the other things had made.

He spotted another human-looking face inside this object as well. There was also a hand, making a strange gesture Apple Snail had not seen before. He mimmicked the gesture as the huge object passed. The face appeared angry, then the thing swept by. An abrupt wind following the thing nearly knocked Apple Snail off balance.

Apple Snail wondered why these things all appeared angry with him. It seemed they were angry with the mere sight of him. He stepped into the brush and hunched down waiting for the next object to pass.

The next several objects came and went with none of the unpleasant loud bellowing sounds, and with no angry looks on the faces inside. Apple Snail now understood it was in fact his presence that was upsetting the things. He wasn't willing to stay hidden in the bushes, and he realized he would hear the things long before they got close.

He stepped onto the black trail again. the bend suggested that the trail turned from the East to the South here. Since most of the noisy birds came from or went toward the East, he began walking that way, listening for approaching objects.

Once he'd rounded the curve and was headed East, he was struck with the absolute straightness of the trail. The day was warming as he walked, and soon the black surface was too hot for his bare feet. He began walking on the grass beside the trail, wondering when it would cross a stream. He was starting to get thirsty.

* * *

Outside was starting to reveal itself as an unpleasant place. Only a short distance from the big curve, the land on both sides of the black trail opened up into a barren, grassy plain. Where there should have been trees and shrubs, all Apple Snail could see was grass and sand. It was becoming unpleasantly hot along the trail. With no tree shade to break things up, it was unpleasantly bright as well.

Apple Snail was having to lay in the weeds growing next to the trail when the noisy objects approached, since there were no trees growing there. He could see the things far in the distance on this strangely straight trail, so didn't have to rely as much on hearing them. This was good, since the wind in this vast open area was obscuring the distant whining sounds they made.

Periodically along the trail Apple Snail found dead animals. Often they were mutilated, sometimes not, but they'd all been simply left there, abandoned. It was unconscionable that such a quantity of meat and hides had been left to rot this way. What kind of people were these Outsiders?

Apple Snail was bewildered at the sheer variety of the things using the black trail. The colors and sizes alone were confusing, but the variation of shapes was the biggest surprise. Some were even so small that a person could sit on top of them. The people who did so were the strangest sights Apple Snail had seen yet. Their skin seemed to be covered completely except for their hands and faces. Some of the coverings seemed to be leather, while others were colorful things that seemed to be made of something much lighter (judging from the way it flapped in the wind). On their heads, most of them had something like a turtle shell.

Many of the rolling things had bright white lights on them, but the one thing all these objects had in common was that beneath them were black things that rolled on the path the way the hoops rolled in the children's hoop-and-stick game back home. (But these black hoops rolled much faster.)

At one point, Apple Snail was caught off-guard when someone came up behind him on yet another object he hadn't seen before. It moved slower that the other things he'd watched, and made almost no sound. Its black hoops were narrow, like the hoops he was familiar with. The person on the thing pumped his feet up and down as it rolled along. Like the other people Apple Snail had seen, his body was mostly covered too, though most of the skin was exposed on the arms and legs, as well as the face. The young man appeared to be about Apple Snail's age or slightly older. As he passed, he stared at Apple Snail, shaking his head in seeming disbelief, and exclaimed simply, "Dude!"

Late in the day, Apple Snail noticed that the rolling things were becoming more and more numerous. He eventually had to pick a spot to hide and wait until their numbers diminished, or until dark.

Over the course of the whole day, he had seen the noisy birds pass overhead. the further he'd walked, the larger many of the birds had seemingly become. He surmised that he was approaching their roosting area. Though estimating from this day's progress, he thought he'd not arrive there till well into the next day.

* * *

As darkness approached, he noticed more and more of the rolling things had the bright lights on. He wondered if he would be able to walk along the path and remain unseen.

Before full darkness, their numbers had abated greatly. Apple Snail resumed his walking. It was easy to get hidden before the now infrequently passing objects got too close.

