Amberville. If not for my curiosity about Phoenix Town, I would’ve probably spent the rest of my vacations right here. The town was built on either side of the Main Street, the road itself drained into a large tunnel not so far away.
This tunnel was strange, maybe because there was a huge steel gate right in front of the tunnel; and the gate was guarded on either side by two armed men. “There’s always a patrol around this time,” Lisa informed me,” and then, once again at night.”
“Why’s that?” I asked. “What’s on the other side of the tunnel?”
“I don’t know,” said Lisa indignantly. “You can’t just walk up to those guys and ask very politely, with puppy eyes, or something equally revolting, to let you into the tunnel — aha!” she cried suddenly.”Here comes the famous marching band of snobs!”
Lisa and I spent most of the morning together, and it was towards the afternoon when I finally left, finally setting off on the trekking route to New Chesham. Lisa and I had discussed this sometime earlier, I should arrive there around six in the evening if I followed the path blindly.
But naturally, I didn’t do that. Phoenix Town was still on my mind, and at that point, I thought it wise to improvise en route so that I’d reach much earlier than planned. Sadly though, it didn’t help one bit; my plan was replaced completely with a horribly convoluted mess.
I wasn’t lost.
I wasn’t lost.
Honestly, I could retrace my way back if I wanted to.
But at the same time, I didn’t know how to proceed any further from here.
The afternoon was slowly turning dull, ageing into the evening. I didn’t want to spend a night here, outside — maybe I should really head back to Amberville…
Suddenly I heard a soft splash from not so far away. Silence for a few seconds. Then, another one.
I walked towards the source of this sound — I was approaching a stream and could hear the crashing of water against rocks on the banks, the ground was now entwined with tiny rivulets among the various pebbles, the occasional patch of mud was damp and soft.
I saw a boy, sitting on a protruding rock on the opposite bank, his slender arms feeling for what was clearly another pebble to bounce off the water. I watched from behind a tree as he looked on wrily at his last — failed — attempt.
I ambled towards the water, my hand was out of my pocket when I suddenly jerked my arm towards me — I noticed the nettles at the side, and cursed myself silently.
I put down my rucksack and instantly thrust my burning arm into the water. And then as my palm went numb, I brought my other hand into the almost transparent stream. Cupping the freezing liquid in my hands, I quickly splashed it on my face. Relishing the sudden burst of cold.
I looked up and returned the glance at the boy on the opposite bank. He seemed slightly doubtful at my sudden appearance, and so, without thinking, I closed my fingers on the first stone I found and flung it into the water. I stared, dismayed, at my pathetic failure, as an immense splash issued and brought another frigid shock to my body.
The boy grinned, and his eyes, set behind a pair of glasses, twinkled as though he was trying his hardest not to laugh. I tried gauging the boy’s age; he looked in his teens, probably around sixteen, or so. He wore a large hoodie that covered his hair and forehead completely, and as he stood up, he looked just about my height.
The boy crossed the stream with two strides, each placed carefully on rocks that were protruding out of the water. “You touched the nettles, right? You’d be better off not keeping that hand in the water too long if you ask me.
“I planted the bushes, you see, to keep the foxes away,” the boy explained as he gently plucked off a few leaves from near the nettle bush. “Usually keeps the dumb ones away, so looks like I’ve found myself either a really dumb one or a very clever one. Which one are you?” I smiled at the boy’s cheek.
“Rubbing the leaves on your hand should help stop the pain — try not to scratch that hand until then.”
My hand was, at this point, far too numb to require constant scratching. But I did as he said anyways, and he was right; I did feel significantly better soon after.
“Well, it’s obvious that you’re lost,” said the boy, sitting down on a rock. “So, where were you planning to go?”
“Phoen–” I faltered, cursing myself for my stupidity, then realized that there was really no harm in asking. “–ix Town.”
The boy looked at me blankly, his head was hung in thought.
“You’re in the right direction, then,” said the boy. “Up ahead, about two miles, there’s a church; you could ask the Pastor or any of the nuns and they could help you.”
“So you don’t know?”
The boy looked at me strangely. “You — don’t know that Phoenix Town is — underground?”
“Underground?” I echoed blankly.
“Yup,” said the boy. “Anyways, I’m going back home myself, so you can come with if you want to.”
“You live in Phoenix Town?”
“Yes,” replied the boy testily. “In fact –” he was suddenly interrupted by thunder from above, “– we should get back before it starts raining.”
I picked up my rucksack and cautiously followed the boy, as we crossed the stream and walked on into the forest again. “What’s your name?” the boy asked me.
“I’m Jasmin. How about you?”
“People call me Maz,” he replied in an almost bored voice. We were now walking deep into the forest, and suddenly, quite in the middle of nowhere, we stopped.
I watched Maz as got on to all fours, myself not having a clue what was going on. And as I saw what he was doing — well, there’s no other way to put it — revealed a deep, circular hole in the ground, like a manhole that was lost and far away from the city.
