by Jeani Rector
Troop hung upside down on the tire swing. He loved the way the world appeared when he looked at it this way. Sometimes it made more sense, being senseless, because today he couldn't understand things right side up.
He was turning ten next week, and everyone around him seemed to be forgetting that very important birthday. He would finally get to be double digits; didn't they understand that? Why, he'd waited all his life to have two numbers in his age. What else did he go to school for anyway, if not to be able to count?
It was always "Not now, Troop."
If not now, then when? For crissakes, his birthday next week was coming up fast. At least, as fast as anything could, being that it was summer once again. Everyone knew how time slows down in summer.
It didn't used to be like that, the way everyone ignored him now. Why, just a year ago everything was still normal. Of course, that was before his three-year-old sister drowned in the fishpond the summer prior to this one. Troop knew that was a terrible thing. He was truly sad to lose Deanna. But she wasn't the only child in this family. Didn't his Ma know that? Did his Ma forget about him? Or was she sorry it was Deanna and not him who drowned? Because that was how his Ma was acting.
And then Troop pulled himself right side up on the tire swing. Folks didn't nickname him Trooper for nothing. They called him that because he always came through. And now he had come through with an idea.
Suddenly, he knew how to get everyone's attention.
Everyone missed Deanna because she was gone. Well, what if he were gone too? Wouldn't everyone want him back then, the same way they wanted Deanna back?
He hopped down from the tire swing, his bare feet landing in the dirt, sending puffs of dust drifting up into the air. This summer was drier than most, and the southern heat made his upper lip sweat. The heat was a good thing; it meant he could leave without taking any other clothes except what he already had on his back. In fact, Troop figured all he really needed to do was to pack a lunch. Peanut butter and jelly would be right fine.
Troop went inside the kitchen, letting the screen door slam. He knew no one would notice as he grabbed his backpack and rooted through the fridge. His Ma was too busy with her misery, as she always seemed to be any more.
Oh, and he wanted to bring one more thing. Troop had read the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and that one was about a boy who took care of himself without any grownup's help and that was because the boy in the book had a hatchet.
So, the next thing Troop did was to go back outside and sneak into his pa's tool shed. Sure enough, there was a hatchet. Well, it was his now, and he stuffed it into his backpack along with the sandwich. Troop figured that by the time his Pa found out, there would be no one to punish, because Troop would be gone by then. You don't get spanked if you don't hang around long enough to get caught.
And now, his provisions complete, Troop started his adventure. He'd sure show them!
As he walked down the dirt road, backpack in tow, Troop imagined how sorry his Ma and pa'd be, just as soon as they realized he was gone. How they would wish they had treated him better! How they would wish they had made a fuss over his birthday while they still coulda done that. Well, his birthday was yet a week away. Maybe he'd come home a day or two before, so they'd still have time to shop for a present. By then, they'd be so happy to see him again... probably happy enough that his Pa would forgive him for stealing the hatchet.
Troop had no intention of staying gone forever. He didn't see this as running away; he saw it as getting his parents' attention.
Old Man Carson's beat up pickup truck passed by, choking the road with dust. Old Man Carson slowed to a stop, hung out the window, and called, "Where you goin', boy? Needa ride?"
Troop ran to catch up. He hopped into the passenger side, settling into the cracked seat that showed most of the stuffing. "Going to the creek for a swim."
"Your Pa know you're goin'?" Old Man Carson asked.
"Yup, he does that," Troop lied. "I asked permission."
Old Man Carson hesitated. "You seem a mite young to be goin' into the holler all by yourself."
"Be ten next week. I'm old."
Old Man Carson laughed. "Reckon you are, then. I used to swim in the creek when I was half your age. And look how old I grew to be."
"Yup, you're a lot older than ten," Troop agreed. Old Man Carson guffawed, then put the truck in gear and started to drive.
After a mile or two, the scenery changed. The right side of the road became green with blackberry bushes, parsley hawthorn, and black gum. That meant there was water nearby.
"You want out here?" Old Man Carson asked.
"Yup, this'd be good," Troop said. The truck door creaked with rust as he pushed it open. Troop hopped out, and the dust on the road up here was more settled, and not stirring into the air. That was another sign there was water close by.
"I'll tell your Pa where I left you," Old Man Carson yelled as he drove off.
Troop's heart sank, but what could he expect from grownups. They were all tattletales.
I'll just hide real good, Troop thought. He stepped into the holler and was instantly swallowed by foliage.
Once inside, Troop blinked. He had been here before, but never alone. He was used to the dry, flat yard at his house. In the holler, the denseness of the trees and shrubs blocked the sunlight, creating a surreal, twilight effect. With the darkness of the holler came a noticeable decrease in temperature.
The woods seemed to close in around Troop and he could no longer see the road behind him. He felt uneasy, and he hesitated. It seemed almost spooky. Could someone get lost in here?
