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Originally going to be called "the Incredible and Really Quite Odd Story of Earl Smythe and the Russian Ground Squirrels" but, once again, it wouldn't fit. I really must think up shorter titles. Anyway, this is one of the better short stories I think I've written, (although I don't write many.) It started out as an English project, but then evolved into something... more. I hope you enjoy.
The Incredible and Really Quite Odd Story of
Earl Smythe and the
Russian Ground Squirrels.
Earl had parked too close to that beautiful silver Mercedes, he knew it. But he didn't feel like pulling out and trying again, so he just opened his door, trying not to scratch the other car's paint with his door, but not really noticing or caring when he did. The owner of the Mercedes probably had more than enough money to get it repainted.
He could make it a more interesting color, too, thought Earl as he made his way across the parking lot, Indiana Jones style hat pulled low against the snow. (He had forgotten a coat.) He grabbed a cart and pushed it through the sliding doors. As he came into the supermarket, he took his hat off, though only out of politeness, as it was nearly as cold inside the store as out. He then proceeded to search his pockets for the grocery list, only to find that he had forgotten it.
He did, however, find the pocket-sized notepad he carried with him everywhere, and which he filled with details of his surroundings, hoping to find a spark for a new novel to write. (It would be appropriate to mention here that Earl was a novelist, but that he hadn't finished a book in nearly four years. He was therefore constantly searching for good ideas to write about.) Earl took the notepad out, jotted a few lines into it, and put it back into the breast pocket of his shirt.
Then, he wheeled his cart down the aisle, racking his brains for what he had forgotten. He reached for a jar of organic applesauce, and his hand bumped that of a young woman, who had been about to take the same jar. She laughed, embarrassed, as he gestured for her to take it, and smiled at him as she wheeled her cart away.
Women acted like this a lot around him. Earl couldn't think why. His sister told him he was good-looking, but he had never set much stock in appearance. Earl was very close to his sister, though not geographically speaking. She was currently at a lab in Siberia, studying Russian ground squirrels. Earl would have visited her, but he had barely enough money to pay the rent for his shabby apartment in the Bronx, let alone buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world, much as he would have loved to be able to travel more.
Perhaps it was thoughts of his sister in Siberia that prompted Earl to buy a pack of Instant Ice breath freshening gum, as he waited in line at the checkout counter. The cashier rang up his food and the total came to 39 dollars and 66 cents. Wincing inwardly, Earl dug into his pockets, producing two crumpled 20-dollar bills, his last until he went to the bank again, a thing he always tried to postpone until absolutely necessary. The cashier pushed the bills into the register, and began plunking out the keys to calculate the change owed. Earl knew the answer.
The man looked up, startled. “Sorry?”
“You owe me thirty-four cents.”
“Oh…” The cashier finished punching out his calculations on the register and gave him a strange look. “Um, thirty-four cents is your change.”
Earl accepted the coins, wondering why so many people insisted on doing things their way, even though his was always faster.
He made his way out of the store, lugging two heavy shopping bags with him. Popping open his trunk, he heaved the bags inside and slammed the top back down. He opened the door and got into what we in America would consider the passenger's side, yet there was a steering wheel there.
Earl had had this car shipped from England for him six years ago. It cost him quite a lot and he had had to go without applesauce, (and several other such luxuries) for a few months, but he felt it was worth it. When he answered people's questions, saying that he had bought it for a taste of the exotic, they wondered why he didn't spend the money on a trip to a foreign country, or something more, well, useful. Earl replied that a trip was temporary, whereas the car would last much longer. Also, he said, it set him apart from everyone else. People always laughed at this last remark. Earl Smythe did not need anything else to set him apart from the multitude.
Earl opened the door to his building, stepped inside and checked his mailbox. There were several letters and a book catalogue in there. Earl didn't pause to examine them, but stuffed them into one of the grocery bags, and proceeded to the elevator. He pressed the button for the sixth floor, and nodded to old Mrs. Valentine, who had stepped in after him.
With a swooping sensation that always made his stomach churn, the elevator smoothly transported Earl and Mrs. Valentine upward. At the sixth floor, Earl nodded goodbye to the old woman, picked up his bags, and stepped out of the elevator. He made his way along the rather drab hallway and stopped at a dark green door with a brass number 126 on it. Inserting his key into the lock, Earl opened the door, and stepped into another world.
If a stranger were to walk into Earl's home, the first things they would have noticed were the books. Not so much the quantity of them, though there was enough of that, but the enormous range in quality. There were great brown tomes, tiny books small enough to fit into a pocket. Books so old you could barely read their titles stood next to bright new ones on the shelves.
