Merit Badges – a short story from the Our Monsters series

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Three high school teens in the woods on a Friday night… some beers… skaters with a grudge… what could go wrong? Add in a couple of genetically created party-crashing monsters to the mix and all hell breaks loose.

“Merit Badges” is a short story from the upcoming series “Our Monsters.” If you enjoyed the story or want to write a review please feel free to comment below.

“Our Monsters”, the first novel in the series, will be released in early November. Exact date is yet to be determined. Keep watch!

Quickly. For the readers on the go, here is the short story in various formats, all of which can be downloaded and read on your a e-reader:

MOBI – Click Here

EPUB – Click Here

PDF – Click Here

 

 

Without further delay… your regularly scheduled short story.

MERIT BADGES

A Short Story

by

Clinton D Harding

ONE

Girls have slumber parties. Boys do camping trips.

Camping trips test the mettle of a boy and can be a vital step toward his becoming a young man. This is especially true when said boy can experience this right-of-passage without his father or another adult.

When a boy can pitch a tent, strike steel against flint to create a roaring fire, cook his dinner, and survive the wilds in the dead of night without wetting himself… well then, he is on the way towards manhood. That is what fourteen-year-old Donny Barrows believed when his two friends, and fellow Boy Scouts, Mitch and Greg lured him into this trip to the wild outdoors.

What am I worrying about? Donny told himself reassuringly. Carpenter is like a few miles away. Hidden Rock isn’t a national forest or anything; it’s just some camping grounds near the mountains where the high scholars go to make-out and drink.

As these thoughts congealed in Donny’s mind, Greg grinned. A mischievous grin, the kind of grin you should run away from because it only invites trouble. And Greg… well… Greg and trouble were on a first-name basis.

“Come on, wussy boy,” Greg said loudly, trying to yank on Donny’s sense of manhood and need to impress his friends. “Nothin’ to be scared of. Except, maybe, the radioactive Frankenstein monsters the Army creates nearby in the mountains.”

The three friends sat in their middle school’s cafeteria, alone in a back corner. Greg had to speak loud in here. If empty, voices boomed in the cafeteria, the middle school held its school plays and band concert in here. Good acoustics. That said, Donny didn’t think Greg needed to speak as robust as he did, unless he was trying to gather all the sets of eyes he could and set them squarely on Donny. Knowing Greg, this is a possible reason.

Donny slouched, trying to remain small and unnoticed. “Greg, do you think you can keep it down?”

“Nope.”

Donny rolled his eyes and chuckled uncomfortably as two girls passed by, they eyed the three friends like pieces of trash someone had thrown out but missed the trashcan.

“Lay off, Greg,” said Mitch to Greg, punching his friend, hard, in the shoulder. “You know, like the rest of us, that the Army is not digging up bodies and creating a race of reanimated super-men.”

Greg’s grin never faltered. His eyebrows jumped up a couple of times. “The only thing we know about what your parents do in this town, is that we’re not supposed to know about any of it. No one tells us nothin’. And where there are adults keeping secrets—adults with guns—there is bound to be no-good goin’ on.

“Mitch, don’t tell me you’re a wussy boy too?”

Donny steeled his resolve then and puffed out his chest. “I never said I was a ‘wussy boy’. Even if I am, which I am not, you’re a jerk.”

“I have to agree with Donny here,” Mitch conceded. He took off his spectacles, cleaned them on his shirt, and replaced them on the bridge of his nose after inspecting for any leftover smudges. “You are a jerk sometimes, Greg, especially when you want something!”

“Yeah? Who asked you guys anyway? I sure didn’t.”

Awkward quiet—its own kind of monster—settled between the three friends.

Then Greg closed his eyes and hung his head, letting out a sigh.

Donny and Mitch shared a glance. For a split second, Donny believed he and Mitch might have succeeded in mollifying Greg, forced him to examine his harsh, unabashed treatment of others. Of course, Donny couldn’t blame Greg… not fully. After all, Greg’s life wasn’t…

Greg burst out into a gut-buster of a laugh. He clutched his sides as if his flesh might rip open and expose his ribs.

Both Donny and Mitch sighed and slumped their shoulders.

“Whatever, wussy boys. I’m a jerk, sue me,” Greg said without a hint of regret.

If no one has noticed, Greg Stile can be, usually is unapologetic. He makes no excuses for his actions or his attitude, no matter who he offended—teacher, friend, any authority figure really. Most of the time, Donny liked this about Greg. In some twisted way, Greg was one of the more honest people Donny had ever met. You may not appreciate the kid’s opinion; however, he told you to your face what he thought.