Ahead loomed a new challenge. Stationary lights mounted on what looked like limbless trees were lightning up the area ahead to almost daytime brightness. It would be difficult to walk unseen around these lights.

* * *

Evading the light-trees was inconvenient, but not difficult. In the process, he had to pass close to several houses. Old Hawk had drawn a picture of the Protector's house years before, and these houses were similar.

The walls of these houses were not open like Jororo houses. They were completely closed off, more like a sweat lodge than a normal house. Old Hawk had not been able to explain how the breezes were supposed to get inside this kind of house to keep things cool.

As Apple Snail looked at these houses up close, he still didn't know. There were openings in the walls, but these were covered with something clear like water, but hard. Light could go through the openings, but no breezes.

Some of these openings were blocked by something hanging down inside. Light got through, but he could not see inside. Others were not blocked, allowing Apple Snail to look right into the houses.

Knowing that these houses had no cooling breezes passing through, he was amazed to see that most of the people inside wore the skin coverings he'd seen earlier. As warm as the early Summer night air was, it must be stiffling in these closed houses. Those people had to be sweating profusely.

He'd already noticed the lack of lake or stream nearby for bathing. These people must smell terrible! Yet, that really didn't make sense. Regular bathing was necessary for good health. Even the youngest of children knew that. He had to be missing something.

As in his village, some houses had dogs, and these dutifully announced Apple Snail's presence to their owners. He kept moving and kept hidden as he picked his way ever eastward.

* * *

At one point, as he worked his way through this strange village, he encountered a group of children playing under a light behind a house. This house stood next to a stand of woods, and Apple Snail was able to get quite close to the group without being seen.

After watching several rounds of the game, Apple Snail thought he understood its rules. So far, every adult who'd seen him had reacted in anger. These children all appeared to be younger than him. He thought maybe they'd be more friendly. He watched for an opportunity to join the game.

The ball landing at his feet seemed to be that opportunity. While the children seemed to argue over who had to get the ball out of the woods, Apple Snail picked it up and approached the group, ball under one arm.

Several of the children literally ran off screaming. An older boy shouted to Apple Snail "GETOUTOFMYYARD!" Turning to a smaller boy he said "GOGETDAD!"

Apple Snail said "You do not need to be angry. I only wanted to meet you."

The boy looked at Apple Snail as if he had three heads. Clearly he didn't understand what Apple Snail had said.

"IFYOUDON'TBEATITMYDAD'LLCALLTHECOPS!" the boy said.

"GETINTHEHOUSENOW!" a stern male voice shouted from the house. "YOUCAN'TSTREAKHEREI'MCALLINGTHECOPSPUNK!" the voice added.

Not understanding any words, but disappointed with the tone of the encounter, Apple Snail ran back into the woods and continued his eastward trek.

After avoiding more lights, dogs, etc., Apple Snail came to another, larger body of woods. He settled down for a rest. He had found a strange pond behind one house. It stood above the ground, and it smelled strange, but he really needed a drink. The water tasted funny too. He had spit out the first bit reflexively, but drank again, this time forcing himself to swallow his fill. Now, he would be able to last a while.

How did these Outsiders get water? It suddenly dawned on him that without lakes, ponds, or streams, these people would not only have difficulty bathing, but drinking and cooking as well. And yet no one seemed to be using the only pond he'd seen.

He needed rest before moving on. With houses this numerous, it was clear he would need to move while it was still dark. He would move on in the wee morning hours.

* * *

Todd Brown plopped down on his bed and turned on the TV. Part of his job as Manager was keeping informed on events in the outside world. He'd never really been a fan of the 11:00 news in the past, but the ranch business kept him so tied up now that this was about the only TV he had time for.

After the main headlines, the news anchor seemed to brighten up with amusement. She read, "A western Osceola county community has had some exitement earlier this evening. The sheriff's office received numerous reports of a young streaker running through the community of Poinsett.

"While most reports simply described a streaker estimated to be in his early teens, a few reports complained of a nude 'peeping tom'. Sheriff Deputies were not able to confirm the sightings, but we were able to get an interview with a man who claims to be an eyewitness."

