by Jeani Rector
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 fish pond 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 rightside 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 to the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind him. He knew that 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 it 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 would 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 could have done that. Well, his birthday was yet a week away. Maybe he’d come home a day or two before it, 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 just saw it as getting his parents’ attention.
As he walked away from the only home he had ever known, 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 into 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 at that, 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.
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 clean and 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 overnight 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 I’m here, he thought. 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 his body quickly adjusted and then it seemed fine. It washed off the dust and dirt that he had carried from his yard. 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, moving quickly down the creek and away from him. He lunged for it, but it was already well on its way downstream.
Suddenly Troop didn’t feel ten years old anymore. 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. That and the missing backpack.
Resigned, Troop stopped his tears. It was time to act ten again. He needed his wits about him if he were to find his backpack. No matter what, he knew he couldn’t lose his father’s hatchet.
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?
There was 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.
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? Haints 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.
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.
The dense forest of the holler grabbed at him and tripped him. He couldn’t see to duck the tree branches or to maneuver through the sticker-bushes. His only option was to hide in the bushes, shadowed by 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.
He crouched under the rough bark of a 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 to slow his racing heartbeat.
He held the hatchet firmly in his hand, but would a hatchet be any defense against a supernatural being?
He 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 streamed down his cheeks, and as he curled into 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.
He could feel a sudden chill, and that told him the haint was closing in. He could hear the thing in the holler moving again, and he understood that it was only a matter of time before he would be enveloped by a cold spot. He would die here, his breath sucked from his lungs, and no one would ever find his body. They would put his picture on milk cartons and people would look for him everywhere, but they would never find him deep in the holler. Not in this hiding spot, anyway.
He had to come out from under the fallen tree. He didn’t want to die where he would never be found. He took his backpack off and rooted in it until he found his pa’s hatchet. Holding the weapon in his hand made him feel braver.
As he peered out from his hiding spot, trying to decide what to do, Troop heard the haint move again through the thickets. Suddenly birds, nesting for the night in the trees, awoke and took flight together, as though they were a single entity. It seemed so dark in the woods, and his skin began to tingle. He had trouble breathing because his heart was beating so fast. He had a sense that something bad was about to happen so he gripped the hatchet tighter in his hand.
Troop’s eyes searched the dark woods of the holler, looking for the source of the noise. And then he saw movement from behind the thick leaves of a shrub. Something was crouched in-between two trees, bending the limbs back with its presence. In the folds of shadow, Troop couldn’t make out its shape or appearance.
And then there was a roar, and suddenly whatever had been hiding burst out of the trees. Troop screamed with fright, and his heart tried to jump out of his chest. He fell over backwards, tumbling back into the thicket and he lost his grip on the hatchet and it fell uselessly onto the ground. He continued screaming as the cougar soared through the air in a flying leap, coming closer at every second with the intention of tearing Troop apart with its claws and teeth.
And then a BOOM reverberated through the trees, echoing through the holler and the cougar fell onto Troop, and he screamed again. He pushed at it with all his might but the large cat lay on top of him, its body covering him and bleeding the warm, coppery life’s fluid all over his face and hands. He couldn’t get the cougar off; it weighed so very much. He kept pushing at the heavy animal’s body and crying at the same time, when suddenly, like a miracle, the cougar was lifted and Troop could crawl away from it. He shut his eyes for a moment and he could hear the animal being tossed into the bushes.
Troop looked up to see who was standing there in the holler, holding the rifle that had killed the cougar. It was no haint, and Troop instinctively understood that he would never be afraid of cold spots again.
His pa put down the rifle and grabbed him in a wolf hug. He continued to hold Troop close against his chest that felt rough from the flannel shirt. 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’d lost you, you being all 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.
"You’re not in life, you belong in death; go away haint, don’t suck my breath."
See Jeani's book (historical fiction; full-length novel) about the black plague in 1348 England HERE.