The Secret of El Arenque Rojo, Chapter 3: The Child Who Stares

by Jason Toon

If you bought our Woot 2012 Calendar, you may have noticed that each month sports a different QR code. And if you've scanned that code, you've gotten a message telling you to wait until the first of the given month to read a new installment in The Secret of El Arenque Rojo. And then you probably wondered what we were talking about. Chapter 1 appeared in January on the Woot blog. Chapter 2 took the tale to Home.Woot. And now Chapter 3 brings Roy Odom and his prophetic slapstick quest to Kids.Woot...

Roy Odom's voice climbed and climbed, faster and faster, finally tumbling over the edge of the end of his story, landing in a billowy breath. He waited for some reaction to flex Professor Evelyn Sayre's face into life.

But the head of the Quarterpace University film department just stared. Then sighed. Then reclined in her vintage wooden roller chair, the slatted back creaking into place. Her eyes never left Roy's as she reached for the almost empty Slurpee cup on her desk and took a last, loud slurp on the red straw.

Professor Sayre had a powerful presence for a twelve-year-old...

Roy could see now how this brace-toothed savant had climbed to the top of the department. How could any strutting, sheltered academic popinjay hope to match this child of tidal will and flamethrower intelligence? Challenge her, Roy sensed, and she would loop one of her bobbed curls over her ear with a thumb, fix you with that stare, and leave you staring at your rhetorical guts on the floor.

He squirmed in his seat. What an idiot he was, to waste this prodigy's time with claims that he'd discovered hints of prophecy in a series of old Mexican silent films starring a rodent-faced genius named El Arenque Rojo. But where else could he turn? Everyone he talked to, every online forum he could find, told him that Evelyn Sayre knew more about Mexican silent comedies than anyone else in the English-speaking world.

After more heavy, staring moments, her mouth curled into the slightest of smiles. Roy imagined he heard it creak like the chair. It was the kind of smile you put on when you were talking to a lunatic or a moron. It put a note of happiness in your voice, and there was no need to worry that the lunatic or moron would notice you were laughing at him.

"I've never heard of these movies." She parcelled out the words steadily and evenly, like she was slicing a cake. "Or this actor. Or you. And I don't believe in magic."

That was it. No "good day". No "now, if you'll excuse me". No "get the hell out of my office". With her calm, silent, eternal stare, Evelyn insisted that Roy take the burden of ending this farce.

"I've, uh-" Why? Why was he prolonging this? "I've got, I've brought some of the tapes..." Roy lifted the plastic grocery bag holding a half-dozen of his favorite El Arenque Rojo movies. Or the most prophetic ones, which meant largely the same thing.

Evelyn laughed. Barely. A few breaths from the babylike nose, a couple of shakes of her head. That was all. The dismissal was withering. But being so close to failure energized Roy. Why not keep pushing until she threw him out?

"Fifteen minutes of your time, Professor. Fifteen minutes. If this isn't the most important discovery of your career, what have you lost?"

Her mouth creaked a few degrees toward an actual smile. Her head tilted a few degrees toward a cabinet up against the wall. "In there." Roy almost leapt to the cabinet, threw it open, jabbed the VCR on, put the tape in. 

When the last of the tapes Roy'd brought rolled into static, Professor Evelyn Sayre stood. So did Roy. She came up to his elbow.

"Why didn't you bring this to me sooner?" Then, before he could even work up a decent stammer: "Forget it. I'm going to find out where this El Arenque Rojo came from and what happened to him. And I know where to start looking. Are you coming along?"