The camera cut to a pot-bellied man in his thirties. He was dressed in a tank-top undershirt with shorts, and sported an impressive 5 O'clock shadow.

"He came out of those trees there, terrorizing my kids. I told him to get out of here," the man said.

"How did he respond?" a reporter asked the man, off camera.

"He just stood there like he didn't know plain English, then walked off."

The cameras cut back to the studio and the lady reporter said, "Deputies called off the search, believing the teen had left the area. I'd call it high spirits on a warm night. We'll be back after this." A commercial cut in.

Todd shook his head. There had been a time where he would have wished they'd caught the kid and locked him up. His perspective had changed so much after contact with the Jororo. Now it seemed unimaginable that an incident like that would make such a stir. Let the kid have his fun! He wasn't hurting anything.

* * *

By first light, Apple Snail had left the houses behind and was again walking through woods. These woods had no discernable trail crossing them. He hiked cross country, being careful not to leave bent or broken branches that could mark his passage.

By full daylight, he reached a wide, level clearing. Lined up along one of the black trails he'd been seeing, were a number of the noisy birds. They stood motionless and quiet. He'd found their roost!

The area was far too open to walk unseen to where the birds were. Besides, he hated to imagine startling one of them awake! His memory of the previous day's near-miss was still too fresh.

He settled in for a day's observation.

* * *

Todd sat at the desk. He still had most of his breakfast coffee in his cup. As always, the message light on the phone was blinking. He stepped through the caller ID display looking for higher priority numbers. For an unlisted phone, he got way too many voicemails.

Though he'd not yet needed to call it, he recognized one number right off. It was a private number the Governor had given him. Deciding that one should be fun, he stepped through the voicemail menu till he found that message.

"Todd, Ed here. Just a heads up. If it was an emergency, I'd have woke you last night."

Interesting way to start out. Todd's full attention was aroused now.

"I don't know if Matt told you, but your local law enforcement has standing orders dating back for decades now. Way back, a Jororo left the ranch and wandered into town. Of course, he spoke no English and walked around in his birthday suit, so the sheriff's office picked him up. By the time Matt found out what happened, the man had taken sick and died in jail. Since then, all the Jororo kids get immunized, and the law agencies have to contact the Governor immediately if they have a dark-skinned naked person who doesn't speak English.

"Well, Osceola County tells me they had a non English-speaking, dark skinned streaker last night. Probably just a local kid blowing off steam, but - well, "Heads up."

* * *

Apple Snail had just foraged together a small breakfast when he heard the object approaching. It was one of the things he'd been seeing on the black trails.

The thing rolled up right next to one of the birds. Astonishingly, the bird didn't seem to rouse a bit. Even more astonishing, the thing opened up, and people began stepping out! No wonder he'd seen human faces inside the things. They had been actual people! Like the other Outsiders he'd seen, they all had the strange body coverings.

Apple Snail thought things couldn't get any stranger. Then, one of the people opened up the side of the bird, and the others started climbing in!

The one man then closed the bird's side again. A clicking sound carried across the open space to Apple Snail's ears. the man then started looking the bird over carefully, often touching it in places. Apple Snail was surprised it never woke up.

The man disappeared around the far side. A slight shift in the bird's stance, and another clicking sound suggested to Apple Snail that the man had climbed in the other side.

Apple Snail heard a whining sound quite unlike any he'd heard before. On the front of the bird, something began turning slowly. A roar erupted from the bird, more like the sound it made in flight. The spinning thing sped up till Apple Snail could no longer make it out distinctly. It had become a blur.

The bird now began rolling forward onto the black trail. There, it turned and began following the trail, much like the other objects Apple Snail had been seeing all along.

For several minutes the bird followed the trail, then turned onto another wider one. There it sat for a while, before making more noise than it had been making up to this point. Abruptly, it began rolling again, clearly picking up speed as it rolled. Effortlessly, the bird began rising from the ground. It had not flapped its wings once!