“We going, all three of us, on this camping trip or what?” Greg spread his arms wide to encompass his two best friends in his plans.

Mitch rolled a shoulder in a shrug and smirked. “You had me this morning when you told me about the idea. I’m in, Greg.”

Greg turned his attention solely to Donny. He raised a single eyebrow, let it down, and then raised the other. This he did several times with expert precision.

Relenting, Donny put out his hand, palm up and said, “You said something about a merit badge for camping too?”

Vigorously, Greg slapped Donny’s hand and punctuated the gesture with an exited wolf’s howl. “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!”

The same two girls from before, who had sat down at the table behind the three boys, looked over their shoulders at Greg.

Only receiving acknowledgement from the back of Greg’s head, they instead fixed their gazes on Donny. The expressions said, Are you three for real? We mean, real stupid and annoying. For his part, Donny gave them a clumsily smile and disconnected quickly.

High school will give me locker and a blank slate. Right?

“My dad will drop us off,” Mitch explained, “he’ll be our witness that we went into Hidden Rock on our own. When he picks us up on Saturday, and we’ve not been eaten and are in one piece, he’ll sign us off for the badges.”

“I gotta give you an excuse, Donny,” Greg admitted, “or else any lie you’d tell your folks would be picked up faster than if you told the truth.”

Greg knew his friend well. Lying was not Donny’s forte. Still, Greg hand holding Donny through a story did not bolster the latter’s self-confidence.

“Perfect! Boys, this will be a fine night. A Fine night indeed.”

 

 

TWO

Thankfully, today was Friday, and not Wednesday. Wednesday was when Donny’s Scout troupe met for their weekly Pow-wow. The gathering of young, intrepid explorers, ready and willing to brave the city streets to help little old ladies traverse crosswalks, met in the middle school’s cafeteria thirty minutes after last bell. On those Pow-wow days most of the troupe wore their khaki uniforms, the ones with dorky neckerchiefs that even Scoobie-Doo’s friend Fred could not bring back into style.

Greg refused to wear his uniform, protesting the idea by wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket instead.

Donny couldn’t blame Greg. The uniform attracted unnecessary and unwanted attention from idiots like Steve Day and his skater cronies. Donny couldn’t rebel like Greg, the former worked in the head office during sixth period and that period usually extended into the first after school hour by sometimes ten minutes, leaving no extra time to change cloths. Plus, the Scout leader was a counselor in the head office. If Mr. Chase saw Donny stroll into sixth period without his uniform khaki shirt pressed, his neckerchief tied and straight, well, Donny would hear about the counselor’s disappoint.

“Wearing the uniform of a Scout shows pride,” Mr. Chase often was fond of saying. When he did, you could catch a gleam in his eye, a leftover from when he earned his Eagle Award in his youth, back when Abe Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. “To wear the uniform demonstrates the sense of pride and duty you have toward yourself, your community and your fellow Americans.”

“Even if it means we get the snout kicked out of us?” Greg asked once after the counselor finished his rant.

“Pride in one’s self is worth more than popularity, Mr. Day,” the counselor retorted wholeheartedly and very serious.

When Mr. Chase turned his back that time, Greg had sneered at the man and mumbled, “I’d take popularity over bruises.”

So, Donny wore his khaki uniform and Greg continued to rebel, the latter preferring popularity to ridicule from peers.

Regardless of Greg refusing to don his uniform during school hours on the day of troupe meetings, he still hung out with Donny and Mitch—both of whom wore their khakis. Guilt by association. Moreover, people knew Greg was a Scout; not wearing the uniform did not disassociate him. No matter the day, even on non-khaki days, Steve Gruber still made it appoint to bully the three scouts. Today was one of those days.

There was a good reason Steve Gruber acquired the nickname, “Spikes”. He used Elmore’s Glue to style his midnight black hair into tall, stiff spikes, like a dark prince’s crown. Also, who would want a name like Gruber; a last name rhyming with bugger never is good for a person’s school rep. Spikes was fond of the color black too, as many goth skaters were. He wore dark eyeliner, painted his nails black, and wore tight black clothing with underground band names displayed on his shirts. Donny had never heard of any of the band names. The middle grader was rail-thin and gawky-looking, so he pulled off the tight-cloths look, as well as any crazy person could with their breathing capacity limited by a tight waistband.

Spikes and three of his goth-skater followers marched up to the table the three Scouts occupied while planning their camping trip this coming evening.

He greeted the three scouts with his usual and tired rudeness. “What up, losers? Have you gotten your badges for knitting a pair of panties for your mommas’ yet? Huh?”