“What’s this?” I asked, noticing a ladder going down some — maybe ten, fifteen meters.
“A shortcut to my house,” said Maz simply. “You’d have to hurry, ‘cos it could rain, you know?”
“Are you — sure?” I asked. Maz looked at me with knit eyebrows.
“Do you plan to walk two miles in the rain?”
I shook my head. But I noticed one thing and that was –
“My rucksack won’t fit in there.”
“If you carry it on the way down, yes,” commented Maz. “But we’ll manage all the same.”
I didn’t remove my rucksack, as he’d clearly expected. “Oh come on, if you don’t trust me you can just drop the bag down the hole.” I looked at him. “That’s ten meters down,” he explained. “What if I slipped and fell from the top rung? I’d break my skull, right? There’s an airbag at the bottom, your bag is safe, my head is not cracked. So please, let’s just get it over with before it starts raining.”
I took the rucksack into my hands, and grudgingly, held it over the metal trapdoor. And then I relaxed my fingers, and watched the bag sail down, disappearing momentarily into shadow and finally reappearing in the light, causing a visible depression in the blue surface below.
“Fully intact, you see? There’s no harm done,” said Maz happily. “Your shrine is preserved. Well now, off you pop.”
Maz was now closing the trapdoor on top of him, as he got on to the ladder. He bolted the door on top of him, and to my sudden shock, he leant all the way back, until he was parallel to the ground.
Ten meters. Root two seconds before impact — no, there’d be some tiny error due to air resistance — bloody hell, Jasmin, now’s not the time for solving problems in kinematics!
“Bet you were scared, maybe even a bit,” said Maz, as though he was bottling his urge to laugh. “And you knew there was an airbag right here.”
“No, I wasn’t,” I lied through my teeth, as Maz emerged from the depression in the airbag that he had just created. The boy removed the hood and revealed a large uncombed mess of brownish-black hair. He wore black-rimmed glasses and revealed a white Eminem T-Shirt as he discarded his jumper.
“Welcome to my house, and of course, to Phoenix Town,” he said, as I followed him to the room opposite, which was clearly his study.
Books were stacked neatly into shelves, an open laptop sat on a desk that faced a window, its blinds had been put completely down. Maz waved a hand and switched on a light, and sat down on a large bed.
A large anime poster was stuck to the wall, just facing the bed: I wondered how boys could sleep with such a monstrous-looking creature watching them constantly, with those horrific red eyes in black background. It would probably give me nightmares on end.
There were a few block-letters, written on the wall, just near the desk. It looked like it was written with a pencil; it was mostly illegible and squinting slightly, I recognised a W at the beginning and an N at the end. It was one word; there was nothing of the sort anywhere else in the room.
“Sit,” suggested the boy. “You’ve clearly only heard the name of this place; which is actually surprising in itself. So why don’t you tell me how you heard about Phoenix Town in the first place.”
So I told Maz about my meeting with Samarth, though I didn’t mention the strange lies that he had told me then.
“And then, when I was looking, I found this map,” I concluded, showing the map to Maz. “The place had been marked on this, so I decided to visit.”
Maz looked at the map, he seemed moderately surprised.”Well, that would mean –” he trailed off into silence.
“This Samarth person,” began Maz. “You said he was going to move in, right? So that would mean that he’d be given a place soon, somewhere in town. Then we just need to find out where he’s staying and give him a nice little surprise.” Maz’s eyes were twinkling again.
“So we need to wait,” I said. “But what do I do ’til then?”
“You’d have to stay here,” said Maz, as though it was obvious. “Unless you want to walk every day to and from Amberville, which you clearly don’t.
“The hills are patrolled at night, above,” continued Maz. “And when it’s daytime the patrol shifts down here. You’ll need one of these if you want to roam about freely in town,” he rolled up his sleeve and revealed a thin metal bracelet that closed on to his arm tightly. “I’ll get you one by tomorrow, so until then you’d have to bear with this house.”
“The house’s lovely,” I said earnestly.
Maz got out of bed and raised the blinds of the window. “This is Phoenix Town,” he said. “What do you think?”
I was lost for words.”It’s –”
“It’s basically an underground extension of Amberville, that road over there, that tunnel over there; that leads to Amberville.” I looked at the tunnel at the far end of the neighbourhood. There was a truck coming in through the tunnel, and both Maz and I had seen it.
“That does happen occasionally,” said Maz, but I wasn’t really listening; after all, I knew this already.
The truck had stopped. And I saw, from afar, a small figure get on to the road, it looked as though he — no, she, I saw a blonde ponytail at the back of the figure’s head — had been holding on to the truck all this while, now she was shaking her arms a bit and started walking away from the road into the small bylanes.
“Oh, relax,” said Maz. “I know that woman, she’s no thief or anything of that kind. She’s a bit impulsive and so on, hates rules and so forth, but not a thief.”
I couldn’t relax fully though; the way she walked seemed familiar, and well, I most definitely knew someone who cared as little for rules.
Lisa Hooper. Why here?