The second thing, or things our stranger would have noticed were the walls, or rather what was hanging on them. Masks of all shapes and sizes adorned the otherwise plain, and rather dirty white walls. There were animal-like masks with beaks and horns, and ones like human faces, but for their bright colors and slanted eyes. There were masks that covered only half the face, like one might see at a masque, and masks with a little stick attached for holding it up in front of the wearer's face.
Beneath these masks was a falling-apart grey couch, which Earl promptly sat down on. He pushed his shopping bags to the side and proceeded to open his mail. Bills, bills, book catalogue, and…Earl examined the last letter with interest. It was addressed in handwritten ink to Mr. Earl S. Smythe, Room 126, 82, Westing Street, New York City, New York. The return address read: Mr. Slovnof Planoski, The Royal Arctic Institute, Moscow, Russia.
The Royal Arctic Institute? Thought Earl. But there hasn't been a royal family in Russia for over a hundred years! Shrugging, he broke the seal and pulled out the folded letter. He opened it, slightly bemused and read:
My dearest Mr. Smythe,
I hope and trust that this letter finds you well. I, however, am not well. There is something of the utmost importance that is troubling me, and, by the end of this letter, I'm sure that it will trouble you as well. I am writing in regards to your sister, a Miss Eloise Smythe. As you know, she was in Siberia, doing research on some local animals there. It seems that in her research on Russian ground squirrels there, she has stumbled upon a secret too important for me to reveal in this letter. All I can say is that it involves the Royal Arctic Institute, and, for Miss Smythe's own safety, they, that is to say, the members of the Institute, are keeping her in their headquarters in Moscow before she accidentally spills this secret to anyone else.
I arrived in New York City from Moscow yesterday. I intend to return tomorrow, with you in tow. You can help, Mr. Smythe. You can convince the Institute that your sister is innocent of malicious intent towards the Royal Arctic Institute and the nation of Russia. You alone can free her.
You will meet me at Le Guardia Airport at the luggage check for American Airlines at 11:15 tomorrow morning. I look forward to meeting you there.
P.S. You may remember me. It was my silver Mercedes whose front door you accidentally dented this morning.
Earl jumped up, breathing hard. Eloise! In trouble! Russia! Institute! Mercedes! He paced quickly. He had to help her. He had to go the airport now. No! He glanced at his watch. It was only 12:45. He had nearly twenty-four hours. He should make arrangements. How long would he be gone for? Did Mr. Planoski already have tickets?
Wait! Who was Mr. Planoski? How did he know so much about the Royal Arctic Institute? And how did he know about the accidental Mercedes-denting? That only happened today!
Earl forced himself to stop and catch his breath. It all came down to this: His sister was in trouble. He had been offered a way to help her. It involved Russia and a Royal Arctic Institute. Earl picked up the phone. Anyway, hadn't he always wanted to travel?
The first person Earl called was his editor, Sandy Coleman. She was not pleased when he told her he would be taking some time off of writing. But he pushed her comments away, pointing out that when was the last time he wrote a book, and made the rest of his calls. He left messages on both his landlord's and his parents' machines. Then, he began to pack.
He took his heaviest winter coat, his Indiana Jones hat, two pairs of mittens, his camera, his boots, his laptop, roughly ten books, and, of course, his notepad. He spent the rest of the day pacing, worrying, and attempting to find out more about the Royal Arctic Institute online.
Sadly, most of what he found was on Royal Arctic Institutes that existed in the 1700's, belonging to various countries, and whose purpose had been to explore beyond the Arctic Circle, a largely unknown area back then. There was one thing that proved slightly useful, however. One website link mentioned a Royal Arctic Institute based in Moscow… run by a Mr. Planoski! Earl eagerly clicked on the link, but the computer told him that this website was `forbidden'. With a sigh, Earl went back to worrying, and pacing.
The next morning, Earl got to the airport fifteen minutes early. At exactly 11:15, according to the big clock above the front desk, a short grey-haired man in a smart dark blue suit and long coat walked up to Earl and promptly held out his hand to shake.
“You must be Earl Smythe.” He said through a thick Russian accent. “Slovnof Planoski at your service.” He seemed rather proud of the name.
“Um, thank you very much.” Earl took the hand tentatively and shook it. The other man's grip was firm.
It occurred to him that he might ask the Russian some questions as to exactly what was going on here, but before he could open his mouth again, Mr. Planoski had him by the arm and was leading him to the baggage check, chattering all the way. Earl didn't remember exactly what he said, but he remembered that none of it was useful. Mostly stuff about the weather, and how Earl was taller than Mr. Planoski had expected him to be.
