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  WINDY CITY TIMES

A Cradle Song, Part Eight
by Mark Zubro; Illustrated by W.S. Reed
2018-12-05

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A Cradle Song, written by Mark Zubro and illustrated by W.S. Reed, debuts in the Windy City Times as the new holiday classic. Filled with travail and woe, warmth and great joy, it is a story for the ages. It will appear in ten installments from October 17 to December 19 and will also be available for gift giving as an e-book and as a paperback. For the true joy and meaning of the season, this is the book you want to read.

Chapter Nine: Part Two

If it was his own son Matthew, he knew what he would do. Move mountains to get what he needed.

Luke explained to the leader what his examination showed and what medicine he thought the boy needed.

The leader got very angry. He raged around the tent.

Luke knew what was wrong, fear for the life of his son drove the man to even greater extremes. Luke didn't know if he'd live to see the next minute.

As always, the vision of his wife and children flashed through his mind.

The leader wanted a miracle that Luke thought was only a bit of medicine away.

Luke said, "I will go get the medicine. I will come back."

The leader conferred with his minions. They all left the tent. The woman who'd come with stood next to Luke. She told Luke she was the boy's mother. She thanked him and wished him well. Then she sat on the cot next to her son.

Luke remained nearby.

An interminable amount of time passed. Then with a rush, the leader returned. He barked commands. Minutes later, Luke was in the cab of a truck. Through the windshield, Luke saw snow swirling in the dark. The storm continued to rage.

Luke, the driver, and the leader crammed themselves into the front seat. Before the driver started the engine, the leader held the muzzle of the gun to Luke's head. He shoved the gun so that Luke's head bent at a forty-five degree angle. The leader said, "If you try anything, you die."

Luke nodded.

The driver turned the key, and moments later they started off. They didn't turn on the headlights. Another harrowing journey ensued. None of them spoke. It seemed like they drove for hours before Luke began to see lights in the distance.

At a signal from the leader, the driver stopped and let the engine idle. The leader pointed his gun at Luke. "We are at a rendezvous place. You will walk from here. The medicine is ready, but they will only give it to you. You will walk back here. If you do not return, I will destroy the entire village you see in front of you. All the men, women and children will die in the flash of a few moments."

"Why don't you just go in and take the medicine?"

"I can't risk them destroying what I need. It was a delicate negotiation. These are not your people, but they are also not my people. They would not trust one of mine. You, they will accept and believe."

Luke walked through the cold and dark. He'd been allowed to bring his blanket to wrap around himself as a supplement to his jacket. The wind found every opening in his clothes. He blew on his hands to try to keep them warm. He hadn't had gloves since the day the camp had been overrun. His feet crunched over the snow. The storm had not let up.

Following the directions from the leader, Luke arrived at the rendezvous point.

No one was there.

Luke sagged in hopelessness. His knees met the ground. He bent over and his hands touched the cold snow. As he knelt in the small drift, he saw two boots. He looked up.

A soldier in a warm coat stood over him. He smiled, held out his hand, and helped Luke rise. The soldier said, "Would you like to come in and get warm?"

Luke said, "I need the medicine. I need to get back."

"We can protect you."

Luke shook his head. "I gave my word. A child might die. They'll kill you all if I don't go back."

Luke's whole body slumped, ready for despair. The soldier tapped Luke's elbow. The man took off his gloves, reached into a pocket, pulled out several vials, and gave them to Luke. The soldier nodded and said, "That should do it." Then he handed Luke his pair of gloves. "I think you need these. I can get another pair."

Luke said, "Thank you." As he walked back to the truck, he put them on. They were very warm.

Back at the camp, Luke injected the boy with the medicine. Through the night as they waited, the whole time the leader stood next to Luke between him and the cot where his boy lay. The mother sat on the floor at the foot of the bed alternating looks between her son, her gruff husband, and her boy's possible savior.

Through a long night, the boy breathed heavily.

Luke was desperately tired and wanted to sleep. He was closer than he'd ever been to giving up completely. If it wasn't for the pictures of his wife and children that ran through his mind, he thought he might welcome death, but he wanted to live for them, to see them and be with them again.

With the dawn, the fever broke.

Joy filled Luke's heart.

The leader gushed over the boy, then over Luke. After embracing her son, the mother touched Luke's hand.

"You proved faithful at great peril," the leader said. "What do you wish in return?"

Luke almost collapsed with hope. He whispered, "I want to see my wife and children. I want to go home."

The leader said, "I will make it so."