And then the thought hit him, Of course! I have a hatchet! I can mark the trees and leave a trail! Just like Hansel and Gretel, except I'm not dumb enough to leave breadcrumbs for the birds to eat.
So he got the hatchet out of his backpack and began marking the tree trunks as he made his way deeper into the holler. It gave him confidence. He was smart. After all, he was almost ten.
Troop continued onward, further into the holler. There were rotted branches lying on the ground; old, moldy leaves left over from the previous autumn, and what appeared to be squirrel holes in the earth every once in a while. The ground was lush with short, wild plants that had such big leaves they appeared tropical. Trees of all ages were growing, some tall and wide, and some that were young and whip-like.
Troop was faithful about marking every third three with a hard swipe of his hatchet. Soon he heard the bubbling of the creek water up ahead.
Following the sound, Troop came upon a muddy bank. Sliding down to the water, he reached to cup it with his hands, and took a drink. It was very cold, and tasted wonderful. He hadn't realized until now that having an adventure could be such thirsty business.
His thirst quenched, his stomach growled with hunger. He sat on the bank and unwrapped his sandwich. He wolfed it down, and then immediately wished he had brought something for dessert. He was still hungry.
Well, he thought, maybe I won't stay in this here holler over night after all.
But Troop decided to wait at least another hour or two before heading home. He had to be sure his parents had enough time to miss him, or else they'd be mad instead of sad that he was gone. And he sure didn't want that.
Shrugging, Troop took off his shirt and pants. Might as well have a good time while he was here. He placed his clothes on top of the backpack on the bank, and then wearing only his undershorts, he jumped into the creek.
The cold water hit him like a rush, but he quickly adjusted and then it seemed fine. It washed the dust and dirt that his body had carried from his yard off. He felt good as he splashed around in the creek.
And then he heard laughter. Turning, Troop looked to see what was happening on the creek bank
Two teenage boys were standing there, and one of them was holding his clothes, laughing hard.
"Hey!" Troop yelled. "Put those back! They're mine!"
"Whatcha gonna do to make us, pipsqueak?" one of the boys yelled back.
Troop started wading towards the bank, but it was too late. The other teenager had hold of his backpack. Oh no! Pa's hatchet!
"Put it down!" cried Troop.
In response, the teenager threw the backpack at him. Troop tried to catch it but missed. The backpack floated on the current quickly down the creek, away from him. He lunged for it, but it was already well on its way downstream.
Suddenly Troop didn't feel ten years old any more. Suddenly he felt only nine. He burst out in tears.
"Hey, wouldya lookit that? We made the baby cry!" And the teenager laughed even louder.
The other teenage boy said, "Oh stop crying, you big baby. Here're your stupid clothes."
And he dropped them on the bank. And then he stepped on them, grinding them into the mud.
Both teenage boys laughed, turned around, and then disappeared into the woods. It was as though they had never even been there at all.
Except the muddy clothes were proof they had been here. That and the missing backpack.
Resigned, Troop stopped his tears. He hiccupped once or twice, but that was all. It was time to act ten again. He needed his wits about him if he were to find his backpack. He knew he couldn't lose his father's hatchet no matter what.
He reached the bank, and put on the muddy shirt and pants that the big boys had ground into the dirt. It was a shame to be all cleaned up by the water and then to have to get back into such dirty clothes again. He straightened up, and started walking downstream. He had no hatchet to mark his path. But, he figured the creek would do as a trail marker. Birds sure couldn't eat a creek.
He followed the creek, which wasn't as easy as he had thought it would be, because a lot of trees had roots hanging down, trying to drink at the water. He had to step over the roots without slipping in the mud, and too often brambles grabbed at him with their thorns.
Just when Troop was getting scared that the backpack, and the hatchet inside, were lost for good, he saw it upstream, snagged on the roots of a swamp red maple. Sighing with relief, he leaned over, freed it, and inspected it closely. It seemed no worse for wear. He opened the flap and peered inside. The hatchet was still there.
The blackberry bushes had formed a little cave at that point in the bank. Troop sat there for a moment, trying to think. Was it his imagination, or was it getting dark already? He wished he had taken his father's watch along with the hatchet.
What would Troop do if he were caught in the holler after dark?
No need to remind himself that his original plans had included spending a few days and nights here. Now that it was getting dark, his original plans were out of the question. What had he been thinking, earlier today, when he had left home?
He had to go back. Now.
Before it became full night.
Troop stood up, swinging the backpack onto his back. He strapped it into place. He tried to make his way carefully along the bank of the creek as he headed the way he had come, because he didn't want to slip on the mud and fall into the water.
But, it was becoming very hard to see. It was getting dark.
A slight breeze rustled the leaves on the trees, making a sighing sound. The trail on the bank was narrow and difficult to navigate. Wild blackberry ran rampant through other wild plants and everything appeared intertwined.
