“That’s right,” said Becky, her arms crossed. “What’s the matter with you?” She went on before the cowboy could answer. “You chickened out or something?” She continued to ignore Andrew’s reddened face. “You’re only criticizing her because you don’t like her. But I think you should keep your mouth shut! Just because you don’t like her doesn’t give you the right to ruin our chance of getting out of here. Read. My. Lips. We’re only coming up with a general plan for now! Do you not know what ‘general’ means?”
Obviously Becky had gone too far. Mark saw a glint of tears in Andrew’s eyes as he turned away, humiliated.
Mark let out a sigh.
He felt sorry for Andrew. But he felt sorry for Diane too.
Worse yet, Mark wondered if they would ever get to their plan. Or anything at all, before it’s too late.
Diane took a deep breath. “Andrew,” she said slowly. “Either way, there are risks involved. There is also a chance that Thief would have gotten us before we find a way to leave this strange city.” She paused to see if Andrew has anything else to say. He didn’t.
“But what’s more important is that we make the most out of the best plan we come up with,” she went on patiently. “How do you know for sure that this won’t be the last time Thief stays in this city? We would be trapped here and starve to death before we find a way out. What if no one else, except Thief, knows how to leave this place? It might not be the same as simply closing our eyes and touching something like we did before. And what if the police come here only to find them gone? That was what I meant by learning about them. So we won’t lose them.” Diane paused and looked at the shivering group.
“My point,” she continued calmly, “I guess, is that we can sit here and come up with many more what-ifs. But then we might as well give up in the end and seal our fate.”
Diane needed not to ask them. Mark saw, by the looks on their faces, that the others have already sided with her. Particularly Becky.
“Y’all see that?” he bellowed, looking at the others. “She ain’t even asking us if we mind taking the risk!” He turned back to Diane. “Ya ain’t even got a clue of what kinds of risks are involved. What if Thief got us? That ain’t just some risk. That’s called danger! And how’d ya know if them folks ain’t dangerous? What ‘bout them weapons they might have? And how’re we gonna protect ourselves?”
“What if we alone cannot find our way back, like what George said?” she asked. “We will definitely need some help. This place is huge, after all.” She glanced at the cowboy, who was quiet, his lips drawn into a thin line.
“However,” she went on, “it would be more beneficial to us – though I admit it’ll be a bit risky – if we track Thief down. They had been in and out of here, so they must know the place very well. Not only would we learn more about them, but we might also be able to locate Mark’s antiques and exit the place faster. Then we can call the police, like what you’ve said.”
Andrew was not pleased. He snatched off his cowboy hat, his eyes blazing, and ran a hand through his short, brown hair.
“I think there’re other ways to git Mark’s antiques back,” he told others. “We could find a way out of this buildin’ an’ this city. Once we git home, we call them police. We’re gonna tell them ’bout the tree and this hideout. They’ll git Thief for sure!” Andrew stopped talking and looked at the others. He thought he saw George’s head nodding slowly.
To everyone’s surprise, Diane also nodded, as if considering Andrew’s words.
“That is a good one too,” she said finally. She hesitated. “Except one thing.”
“What’s that?” snapped Andrew as though Diane had offended him.
“Of course we would not know the detailed part of the plan yet,” she explained patiently. “That is why we are discussing about it now. First we come to an agreement on a general plan. Then we worry about the details.” She smiled at him. “You made a good reminder, Andrew. Thanks for bringing that to our attention.”
Andrew knitted his brows but said nothing. “Anyone else?” he heard Diane asking the others. Suddenly he couldn’t help but feel furious about her dominance over the entire group. Someone ought to teach her better than lording it over the others, he decided.
“We,” Andrew cut in without looking at Diane, “ain’t got to track Thief, if we ain’t feelin’ like it. But ya ain’t givin’ the rest of us much choice!”
Diane seemed confused. “I’m very sorry that you are feeling this way, Andrew,” she replied. “But I did ask, a while ago, if any of you got suggestions. I have no clue that you got one. Why don’t you tell us about yours, then?”
