Middle Child Syndrome
by Scott M. Roberts
Tara found the first scrap of paper on the running trail. It spiraled out of the trees and
landed on the path just in time for her to run over it with Zandy's stroller.
"Trash!" Zandy cooed. "Trash, Mama! Trash!"
"Trash, right," Tara said. And because she'd spent hours lecturing Zandy and the boys
about litter, now she'd have to pick it up.
The paper was warm. The top right corner was charred, and when she ran her thumb over
it, bits of blackened ash smeared her fingers. It didn't surprise Tara that someone was starting
fires out here in the undeveloped areas behind the neighborhood. Teenagers, probably. Lots of
dry wood lying around, an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in April--the most natural thing
in the world for dumb, hormone-afflicted kids to do was to goof around starting fires in the
secluded woods and marshlands.
Now that she stopped and sniffed, there did seem to be a smell of burning in the air. Tara
peered through the trees to see if she could see any smoke. Seeing smoke would mean she would
have to investigate--like an upstanding, HOA-dues-paying member of civilization. And if she
found someone starting fires, she'd have to fuss at them, and probably call their parents if she
knew them, and then worry about whether the little arsonists would come after her for revenge,
and all she had ever wanted to do was go for a jog with Zandy.
To Tara's relief, there was no sign of smoke. Adult responsibility averted.
The scrap was crowded with writing. Symbols and weird little geometric designs covered
both sides. She'd taught Jack's Cub Scout den basic cryptography last year. Simple things like
substitution cyphers. The writing on the paper wasn't anything like that. It looked more like
Arabic or Hebrew . . . or maybe just really bad cursive. The longer she stared the more . . . dense
the symbols seemed to become, as if every dip and peak held more than just a pen-stroke. The
ink seemed to itch and crawl, somehow, drawing her vision down into them, to lose her sight in
examination, and tangle her mind in . . .
"Go, go!" Zandy sang from her stroller.
Tara blinked. The smell of burning was stronger in the air, and the woods were suddenly
quiet. She flicked her hand against the paper. Maybe, just this once, it wouldn't be a bad thing
to litter. She looked at the scrap of paper again, but there was no sense of whatever she'd felt
before. No dense code, no crawling ink. Just torn notebook paper, and bad handwriting, and a