Mikey Frick hid in his mother’s closet until his stomach growled and the cinnamon-sugar darkness, filled with his mother’s things, whispered what a good boy he was. When the strangers found him and brought him to his new mom, named Foster, he swore, the next time he hid, no one would ever find him.
By the time Mikey turned five, he was so good at hide-and-seek the other children wouldn’t play with him anymore—and that suited him just fine. He didn’t need them. He could play alone, hiding where the others wouldn’t dare: the dark places, the wriggly places.
One day, he found an animal’s burrow hidden behind a shrub. The entrance was just wide enough for his shoulders, and the air wafting from it smelled faintly sweet. He pulled himself inside. The earthen tunnel was as tight as a giant’s fist. Mikey scrabbled and clawed his way down, down, down.
When the ground beneath him crumbled, he fell, screaming and waving his arms, until he thudded onto a pillowy surface. Rising to his feet, he blinked in the brilliant light shining in a world of waist-high flowers. Some flowers were the normal sort: roses, lilies, daffodils. But others were covered with bells of silver, gold, and copper, gleaming in the light of the sunless sky. Some had animal heads, their eyes tracking Mikey as he turned in place. Others were shaped like clouds or waterfalls.
“Where am I?” he asked aloud.
“Right there, of course,” replied a voice.
Mikey turned to see a girl about his age pointing to where he stood. She wore a dark green dress and had yellow hair in tangled curls.
“I’m Flower,” she said. “Do you want to hold my hand?”
He rolled his eyes, then thumped his chest. “I’m Mikey Frick, the best ever at hide-and-seek.”
Flower clapped her hands. “I’ve found you!”
“No, no, no! That doesn’t count. We weren’t playing yet!”
“Oh… Then find me!”
The girl knelt, then scampered away. The belled flowers jangled as she shouldered past. A short distance from where he stood, she called from under the petaled canopy, “OK, I’m ready!”
Mikey slapped his head in disgust and strode to where she was hiding. “Found—”
She wasn’t there.
No matter how many stems he bent aside, he couldn’t find her.
“Olly olly oxen free!” he called at last.
“Now it’s your turn,” said Flower beside him.
She closed her eyes and started counting.
Mikey charged through the flowers, his heart pounding, and when he’d gone far enough, he tunneled his body through their stems. A rainbow of petals fluttered in his face.
“Ready or not, here I come!” called Flower.
He grinned when he heard the girl move in the wrong direction, the bells marking her passage.
Still the best.
The tap on his shoulder made him jump. Flower’s head poked through the flora. Yellow pollen covered her cheeks and nose.
“Boo!” she giggled, then swooshed away. “Catch me if you can!”
They played game after game, and Mikey learned, with a burgeoning respect, that Flower was very good at hide-and-seek. Whenever he gave up, she would reveal herself, rising from the ground, usually right next to where he stood.
When it was her turn to search, she’d shake the pollen from her hair after finding him—she always found him—and boop his nose with a tickling touch. And Mikey, who really didn’t care to lose, would laugh anyway.
“I’m hungry,” said Mikey after their zillionth game.
Flower picked a purple rose with fat, drooping petals and took a bite. “These are my favorite,” she mumbled, petals spilling from her mouth.
Mikey discovered he liked the tiger heads best—the girl assuring him the flowers didn’t mind being eaten. The orange petals were tart and spicy, the black were rich and sweet, like chocolate. The petals filled his belly and slaked his thirst.
“Where are your parents?” he asked Flower.
Scanning the endless fields, she pointed in the distance. “Over there… I think. They don’t say much.” She took a bite from a pink flower. “They’re parent-colored, so don’t eat them, please.” She burped and he laughed.
“Where are yours?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Somewhere far.”
“Do you want to hold my hand?”
He shook his head. “No thanks.”
Without the sun, time was funny in the flower world. Whenever they were sleepy, they napped in the perfumed fields. The girl would yank a flower to switch off the sky, and in the darkness some flowers blinked like fireflies. Mikey dreamed of wriggly places and cinnamon. And when he woke, Flower was always nestled beside him, no matter how far from him he’d insist she sleep.
They’d eat, then play: always hide-and-seek. They never tired of the game. Mikey’s skills grew, and with practice, he learned how to find the girl—most of the time. He’d shout, “Eureka!”(Flower explaining the word was like ‘aha!’ only better), and she’d laugh and shriek, then count while he hid.
Some games it took the girl longer to find him, but she always managed. And Mikey Frick, the second-best-ever, would sigh, and grumble, and wonder if he’d ever win.
Then one game, Mikey stumbled over a wriggly place, a hole just his size, beckoning in the ground. His pulse quickened. He could squeeze in; he was sure. Flower would never find him. He’d beat her! He’d be the best again!
Crouching near the hole, he peered into its depths. The darkness breathed his name with a cinnamon-sugar whisper. Seconds ticked away, keeping time with his heartbeat.
Then Mikey Frick smiled and placed his hand next to the hole. “Thanks, Mom, but I think I’m going to stay and play a little longer.”
“Found you,” Flower said behind him. She held her hand to her mouth and stared at the hole. “What’s that?”
“A wriggly place,” he said. Still smiling, he took Flower’s hand in his and pointed. “Why don’t we play over there?”
Robert Lowell Russell once aspired to become a history professor but found the real world too constraining. He is a former librarian and current nursing student and lives with his family in southeast Ohio. He is a SFWA member, and a member of the Codex and Writeshop writers’ groups. His work has appeared (or will appear) in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Penumbra, Daily Science Fiction, and a variety other venues. For more of Robert’s stories (or to see him dressed as a ninja) please go to http://robertlowellrussell.blogspot.com/