Finally, while the man stopped for breath, Earl began, “Um, Mr. Planoski”-
“Please, please, call me Slovnof!”
“Um, Slovnof, with all due respect, who exactly are you?”
“I? I am the head of the Royal Arctic Institute in Russia. I thought I made that quite clear. No? Well, it must have slipped my mind, terribly sorry. I am here to escort you safely to Moscow, my dear boy.”
“Yes, but what”-
“Questions, questions. All will be explained in good time. The matter is far too… how do you say in English… explosive to be talked about here.”
“Don't say that in an airport!” Said Earl, glancing nervously at a security guard nearby, but Slovnof was pulling him on, through customs, to their gate, and onto the plane.
Earl had never flown first-class before, and on any other day he would have enjoyed the experience. But today he could not relax, sip his champagne and smile calmly out the window as Slovnof was doing. The nine-hour flight was excruciating. He tried to sleep, and might have dozed off for a moment, but then Slovnof was shaking his arm, and telling him it was time to get off.
Again, the airport experience was rather surreal for Earl. He was exhausted, had no idea what was going on, and had given up trying to find out. However, he was rejuvenated slightly when they finally stepped outside. Moscow was fantastic. Chains of brownstone apartments stretched on and on down the road. And over a blocky Soviet style building Earl could see a beautiful onion dome.
Slovnof stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and flagged down a taxi. Earl stepped in after him, still gazing up at the sky. Slovnof said something in Russian to the driver, which Earl could only assume was directions to the R.A.I. Slovnof did not talk during the ride, and Earl was glad of the brief respite, so he could be alone with his thoughts, most of which consisted of: Where are we? and What is going on? and What time is it?
Ten minutes later, the driver pulled up in front of a marvelous building. Stepping out, Earl gazed up at it as Slovnof paid the driver. It wasn't very tall, but it had a grey stone archway above the gold-embossed marble door, and Earl recognized the pale green onion dome as the one he had seen in the distance from the airport. Something was written in Russian on the arch, which Slovnof translated as “The Royal Arctic Institute. 1834.” Earl wondered how he had never heard of this place before.
Now Slovnof was ushering him in, past armed guards at the entrance, (Earl looked at their 19th century-style rifles with mingled curiosity and alarm) and into the atrium. This too was a beautiful round room with marble floors and a deep blue ceiling, with arctic animals painted on its domed surface. Earl, however, did not notice these things, for in the center of the room, stood his sister, Eloise Smythe. Earl rushed to embrace her and neither Slovnof nor the guards made an attempt to stop him.
Earl pulled away from the embrace to look his sister up and down. She seemed fine; better, in fact than when he had last seen her. She wore a long fur-trimmed coat, (Earl knew it must be fake, as sister hated to harm animals), smartly cut black pants and a red blouse. Her dusky blonde hair was pulled up into an elaborate knot on the top of her head. Seeing Earl's expression of surprise, she smiled. “I'm sure you imagined me in a dank freezing cell in some god-forsaken derelict house in the slums. Don't worry. That's what Slovnof wanted you to think. Come, now he will tell you everything.”
For what seemed the umpteenth time in this very, very long day, Earl gaped as Eloise led him back over to where Slovnof was still standing, smiling in a slightly smug way. “Earl, my dear boy, I'm sorry I kept you in the dark for so long, but we couldn't have anyone stealing our idea. I'm also sorry I had to lie to you in my letter, for you see, we- that is to say, Eloise, the institute and myself- want you to write a book, a documentary of sorts. I did tell a sort of truth in my letter. Eloise here did discover a secret, and we have been keeping her here, lest out competitors find out what she has learned.” Earl briefly wondered what kind of competitors an obscure 19th century “Institute” would have, but Slovnof continued. “This secret is a groundbreaking one, no pun intended.” He gave a great booming laugh. “For we believe, (brace yourself) that our very own Russian ground squirrels have been hiding from us similar or perhaps greater intelligence than our own. These squirrels are geniuses, Mr. Smythe! They could help us solve all the world's great problems. Now I can see you want to say something, Earl, but just bear with me for one more minute!
“Your sister here has a way with animals, and they will speak to her, if to no one else yet. They have been explaining to her how their society works, and what improvements they think we could make to ours. We want you to write down every word these squirrels say, Mr. Smythe! We need you to document this enormous breakthrough in scientific history. These squirrels are the future! Now I know you usually only write fantasy novels, but sometimes, isn't the truth stranger than fiction?”
Earl stood there in stunned silence for almost a full minute. Then, he smiled, and took out his notepad.
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