Spikes laughed. His skater cronies laughed as they all high-fived each other. Spectators at nearby stables laughed while most everyone else ignored the exchange, electing to stay far away from the bad business. Donny and Mitch rolled their eyes, stared at their sack lunches, and made like turtles cowering in armored shells. Greg did nothing of sort. It’s always Greg.

Greg turned around slowly and grinned while looking over Spikes’ Hot Topic wardrobe. His eyes stopped on the band shirt Spikes sported today.

Greg touched a finger to his lips, suggesting he was searching his mental archives.

“I’ve never heard of them,” Greg said curiously, staring up at the much taller Spikes.

“Heard of who?” Spikes chuckled, crossing his long arms over his thin chest. Despite his string-bean build, the middle grader must have a good center of balance, given his passable prowess on a skateboard.

Greg tapped his lower lip again, thinking further. Then he pointed at Spikes’ chest.

Spike unfolded his arms, pinched his tight fitting shirt, and glanced as his followers. “Wailing Banshees?”

“Yeah.” Greg shrugged. “Never heard of ‘em.”

Chuckling, Spikes slapped the chest of the skater to his right. This other guy was shorter than Spikes and rounder; how he skated without breaking the board underneath his weight, Donny had no clue.

“You’ve never heard of them, because you’re not cool enough. They played at the Cobalt club, a small venue. Only the elite were invited. They don’t play big concerts, too corporate for their mission. You know? ‘Course you don’t. Pff.”

Greg nodded understanding while a mischievous grin slipped slowly across his face.

Donny chanced a glance at Mitch. The four-eyed middle grader blinked and then glanced down to his turkey and baloney sandwich, an attempt to peer underneath the table. The message was clear. Duck and cover!

Greg cleared his throat before speaking again. “Well, I don’t know how you know about Screaming Mimis…”

“Screaming Banshees, dork-wad,” spat Spikes, correcting Greg.

Holding up hand, Greg gave a silent and very insincere apology. “Ok-ok. Whatever, bro. Anyway, I don’t see how you saw these dudes play…”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, just that, you said this Blue Club…”

Cobalt!

“Fine, whatever…”

“I think we should sneak away before they break their boards over our heads and Greg’s,” Mitch whispered to Donny as the scene began to boil over in front of them.

Donny shook his head without a second thought. “No. We stand by Greg. His stepdad will kill him if he gets into another fight and the principal calls home again.”

“I don’t think we can prevent that,” Mitch said through clenched teeth.

Donny popped his shoulders into a shrug and waited as the pot overflowed.

“Fine, blue or cobalt, same color,” Greg said nonchalantly, but he didn’t let Spikes get in the next word. “What I’m trying to say is, if this club is so ‘elite’…” a sly chuckle escaped Greg’s lips, breaking his sentence, “… how did you and your sidewalk humping mates get let in?”

Before Greg finished, on the words “sidewalk humping”, Spikes grabbed the front of the former’s shirt and lifted him off the bench. Donny and Mitch leapt from their seats and went to their friend’s aid without a thought to their own safety. The skaters Spikes brought to every verbal beat down stopped them around the perimeter of the bad situation.

“You got a big mouth, Greggie,” Spikes said.

Spikes raised his fist, pulling Greg in close enough so he could smell what Spikes had eaten for lunch.

“So I’m told, I think its medical name is Diarrhea of the Mouth. It’s a bad condition, incurable in the chronically stubborn. As a matter of fact, hah, I’m also afflicted with stubbornness.”

By the tone of Greg’s voice, Donny could tell his friend was smiling, staying cool. Donny had a hard time not laughing too. Except in seconds Greg was either going to be shoved into a trashcan, or worse. Unless…

A whistle, shrill and high-pitched, tuned to the young ears of middle school students everywhere, put the action on pause. Following the middle-schooler whistle, an elderly little woman stormed up wearing an orange caution vest typical of her station. Ms. Lambkin was a yard supervisor. This force of retired women was armed with ear-shattering whistles, a pad of pink one-way tickets to detention, and bad joint pain. Anyone who gave ten-percent of effort in gym could outrun them. That is unless they snuck up on a student.

“What in name of Betty White’s golden years is going on here, you two?” the yard supervisor said in that angry-grandmother way all her sisterhood seemed to possess.