These aren't birds, he realized, as he watched it turn in the air and fly off to the West. These were like the things that rolled along the black trails. They were things that moved people around.

Understanding that, raised the next question: why didn't they just walk? Apple Snail could see the advantage to flying, of course - it would make crossing lakes and rivers much easier. But then that's what canoes were for, so it still didn't explain why these people needed these things to move around.

Apple Snail had seen what happened when one of his own people became too old or injured to walk on their own. Inevitably their health declined.

He'd not seen a single person walking along the black trail before he'd reached the houses. He'd seen many of these people (mainly children) walking between nearby houses, but it seemed they all used the rolling things to travel anywhere significant.

Like the lack of bathing and drinking water near the homes, this lack of walking made no sense. How did these people stay healthy?

* * *

As he watched, the process had repeated itself several times. One or more people would roll up, look a bird over, then get inside and after rolling around, fly away.

There were long gaps of time between these departures. Once, he watched the reverse of the process, an a bird landed, rolled over to the waiting birds, and opened up to release its occupants, who rolled away in another trail-roller.

Apple Snail wanted to get a close look at these things; mainly the birds, but also the trail-rollers. However, the large open space was daunting. He could be seen way too easily. But the thrill of being able to point to the sky and tell his people that he'd touched one of the noisy birds was too much to resist.

He considered waiting till dark, but spotted more of the light trees he'd seen near the houses. Under their light he'd be more conspicuous than in the daylight.

He could see no trail-roller moving nearby. He considered running to the birds, but remembered that quick movement was easier to discern at a distance than slow motion was. The rainy season hadn't really begun yet, so much of the vegetation was still brown. His brown skin would make him hard to spot in the distance.

Apple Snail got up and began walking toward the birds. He imagined himself blending in with the scenery.

* * *

Apple Snail reached a trail-roller first. He was amazed by the hardness of it's skin. He tried to open its sides the way he'd seen the strange people do. He couldn't open it.

He moved on to the nearest bird. Tentatively, he touched its skin. It was hard, but not as hard as the other was. The bird's skin actually dented in slightly with his touch. He tried lifting the small piece on the side to open it. The piece wouldn't move. He'd seen it work for the others, but it wouldn't budge for him. He moved to the next bird.

On the third bird, the piece moved, and the side popped open. He climbed inside. Nothing inside meant anything to him. It was all just a jumble of confusing things. He eventually gave up trying to figure it out, and just sat and wondered what it would be flying through the air in one of these.

He couldn't see the ground immediately around him, but he could see it in the distance. He was startled by a bright flash of light on the ceiling. Knowing somehow that the light had come from outside, he hunched down a little, and listened.

* * *

Security Officer Roberts hung the 2-way radio microphone on its clip. He knew the backup he'd called for was five to ten minutes away at best.

He opened his vehicle door quietly. Ordinary theives didn't steal airplanes. They didn't generally know how to fly. Pirates, drug dealers, and terrorists on the other hand were good candidates to be stealing an airplane. The problem with any of those groups is that they had an annoying habit of being armed. He took his Taser from its holster.

* * *

Apple Snail was just starting to relax when he heard "COMEOUTSLOWLYWITHYOURHANDSUP!" There was a pause, then he heard "DONOTTRYANYTHINGORIWILLFIRE!"

Apple Snail tried to get a glimpse of the person speaking.

"IMEANNOW! COMEOUTWITHYOURHANDSWHEREICANSEETHEM."

The man sounded angry, like the others had been. Apple Snail moved to the open door, then carefully hopped down to the ground.

A large man stood in front of him, looking nervous and holding out something with both hands, as if he wanted to give it to Apple Snail. The boy hesitated, not knowing what the object was. The man continued to hold it out, however.

Finally, overcoming his fear, Apple Snail stepped forward to take the object. Suddenly, wave after wave of pain struck. Apple Snail had no control of his body as it thrashed around wildly, falling to the ground. His head hit something.

* * *

The boy was awake now. The paramedic checked his vital signs. The boy initially tried to jump up, but was apparently stopped by the resulting head pain. He was clearly frightened, but didn't resist further.