Another perilous journey through the next night ensued. Luke was delivered to an empty clearing. He was told his side was a mile farther down the road. He wandered through the night back to his own lines. Walking through the cold and desolate countryside was almost a comfort, even with possible dangers.

It took a frightening long while to get through the guards and the checkpoints and to prove to them he was who he said he was.

Very quickly, he was told he would be transported home. It seemed the fearful leader had influence even here. Luke's superiors asked few questions.

His most evil enemy was making sure he would be going home.

Chapter Ten:

Erik

Reginald, the little car, woke early on that Christmas Eve. The first thing he said to Erik was, "I hope I get picked today. Wouldn't it be a perfect day for it? Do you think I'll get picked today? Is there anything I can do to help me get picked?"

Erik had a kindly heart. He didn't want to dash Reginald's hopes, to tell him how unlikely it was that anyone would even realize they were here, not this far back. All that felt like it was too enormous and an awful thing to reveal. Instead, Erik said soothing things all day, no matter how many times Reginald went on and on. No matter how many children they saw walk by who didn't even notice them in the slightest.

Erik knew the ache of loneliness, the desire to be part of something. The little car was annoying, but it was more companionship than Erik had had in years. Perhaps Reginald was tiresome, but Erik felt he could afford the time for kindliness.

When the sun began to set that day, even Reginald began to get quiet.

Then when full dark had fallen, and the lights in the store were turned to their brightest, Reginald said, "It's hopeless, isn't it? Please don't lie to me."

Erik could think of little to say. What was there to say? He felt so bad himself. He had his own depth of disappointment to deal with. He almost said something harsh, but then stopped. It would do no good, and probably just contribute to the day's despair. Erik managed to say, "There's still a little time."

On his shelf, in this store, hope was in short supply. Erik may not have much, but he wasn't going to take it away from others, certainly not Reginald, the lonely little race car.

Chapter Eleven:

Matthew

Matthew had no presents to give for Christmas and no one to give them to. He remembered he'd always had a bright happy home for Christmas, and now it was suddenly all gone. In his home at Christmas time, lights always twinkled. A star shone at the top of their little tree.

Matthew followed the passage and came to the bridge. The Isle of Misfit Toys was most lit up on Christmas Eve. It was as if a million stars had come down from the sky then burst to wild glows greater than a billion fireworks. Matthew was dazzled. In great wonderment, he crossed the sparkling bridge.

It was neither warm nor cold on the Isle of Misfit Toys, but altogether pleasant and calm.

A sweet old grandmother-looking woman met him on the other side. She wore a great flowing dress covered with multi-hued droplets of crystal that both captured and reflected light.

She smiled broadly. When Matthew met her gaze, he understood without her saying anything the rules for the Isle of Misfit Toys. Matthew knew there were always rules for everything. Somehow, he understood, he could pick one gift for himself and one gift for each person in his family.

Matthew saw crowds of children at the windows and doors of the little shops. He didn't see any parents. What was better, the children looked like him. No fancy clothes, no bratty bragging, no privileged sneers, just happy, smiling faces as they gawked.

At every corner, there were little food carts with brightly colored canopies. In each of them, Matthew saw steam rising from warm food. He smelled baked bread and chocolate chip cookies fresh from ovens.

What seemed to Matthew like Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz stood on boxes at each kiosk at all the intersections. The first little man smiled at Matthew. He said, "Matthew, would you like a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup?"

How did he know my name, thought Matthew? But the little man didn't look dangerous. And he saw other children taking food as the vendors said their names. On this day, with the toys free, so were the snacks, sandwiches, cakes, and hot chocolate the vendors gave away.

Somehow, the people at the kiosks knew which children had eaten and those who were now just trying to be greedy. Those were gently turned away. And really the marvels of the toys were too dazzling to be distracted by anything else for too very long.

Matthew ate his soup and sandwich. They tasted wonderful. As he savored each bite, he watched children leaving on the path back. All their faces beamed with contentment. Some were burdened by gargantuan boxes that housed the largest toys. Most had normal sized boxes, a few of which were brightly decorated or had great colored bows.

Finished eating, Matthew began the walk up the magic road. Only a few steps up the cobbled street, through a store window, Matthew saw a million flowers, more blooms than in any garden he'd ever seen or imagined. In one corner of the display window were vases of metal roses in every color that Matthew thought could exist in the whole world. Three spotlights shone directly down on them from the ceiling. The roses glimmered and sparkled. He knew his mom would love one of them.

End of part eight. Part nine coming next week.


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