Roger finished writing with a flourish. His cursive was really improving. He wasn't even supposed to be able to write in cursive yet, but presentation was important if you wanted adults to like you. Already the teacher at school let him to run errands and be in charge, and he was only eight years old. The school was so small that all the students were taught together, and he knew that some of the older kids resented him, but it was obvious to Roger that he was the best one for the job. It didn't matter how old he was.
He took the page he'd been writing on and had a look underneath. He'd been leaning on a tree stump, because his family hadn't had a table in a while, but he'd carefully cleaned it before starting, and the underside looked fine.
That was done. So Roger folded up the paper carefully and put it in his pocket, vaguely thinking that he might practice for the big kickball game next week.
Then his mother, who was wrestling with the plants in the garden, called to him. "Roger! Could you and Heinz go into the forest and collect doonkleberries?"
Roger showed no outward sign of his disappointment. "Yes, mother!" He'd rather play kickball, but chores were chores.
He found his older brother in his half of their room, reading some sort of dull looking, technical book about machines. What was the point of that? Machines were boring and they didn't impress anyone.
"Mother wants us to collect doonkleberries," he told him.
Heinz looked up excitedly. "Is... Is she making doonkleberry pudding?" he asked, licking his lips.
Roger shrugged. "I don't know." He hoped so. He loved his mother's doonkleberry pudding.
Heinz stood up and hid his book under his pillow, where their father wouldn't see it. He didn't believe in reading. Normally Roger would have told on him - anything to make his father finally love him - but Heinz knew where Roger hid his books as well.
"Bye, mother!" Roger called as they left the house. "We'll bring back lots of doonkleberries!"
She hacked off a creeping vine that had been curling around her wrist, and called "Come back safe, Roger!"
Heinz looked like he was going to say something, but he didn't.
They walked along the path to the dark forest. Roger swung his arms and practiced his smile. Heinz, who seemed to be annoyed about something, muttered to himself and kicked at the dirt.
Roger tried to block him out. He was annoying when he was in a bad mood. He was annoying when he was in a good mood, too. He was just an annoying person.
Suddenly, Heinz screamed, and Roger glanced over at him. There were ants swarming up and down his body, probably biting him. It looked like he'd kicked an anthill.
"Argh!" screamed Heinz. "Ants! Get them off me!"
Roger looked around to see if anyone was nearby, so that he could make a good impression on them by looking like a hero. But there was nobody, so he just watched.
After a few entertaining minutes, Heinz had got rid of all the ants, except for one crawling around his hair that he didn't seem to have noticed. It could probably live there forever with all the goo he had to use to keep it straight and neat.
They began walking again without a word. They didn't have much to talk about. They didn't have much in common.
They were almost to the edge of the forest when a scary-looking bandit jumped out at them from the bushes. "Pay the road toll, or- Oh, it's you, Roger."
Roger gave him his best innocent smile. "Hello, Mr Bandit!" He didn't recognise him at all, but he couldn't remember everybody he met.
The bandit looked down at his shoes, sheepishly. "I couldn't charge such a cute kid," he said after a second. "You and your little brother can go through for free."
Roger gave him another toothy grin. "Thanks!"
"Little brother?" said Heinz at the same time. "He... He's the little brother! I'm the big brother! Me!"
For some reason that happened a lot, even though Heinz was the one with pimples. Roger pulled Heinz past the bandit, whispering "Stop it!" They didn't have any money, and what if his brother's angriness cancelled out Roger's charmingness?
Heinz seemed to understand, because he stopped yelling and just scowled.
He'd been getting angrier and angrier lately. It had started at the same time as his stutter. Once, he'd been perfectly cheerful and oblivious, and it had been really easy to trick him into doing whatever Roger wanted. But now... At least he was as oblivious as he'd always been. Some days he barely smiled at all. Their mother said it was hormones, but she hadn't explained when Roger had asked what that meant. It was something to do with getting older, he thought. He hoped that wouldn't happen to him when he was Heinz's age.
It probably wouldn't. Heinz was weird. He was the only person Roger had ever met who could recite every element on the periodic table, whatever that was, and the only person he'd ever met to get their head stuck in a doorway. He was probably the only person in the world who'd done both on the same day. Maybe he was an alien from Venus, because he couldn't possibly be related to Roger.
It got as dark as night as soon as they entered the forest. Roger kept an eye out for flesh eating trees. Luckily, they were rare, but they did exist. Roger had seen them.