His vitals were good. Other than the scalp wound and the headache, the boy seemed fine.

The boy said something, but it wasn't English. There was pleading in his tone. Not knowing what to say, the man smiled and put his hand on the boy's shoulder for a second before putting his blood pressure cuff away.

"That confirms that," Roberts said. He doesn't speak English. He's the one the Sheriff's Office was looking for." He picked up the phone and began dialing.

* * *

Now that Apple Snail had been hurt, it seemed no one was angry him any more. Everyone seemed concerned that he was comfortable now. How could this place possibly be this cold? It was summertime! At least they had given him a blanket. But who would have believed he needed one? Maybe all the houses were this cold inside. That would explain the body coverings these people wore.

How was he going to get home? These people had stopped speaking to him in their crazy gibberish, but now just seemed to be waiting for something.

Apple Snail had had enough of this place. "Can I go home now?" he asked again, trying to get up. His head didn't hurt as much this time. One of the men in white body coverings shook his head, and eased Apple Snail back down on the strangely shaped, long seat they had placed him on.

It was just as well. His head did still hurt. But when he had tried to nap, these same people had not allowed him to. At least they had given him that sweet, dark brown stick of something to eat. He'd never tasted anything so delicious. They had also given him that cold dark brown liquid to drink, but he hadn't liked the way it tingled his mouth and nose when he drank it.

* * *

After what seemed hours, he heard people talking their gibberish in the next room. One voice almost sounded familiar, but it was as incomprehensible as the others.

The talk ceased, and the door opened. In stepped Todd Brown, the Protector. "Ready to go home?" he asked.

Apple Snail had never been so happy to see anyone before. "Yes," he said, jumping up and flinging the blanket aside. "Please take me home"

This started a new round of gibberish from the strangers. Todd didn't say a word. He reached into a bag he carried and pulled out a different sort of body covering. "This is a 'robe' he told Apple Snail, helping him put it on.

The strangers were quiet after that.

* * *
"Let's go," Todd told Apple Snail. They walked outside together. Apple Snail started to shrug out of the robe when he felt the warm air. Todd stopped him, and told him he needed to wear the covering around the strangers. Todd led him to a trail-roller that waited there with another man inside, and helped him in.

Apple Snail expected them to head away from this strange area, but the other man drove out to the row of waiting birds. There was a new one that had not been there that morning.

The man stopped at this new bird, and Todd spoke some gibberish to him, then got out. He walked around and opened the trail-roller on Apple Snail's side.

When Apple Snail and Todd began walking toward the new bird, the trail-roller rolled away. "What are we doing?" Apple Snail asked.

"Going back home," Todd answered without elaborating. He opened the door for Apple Snail, helped him inside, and closed it. He then went around, climbed in himself, and helped Apple Snail with his seatbelt.

Before starting the engine, Todd turned to Apple Snail. "Talk to me," he said.

After a few seconds of consideration, Apple Snail asked, totally exasperated, "What IS this place? Are they all crazy?"

Todd considered his own answer, but finally just said, "I think so". Then he started the engine.

Apple Snail jumped visibly at the unexpected loudness. He had only heard the noisy birds in the distance before - never from inside one.

Todd put a strange object on his head. It covered both ears, and something projected out from one ear covering to sit right in front of Todd's mouth. He then began speaking gibberish again, and acted like he was talking to someone who wasn't there.

Todd made the noise go louder, and the bird began to roll. Apple Snail looked at Todd with new respect. He was controlling the bird! He watched silently, his mouth agape.

After rolling for several minutes, Todd stopped the bird, and began talking again. Apple Snail remembered that the other birds had also stopped here before they flew. Was Todd going to fly this bird?

His answer came in the form of being pressed back into his seat from acceleration as the plane sped down the runway.

Rolling on this wide black path was surprisingly bumpy to Apple Snail. When the bumpiness abruptly smoothed out, he felt they must be flying. But then he saw it - rather than the bird climbing upward, the whole world was falling away!

