Auspicious Pudding, Part III

This week we’re talking about endings. So it seems appropriate I should finally write my installment — the ending — of our most recent round robin story, Auspicious Pudding. Be sure to read parts one and two first, or this conclusion will make little sense. It might make little sense regardless. 

Auspicious Pudding, Part III

Ty followed Jasper’s steps over the rocks and tree trunks. Placed his feet where Jasper’s had been. They soon fell into a rhythm–one two, one two–and Ty filled in the third beat in his head. Three’s a better number than two.

He’d given up talking. Each time he’d opened his mouth, Jasper would tell him to hush it. He’d wanted to talk about the birds. To ask again about the trees. See if Jasper knew why the branches moved when there was no breeze. Most of all, though, Ty wanted to ask about his belly. About the mass growing up and down and out.

Jasper hopped onto a log, took a deep breath and let out a yell that stopped Ty in his tracks. Sent a shudder through him that about knocked him to his knees. He wiped a hand over the sweat on his face.

“What you go and do that for?”

Jasper said nothing. Just watched the trees before continuing on his way.

Ty didn’t like this anymore. Jasper had said this trip was for fun, but all it’d been was weird. Birds and bellyaches and–

The ground shivered. Jasper dropped his pack and turned in a circle, his arms out at his sides.

“Jasper?” Ty eyed the trees above. Felt the knot in his middle twist. “Why–”

“Shhhh.” Jasper held a finger to his lips. “Listen.”

Ty held his breath and listened beyond the beating of his heart. “I don’t–”

Jasper held up a hand and raised an eyebrow. He stood so close, Ty could smell his musky breath. The ground shivered once more, and with it the coil in Ty’s belly. When Jasper spoke, his voice hissed like water. “The king is in his counting house, counting his…”

Ty wiped away a fleck of Jasper’s spit that had landed below his eye.

“Counting his what, Ty?” Jasper leaned in even closer. “What does the king count?”

Ty turned, catching his foot on a rock, and he fell. He spine cracked against the rocky ground, shattering the silence not with the thud of flesh but the sharp jangle of metal. He tried to reach down, to touch the jagged mound stretching the skin of his belly toward the sky. He gasped. “Can’t move my arms, Jasper.”

And then, “Jasper?”

His friend stood just out of sight. But Ty knew he was there from the laughter. Low like a growl, but building like thunder.

“Gold.” Jasper’s feet stomped the ground–one two, one two–raising a cloud of dust Ty could see from the corner of his eye. One two, one two, Jasper’s feet danced. He added a clap in for the third beat. Three’s better than two.

The branches shook and the sky turned inky black. Hundreds of magpies filled the trees. In quorky voices they repeated the answer to Jasper’s riddle.

He leaned over, blocking Ty’s view of the murder in the trees. “Does it hurt now?” he asked. “In your belly?”

Ty shook his head. He felt nothing beyond his shoulders.

Jasper nodded and rubbed his chin. “What was it you said was the number ten? Gold, a time of joyous bliss and what?” He leaned in, his face twisting to grotesque. “The devil himself?”

Ty screamed. Jasper clapped his hands twice and the forest went silent. “Traveled so far, haven’t you?” he called out to the birds. “Ain’t you feeling peckish?”

Gold gold gold, the hungry birds answered.

With a flourish of his hands, he stood aside and the magpies rained down, pelting the taut skin until it broke forth. Ty felt nothing–a small mercy–as he gaped in horror, watching each bird carry away a shining coin.