They had to go further in. Doonkleberries didn't grow on the edge of the forest, which was why the adults always sent their kids to get them instead of going themselves. Their parents had been sent to get doonkleberries by their parents, who had been sent to get doonkleberries by their parents. It was what kids did.
Roger was so intent on finding a doonkleberry bush that it took him a few seconds to notice that something behind him was beeping.
Roger looked over his shoulder. Heinz was holding a small metal box with a flashing light on one end. "What's that?" he whispered. You had to whisper in the forest. It had been drilled into his head for as long as he could remember. Loud sounds attracted goozims.
"It's my..." began Heinz in a voice that felt like the loudest thing Roger had ever heard. He glanced around guiltily and continued in a whisper. "It's my Doonkle-Berry-Locatinator! The beeps get faster the closer you get to a doonkleberry bush!"
"It's too loud," replied Roger. "Turn it off." He could hear rustling. He was sure of it.
"You're such a spoilsport, Roger," said Heinz, not turning his device off. He pointed it in another direction. "Hey! I found some!" He smirked. "Now who's being too loud?"
"Shhh!" said Roger. If they got killed by goozims, it would all be Heinz's fault.
He had found the berries, though. They were a distinctive black colour that made them look like a hole in the world, and they were protected by dark purple, sharp looking thorns. Roger reached out a hand and cautiously started picking them, being extra careful not to touch the thorns.
Fortunately, Heinz had shut up, and the only sounds were the rustling of the leaves, the whistling of the wind, and the screams of small mammals as they were eaten by the giant spider that hung over their heads. It was almost peaceful.
Then Heinz cut himself. "Ow!" He quickly put his finger in his mouth and looked around fearfully.
So did Roger. If there was one thing that was almost as bad as being loud in the forest, it was spilling blood in the forest. The smell attracted... He could hear the buzzing already, and he stayed perfectly still. He glanced at Heinz, who was doing the smart thing for once and keeping his finger in his mouth to block the smell.
Insects began to congeal out of the air, and soon they were covered in a loud, buzzing black fog. Roger held his breath and closed his eyes. He could feel them crawling around on him and inside his clothes, looking for the blood. Once they tasted blood... Then, when his lungs felt like they were about to burst, the buzzing subsided, and the insects left.
Heinz took his finger out of his mouth and coughed a few times. "You're not going to tell mother about that, are..." He coughed a few more times. "Ugh. B... Bugs in my throat."
Roger considered his options. If he got his brother in trouble, Heinz would get the normal bed without dinner punishment, and that meant more food for the rest of the family. But if he promised not to tell, he could have his pick of rewards. "I won't tell her if you do my homework." He was sick of doing homework. "For a month." That was much better than more for dinner one night.
Heinz squeezed his eyes closed in annoyance. "Fine, fine, just don't tell her."
Roger nodded, and they went back to picking berries. It was a bit risky, making oblivious Heinz do his homework, but he did do well in school. Better than Roger, as he always made sure to mention whenever they argued about who was better. And if the teacher noticed... They were both excellent liars.
Roger's basket was full, so he straightened up and looked around. Where had they come in...? He couldn't tell. Every path looked exactly as dark and leafy as the others. "Heinz," he whispered.
Heinz stopped picking berries and looked at him.
"Which way did we come in?"
Heinz looked around, puzzled. "Uh..." He looked around for a while more. "I was following the Locatinator," he admitted. He pointed. "This way?"
"Come on," said Roger, heading off in the opposite direction. He had no idea which way they'd come in, but he was sure that whatever Heinz thought was wrong.
They walked in silence. Roger was angry with Heinz for getting them lost, and angry with himself for not paying attention to where they'd been. Even with his mother constantly reminding him to take care of his brother, he'd forgotten. It wasn't fair. Heinz was the older brother. He shouldn't need to be taken care of.
The walking got harder. They were going uphill. Roger didn't remember going up any hills. The forest started in the foothills, and the town was on level ground.
They were going the wrong way.
Almost as soon as Roger realised that, Heinz yelled and vanished from sight. Roger stared at the spot where he'd been for a second. It was the edge of a cliff. He'd nearly walked over it.
Roger knelt down and looked over the edge. It was hard to tell in the gloom, but he thought he could see Heinz lying spreadeagled on his back, not very far down, but too far to climb back up. He couldn't tell if he was moving or not.