For the first time, Donny glimpsed Greg’s hands. They were unclenched and pink, unmarred by any redness that fists would have brought. Greg had been calm, unprepared to fight or swing back at Spikes if a fight had gone down. Had Greg known the yard supervisor was around and wanted to act the innocent? The deception would be within Greg’s realm of craftiness. Greg got into schoolyard brawls, but only when he didn’t suspect a yard supervisor of being near… though they often were and that’s how Greg managed a permanent reservation in detention.

Makes sense why he provoked Spikes then, Donny realized, though he did not approve.

Spikes let go of Greg’s shirt almost immediately, and upon the arrival of the yard supervisor, had taken the time to brush off Greg’s shirt of any dirt or dust. How thoughtful of him.

Pregnant silence extended inside the circle of seven middle graders and one elderly supervisor. The yard supervisor tapped her foot waiting for an answer. Spikes was not so swift to come up with a good cover story for their almost-fight. On the other hand, Greg’s mouth came with autopilot.

Putting his arm around Spike’s shoulders, all buddy-buddy-like, Greg smiled. Greg had to stand on his tippy toes to come close to reaching the goth-skater’s chin.

“Ah, you know, Ms. Lambkin, boys being boys. My friend and I, Steven here, were in the middle of a heated argument over the Screaming Mimi’s latest single.”

Donny and Mitch held in laughter at Greg’s continued botching of the band name, while Spikes bit back a curse and turned red. They could hear the sound of knuckles cracking.

“Nothing serious to be sure, I assure you.”

All this, Greg delivered with a straight face, playing the role of a proper young gentleman in a parlor drinking Kool-Aid and nibbling on chocolate bars while discussing politics and gossip with his best chaps.

Again, Donny and Mitch stifled giggles. Not even laughter… pure, uncontrollable giggles.

Ms. Lambkin looked like she believed Greg as much as she would a petty criminal. Turning her attention to Steven—oops, sorry, Spikes—the yard supervisor asked for confirmation of the story. To keep his reputation and keep away from a nark label, Spikes vouched for Greg’s explanation.

Crisis abated and lacking any statement to prove otherwise or any wrongdoing, the yard supervisor walked away. This, however, did not prevent her from setting a firm eye on Spikes and Greg for the remainder of the lunch period.

Before separating, Spikes narrowed his black-eye-lined gaze at Greg, leaned in close, and delivered a nasty departing threat. “Wait till you don’t have the yard dogs around, Greggie. I’ll stump your butt then. Count on that.”

“Do you think you can ever stay out of trouble for more than ten minutes, Greg?” asked Mitch, his breathing returning to normal as Spikes and his skate crew stormed off under the watchful eye of supervisor Lambkin.

“Never,” Greg said smugly with his chin turned up. “Why should I worry, huh? You both had my back?”

Greg punched Donny lightly in the shoulder, a friendly gesture between bros.

Donny was the conservative of the group, the one who didn’t speak ill, didn’t challenge orders, and who wanted to keep peace.

“Of course, Greg,” Donny said as truthfully as he could. “We’ve always got your back. Always.”

Whether Greg heard the insecurity in those words, his friend’s fear that trouble would one day dwarf his bigmouth, trouble-seeking actions, he made no indication.

The second lunch bell rang and the three friends went to class, Donny and Mitch checking over their shoulders every minute or so or when they heard sounds resembling the spinning of tiny skateboard wheels.

 

 

THREE

On Donny’s twin bed, Toe looked shamefully pathetic. The golden-haired Labrador watched as Donny packed his backpack. He whined when Donny rolled up his sleeping bag. And when the middle grader put his compacted tent near his camping gear, the dog leapt off the bed and tackled Donny to the floor.

Licking, wet and slobbery, commenced.

Toe had just gone from pathetic to desperate. Poor missing-toed dog.

About two years ago, a gnarly-looking growth appeared on one of the paw pads of Donny’s family dog, Toboe. Within less than two weeks, the growth blew up and the Labrador Retriever was hopping around on three legs. When Donny and his father took Toboe into the veterinarian to have the growth examined, the vet told them the growth was a tumor… in other words, cancer. With the tumor having penetrated the toe’s bone, the vet rushed Toboe immediately into surgery. When Toboe came out of the doggy operating room, he had one less nail, pad, and toe. Today, with the hair grown back on his leg, the casual observer can’t really tell Toboe had been through surgery and was now down a single toe. Still, Donny thought his canine friend was unique and awesome. And as spunky as ever. As to the different name, ever since the surgery Donny had taken to shortening the dog’s name to Toe. Appropriate.

Donny spewed uncontrollable laughter as the dog’s long tongue attacked his face. Warm. Wet. Tickling. Donny’s mom said these were Toe’s version of kisses. Well, if this is what being kissed was like… then Donny wasn’t sure he wanted a girlfriend who might do the same to him.

