As the sun blazed in the afternoon sky, Jaden swam through the hole in the force field encumbered by a substantial bag. This time he was carrying not only his wet suit lined with contraband for Gaspar but also two dozen sets of breathing gear and force field homing medallions. His journey brought him back to the desolate Ten Thousand Islands region, a bit south of where he had entered before, so he kept a close eye out for pirates. Gaspar’s men would be a welcome sight—well, as welcome as pirates could be—but since he wouldn’t be able to recognize any of Gaspar’s men besides maybe Mitch, it was best to keep a low profile.
He wasn’t keen on swimming through the brackish water again, even with his personal propulsion gauntlets, but he didn’t have much choice. He’d find the first inhabited island and see if he could steal a boat. At least he didn’t have to manage it all in the dark this time. The outer boundaries of the U.Z. were so ineptly manned that even during the day the risk was minimal. And it was important to have as much time to escape under the cover of darkness as possible.
Ahead Jaden saw the first signs of life. A well-manicured island like something out of a fairy tale bobbed ahead. The grounds were meticulous. A walkway wound through the yard toward a whitewashed clapboard-style two-story building. Each section of the board was painted with some sort of candy or sugary confection.
Jaden didn’t see a boat, but maybe there’d be one around the back of the house. He noticed how quiet it was as the afternoon sun warmed the island. Who would live in such a quaint little house?
As if in answer, a heavy-set elderly woman with a winsome smile shuffled out the front door of the house. She wore her gray hair pinned in a tight bun on the top of her head and a loose gingham dress.
“Welcome to Candyland, young man,” she said in a mollifying voice that reminded Jaden of his grandmother. “They call me Grammy Snapple.” She held out a basket woven from palm fronds. “Would you like to sample an ice cold beverage?”
Jaden peered into the basket. Glistening with sweat, the ice-cold bottle called to him. He popped off the cap and let the sweet liquid pour over his tongue. “It’s delicious,” he said with candor.
“Why thank you, young man.” Her eyes twinkled and the corners of her eyes turned up in sanguine wrinkles.
“You must have been in the U.Z. a long time,” Jaden said.
“Oh, you’d be surprised. Not that long.”
Jaden couldn’t imagine what such a sweet little old lady had done to land herself in the Unemployed Zone. Based on her weight and the candy-themed decorations on her house, the best he could come up with was that she was an insatiable food addict. If only she had been able to say “no” to second helpings and her sweet tooth, this frail grandma would be back home rocking on her porch with her grandchildren on her knee.
“Grammy Snapple, I was wondering if you might have a boat I could borrow for the da—” Jaden’s voice was cut short. It was as if his throat was shutting closed.
As darkness closed in around him, Grammy Snapple’s beaming expression never wavered. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to take candy from strangers?”