"Heinz?" called Roger. "Are you okay?"
Heinz definitely moved then. "I... I think so," he replied, a little weakly.
Roger was conflicted. If he walked downhill, he'd come out of the forest and find his way home, but Heinz wouldn't be able to do that unless he found a way around the cliff. Roger could just leave him there, but that wouldn't be taking care of his brother. He could lie and say that Heinz had died or got lost, but he'd probably still be in trouble for letting him die or get lost.
Besides, even though it was probably a good idea, he didn't want to leave him there. So he grabbed a tuft of scraggly grass with his free hand, and hoisted himself down the cliff.
Heinz stood up awkwardly and picked up his basket. He didn't thank Roger for not abandoning him.
"This way," said Roger, walking off. He kept close to the cliff. Once they found a way around it, they could go downhill and find their way out of the forest. They were practically home already.
Several days or several hours or several months later, Roger leaned against the cliff to catch his breath. There was a deafening roar to the right, startlingly close, and he jumped, barely keeping himself from yelling out loud.
"Goozim!" whispered Heinz, his face pale.
Roger wanted to run away, further into the forest. But he tried to stay calm. Goozims were nearly blind, so unless you made a noise, or stood right in front of them, they wouldn't chase you. Which was good, because they could run much faster than a kid. So, breathing hard, partly out of fear and partly out of exhaustion, Roger inched along the cliff wall.
Nothing came rushing out of the trees. When he felt safer, Roger whispered "What time is it?" It was hard to tell, but it seemed to be getting darker.
Heinz stared at his whatever-inator for a second, then said "I should add a clock to this thing. That's a great idea!"
Roger sighed and looked up at the trees.
Abruptly, they walked out into a glorious sunset. They'd come to the edge of the forest. Roger glanced at the cliff. Now that he could see it properly, it looked simple to climb up on. So he did. "Come on, Heinz!"
Heinz was having trouble climbing while carrying his basket. He kept slipping. Eventually Roger got sick of it and grabbed the basket off him. "Come on!"
With both his hands free, Heinz scrambled up the cliff easily.
Roger looked around. He knew exactly where they were. They'd been walking around in practically circles for hours. Annoyed, he headed off in the direction of home.
It got darker and darker and darker. Roger was beginning to get scared again. They were carrying doonkleberries. They had to get home before dark. They had to. If they didn't...
"Do you hear... squeaking?" said Heinz, his voice trembling.
"No," said Roger, without bothering to listen. If there were squeaks, that meant there were doonklebats, and he didn't want there to be doonklebats. He had nightmares about doonklebats.
All was well for five seconds.
"Bats!" yelled Heinz suddenly, and ran ahead.
One glance back was all Roger needed to convince him to do the same.
He was fast, but he wasn't as fast as Heinz. Heinz was one of the best runners he knew. He had to be, because everything in the world seemed to hate him. If he hadn't been so clumsy, Roger would have blackmailed him onto his kickball team a long time ago.
They were in sight of the house when Heinz tripped and fell. Roger ran past him, and hammered on the door as hard as he could. There was no chance of it being unlocked. It was always locked. Finally, the door opened, and he stumbled inside and leaned on a wall, shaking hard.
His mother enfolded him in a hug. "Roger! What happened?"
"W... We got lost and... Doonklebats..." Roger said between stifled sobs. In the back of his mind, he made a note of how he felt, for the next time he needed to fake cry.
She hugged him tight, ignoring the hammering at the door and the screams from outside.
Once Roger had stopped shaking, his mother released him and opened the door. Heinz almost fell inside, shivering and very pale. There were doonkleberries stuck in his hair.
Their mother fixed him with a glare.
Heinz smiled nervously and held up the basket, which was now half-full. "I saved most of the doonkleberries..."
Their mother snatched the basket off him. "Roger could have been hurt."
Heinz looked at the floor and mumbled something that included the words "perfect Roger".
"What was that?"
"N... Nothing, mother," said Heinz.
Their mother wasn't finished berating him. "What have you been doing? Your hair is a mess!"
Heinz rubbed his head self-consciously. A couple of doonkleberries plopped to the floor.
"Stop slouching! And wipe that scowl off your face!"
Roger looked at Heinz while their mother continued to rant. To Roger's surprise, Heinz looked... tired. He looked almost like a normal person. He'd never thought of his brother as a normal person before. He was Heinz.
Heinz met his eyes and glared.