The others shifted their gazes from Diane back to Andrew.
“Why don’t we be more positive?” suggested Diane. “Let’s go through the passage there. And see what happens. Who knows? We might be able to spot a stairway to upstairs. That flicker of light George saw could be made by Thief and we ought to find out if this is true.”
George choked. Soon he was coughing like an old man.
Logan whacked him on the back.
A blob of bubble gum flew out of George’s mouth and plopped onto the table. George looked up at Diane, surprised.
Luckily, the redhead knew his best friend very well. He leaped to his feet. “Hold on a sec, Diana,” he said. “Let me explain that thing to George.” She nodded.
Diane waited patiently. She watched Logan whisper ardently beside George’s ear and knew what he was explaining.
The thief. And all the events that led them here.
She only hoped he would cut the story short.
Logan did. But George’s eyes were bulging by the time his best friend was done talking.
“Thank you, Logan,” said Diane. To which he replied, “Don’t mention it, baby girl.”
Andrew was watching Logan the whole time. He waited until Logan was seated. The cowboy cleared his throat and looked right at Diane. “So how’re ya gonna track ’em down?” he asked gruffly. “What’re we gonna do once we find ’em?”
George swallowed. “There’s some sort of pattern, I’m telling you,” he told the others. “Like how you can only come into this place through the tree trunk. But not the other way around.” He pointed at the marble wall that had revolved a while ago to emphasize his point. “The same with the wall.”
“And now you’re wondering,” Diane finished for George, “about the darkened passage over there.”
George nodded slowly, saying no more.
The others, too, were horror-stricken. Some of them – they couldn’t help it – began to have pessimistic thoughts, their eyes darting from one corner of the room to another.
Except Diane, who sat very still, thinking. Mark thought she seemed calmer than ever.
“George has a good point,” she said finally and stared at the doleful faces before her. “But we still need to form a plan. We cannot simply sit here.”
The room became silent. For a while, no one spoke. George tore open a package of bubble gum and popped several into his mouth.
“You mean, here in this building?” asked Mark.
George nodded. “I guess you guys all know about what happened after that. Except one thing.” He picked up his sandwich from the table and took the last bite.
The others waited while he chewed, his cheeks filled out.
“Would you mind continuing from where you’ve left off?”
George nodded with a faraway look on his face. “Guess the first time I realized it,” he mumbled, “was when I got here.”
“Realized what?” asked Andrew impatiently and absently checked his time.
“That I couldn’t go back. Even if I wanted to.”
The others exchanged glances.
“What’d you mean, buddy?” Logan seemed anxious.
“I tried it several times,” answered George, shrugging. “The method that got me here, I mean. But I couldn’t go back through the tree again.”
“But did you close your eyes and –”
“Yes, yes,” he answered the redhead a little impatiently. “And put my hands on the tree trunk. I even tried different parts of the trunk.” He shook his head. “It didn’t work.”
This time nobody asked more questions. They already knew.
“As I was saying,” George went on without being asked, “I realized I need help. Or I would never be able to find my way home. That’s when I spotted it! A flicker of light upstairs!”
The others settled down and seated themselves around George. Several of them began to dig through their own backpacks, for the idea of food seemed very important all of a sudden. Even Diane.
Mark took a huge bite of his own sandwich. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Diane, who sat quietly next to him, pulling out a small package of energy bar. Printed on the very top of it were the words: Low Carb! Low Calories!
Mark thought he knew why they contain fewer calories. It was because they were in such a small amount, something his father would never approve as real food. “That’s how some people die of anorexia,” he often told Mark.
Diane caught his eye and raised her eyebrow.
Mark shook his head disapprovingly and went back to his lunch.
They ate in an uncomfortable silence, until George was nearly done with his sandwich. He belched loudly and rubbed his stomach as though his hunger was satisfied. Diane seized the moment.