And then suddenly the temperature dropped. Troop realized he had entered a cold spot.
He cried out in fear. All the neighborhood kids knew what cold spots meant. Every so often, you'd walk into a cold spot hanging in the air; they were small patches of temperature changes that just seemed to randomly appear in the otherwise hot, muggy summer nights.
And all the kids knew the cold spots were lost souls that wandered the earth endlessly, looking for children's breath to suck. Cold spots were haints!
Troop recited the incantation that all the neighborhood children knew was the only thing that could save them: You're not in life, you belong in death, go away haint, don't suck my breath.
He closed his eyes in fear and he wanted his ma.
Then the temperature rose, and Troop was relieved, thinking, That was a close one. He didn't realize he had been holding his breath, not wanting it to be sucked. He forced himself to calm down and to continue his journey home.
But it was fully dark now. And Troop was fully afraid.
If there was one haint, would there be more? They came out in the dark of night.
Suddenly he heard a noise. The bushes deep in the holler were being broken and cracked. Something was stepping on them, pushing them aside, as it moved through the underbrush.
Something was coming!
The haint! He could hear it! It was coming to get him!
Suppressing a cry, Troop took off running. He left the creek bed because there was no traction available on the muddy banks. He twisted and turned to flee into the holler, running in the opposite direction from the sound, away from the haint in the woods.
And the haint was chasing him, in hot pursuit right behind him.
Troop could hear pounding feet and panting breath. The haint was close behind; so close!
Troop leaned forward, his knees pumping, his breath wheezing, his lungs beginning to hurt. He was too afraid to look back to see what was chasing him. And he was afraid that he could lose ground if he hesitated and looked behind him.
But the dense forest of the holler was too difficult to navigate. It grabbed at him and tripped him. He knew he wasn't going to make it. He couldn't see to duck the tree branches and maneuver the stickerbushes.
His only option was to hide in the underbrush in the darkness of the night.
Instinctively Troop knew that his small stature would be a benefit for hiding. He ducked into the dense underbrush, looking for cover, doing his best to draw himself in and somehow become even smaller than he already was.
Then, in the way that children do, he found a little dark hovel underneath an old, rotted log. It was almost as good as hiding under a bed. Maybe better. Troop hoped it was better.
He crouched under the rough bark of the fallen tree, and tried to weld himself into a large hole in the ground that some animal had dug. Troop tried to calm his rapid breathing and also his racing heartbeat.
He shut his eyes as though that act would shut out the world. He strained his ears to listen. And he heard the haint coming! It must know he was there!
Troop could hear branches snapping and the limbs of bushes being shoved aside. But the sounds seemed random. Maybe the haint couldn't tell where he was hiding after all.
Could it be that the haint was not all-seeing and all-knowing?
Was that too much to hope for?
Hot tears streaming down his cheeks, curled in a tiny ball underneath the rotted log, Troop whispered, You're not in life, you belong in death, go away haint, don't suck my breath.
And then Troop froze, because the haint spoke.
"Troop!" the voice called. "Troop! Come out!"
Troop froze in confusion, because the voice was that of his Pa.
"Troop!" his Pa called again. "Where are you? Come out! I'm not going to hurt you."
What should he do? Troop felt the panic of indecision. Was the voice really that of his Pa, or was the haint playing tricks on him? Could the haint pretend to be Troop's Pa, thereby luring Troop out of his hiding spot to his death?
"Troop, I'm not playing games now. Come out, and that's an order!"
A lifetime of obeying his Pa won control. Troop's indecisiveness left him. His Pa was calling. He would go to his Pa. It was simple; it was how life worked.
Troop crawled out from his little cubby-hole under the log. "Pa, I'm over here."
"Come here, Son."
And so Troop went to his Pa.
His Pa grabbed him in a wolf hug. He held Troop close. Troop realized that his Pa was shaking. Was he crying? Troop thought that only kids cried.
His Pa buried his face in Troop's hair. From there, his pa's muffled voice said, "Your Ma and I couldn't bear losing another child. We thought we lost you, alone in this holler at night."
"How'd you find me?" Troop asked. But he was glad to be found. He wanted to go home.
"Old Man Carson told me where you went," his Pa answered, his face still buried in Troop's hair.
That figures, Troop thought. Grownups are such tattletales.
© 2008 Jeani Rector
Bio: Jeani Rector grew up reading Stephen King novels. Halloween is her favorite holiday. Her two children sing "The Rector Family" to the tune of The Addams Family. It is all in good fun and actually, most people who know Jeani personally are of the opinion that she is a very normal person. She just writes abnormal stories. Doesn't everybody? For more about Jeani Rector, check out Open Grave - The Book of Horror. This is Ms. Rector's fourth Aphelion short story entry; her realistic/historical horror piece, The Black Death, appeared in the May 2008 issue..
E-mail: Jeani Rector
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