This did not make sense. He'd seen several of the noisy birds leave the ground that morning, and had not felt the world drop at all! Yet, now he was clearly watching the Earth continuing to drop away while he merely sat inside the noisy bird.

Things changed abruptly when Todd banked the plane, turning West. There was an accompanying sensation in Apple Snail's gut that he'd never experienced before. This is what flying felt like!

He began rethinking his earlier observation. The whole world couldn't have dropped when the noisy bird's rolling smoothed out. Otherwise, he would feel it drop several times a day with all the noisy birds coming and going. That meant that what he had clearly seen with his own eyes had been in error. The implications of that made his head spin - or was that from the bird's turning motion?

After they had been flying a while, Todd raised his voice over the noise of the bird and told Apple Snail that he was going to turn sharply, and that if Apple Snail looked straight down out his window, he would see his village below. Before Apple Snail could say anything, the bird tipped sharply to the right. He turned to look and was fascinated.

Among the trees below was a lake, and there on one shore were tiny houses! As he watched, even tinier people ran out and looked up. It was impossible to make out faces, but to Apple Snail's amusement, he realized that he recognized some of the village children by their behavior! There was White Bear standing to one side of the group, arms folded, trying to look grown up, while his little sister Bubbling Water jumped up and down, pointing skyward.

Apple Snail watched Running Fox pull a girl's braids as she looked up, then disappear among the rest of the group before she could tell who had done it. Apple Snail would have fun blackmailing the younger boy with this tidbit later.

As he watched, the village seemed to turn around and around. With his new understanding, he realized that the noisy bird was actually doing the turning. No wonder people were looking and pointing. Buzzards often circled like that, but it was not something the noisy birds normally did. Even some of the men tending fish traps in the lake were pointing upward.

With a sad realization, Apple Snail knew he shouldn't tell them about his flight. They'd not likely believe him anyway, he mused.

* * *

Todd made a wide loop to allow for a conservative approach to the runway. Since he'd passed over the village at 2000 feet, he needed to drop that altitude to land, but didn't want to spook Apple Snail by doing it too rapidly.

It had been a good call. During the textbook perfect straight-in approach and landing, Apple Snail had had a white-knuckle grip on his own knees. Todd taxied the plane to the hangar.

Apple Snail had remained silent throughout the flight. As Todd shut down the engine he wondered if the youth was alright. As far as Todd knew, Apple Snail had hiked barefoot thirty-odd miles in unfamiliar territory, eluded sheriff patrols, been Tasered and then detained. Now Todd had just added flying in a plane to the mix.

Matthew Myers had told Todd that his family had determined long ago it was best to discourage the Jororo from leaving the safety of the Preserve. He could have picked up the boy by car, but he'd actually wanted the boy's experience in the outside world to be a bit overwhelming.

Besides, as a relatively new pilot, Todd needed to keep his flying hours up to remain current, and this definitely qualified as official Ranch Business.

And if he was going to freak out the kid, it might as well be with something they both liked. During his year-long residence among the Jororo, Todd had noticed Apple Snail's stronger than average fascination with the 'noisy birds'. If Apple Snail never left the ranch again, he'd always remember this flight. (Of course, Todd needed to tell the boy not to talk about his flight 'back home'.)

He hopped down from the plane and walked around and opened Apple Snail's door. The youth hopped down as well, then put his hand to his head as if in pain. Todd started to head to the house, but changed his mind. Apple Snail had had enough sensory overload for now. Instead, he walked to the picnic table next to hangar, and motioned for Apple Snail to sit. He'd have to stay at the house until Todd could remove his bandage, but they could unwind from the trip before taking on anything else new.

Before sitting at the table, Apple Snail shrugged out of the robe as if it were something particularly loathsome. He held it out for Todd to take it, but Todd just pointed to the table top.

The day had already warmed up substantially, and before he sat down himself, Todd said "Good idea," then meticulously removed and folded his own clothing.

It suddenly struck Todd with an ironic chuckle that he was definitely now appropriately attired to conduct a 'debriefing'.


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