Placing his palms against the dog’s snout, Donny pushed him away with visible effort.

“Down! Off, Toe!” Donny said in a commanding tone of voice. The authority was lost in the roaring sea of giggling.

With a canine whimper, Toe climbed off Donny and sat back on his hunches.

Panting, Donny propped himself up on his elbows and stared at his dog.

“You wanna go camping, don’t you?”

Toe whined again, shifting from paw to paw in anxious anticipation. He licked his chops and attempted to slap on the doggy charm with a sad, tilted face, followed closely by another series of whines.

A deep sigh escaped Donny as he shook his head and released a little chuckle.

Donny ran his fingers through his thick red hair, scratching his scalp. He eyed the Labrador evenly then broke out in a grin. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

Dog leapt at boy, and boy took man’s best friend in his arms while they both went down again into a heap of slobbery laughter.

“We’ll need to ask Dad first…”

An alcove directly off the Barrows household kitchen consisted of a built-in desk and overhead cabinets, the setup meant as a small workspace for paying bills and other personal tasks. At that desk, Donny’s father sat typing on the computer. Most likely the thirty-something man was checking e-mails. He had recently ended his shift for the day and still wore his green camouflage Army uniform complete with highpolished black boots.

For ten years, as long as Donny’s fourteen-year-old mind could go in reverse, he’d lived in Carpenter. Carpenter is a military occupied town. No, hummers are not patrolling the streets with the soldier riding shotgun armed with a rifle only the Army is allowed to have. Carpenter is a town at the bottom of a shallow valley. Butting up against one of the valley’s upside down salad bowl walls and about three miles from the main drag of the small town, is a military base and scientific institute. Government sanctioned eggheads work there developing all kinds of crazy top-secret stuff to spy on and go to war with other countries. Because of the close proximity to the base and labs, the Army practically, unofficially, runs the town. Military Police—MP’s for short—act as police though county sheriffs still have jurisdiction. A town council made up of local civilians and Army officers see to the management of Carpenter, while the mayor of the town (if you want to call the scruffy not-so-pleasant person that) is a two-star general. A good majority of families in Carpenter are in the Army, though some civilians owning businesses in town do live in non-Army neighborhoods on the other side of town. Thankfully, the schools are run by the county and not the military, a fact which keeps the system less strict and running the same as a public school system.

Donny’s father is part of the Carpenter military. Only Donny’s father is something more than a regular MP or solider at the labs.

With his camping gear slung over both shoulders, his back hunched forward to support the weight, Donny bounded down the stairs, Toe hot on his heels.

Donny glanced at the patch on his father’s shoulder as he entered the kitchen—the patch consisted of a blue lightning bolt contained surrounded by a thick yellow rectangle. The middle grader chanced a look at his father’s face then; from ear to cheek there run a long ugly gash mark, puckered white; not a knife wound but something else.

Aside from the patch, Donny had no clue what his father’s job was, or why his family was in Carpenter. No one knew what Carpenter Labs’ think-tank brains mad-scienced up. Even the high schoolers allowed to go on tours of the mountain facility in science class, are not shown the real purpose of the Labs, only the public stuff the military’s media ninjas allow peepers to know about.

Of course, there are rumors. Recent rumors, rumors circling a recent field trip and a small group of the students who had gone. Students at Donny’s school, who had older siblings in the upper grades, spoke about a few of the high schoolers having disappeared shortly after taking the Lab tour. Some said the students innocently stumbled on to what the military was really creating in Carpenter. The Army higher-ups found out, rounded up the high schoolers, and shipped them off to some remote location where the Army wiped their minds clean of the top-secret information they’d stumbled on. Others said the high school students, the three of them, one of them the high school’s star football player, were spies from another country, brainwashed into breaking in to the Labs and stealing the secrets.

Ridiculous, Donny assured himself, not wanting to believe the hearsay from budding conspiracy theorists.

All Donny knew for sure was that his father’s job was dangerous. Sometimes, when the elder Barrows left for his shift, he and Donny’s mother looked in to each other’s eyes and shared a moment that people marching off to meet a fire squad only share. Donny’s mother sometimes cries if Donny’s father doesn’t come home and doesn’t call. The Blue Lightning squad, no one knows what those men do except that it’s deadly serious work. Greg’s stepfather works with Donny’s father on the squad; Greg too knows next to nothing about their parents’ work. Not surprising though, Greg and his stepfather don’t get along.

Before the elder Barrows tore his attention away from an e-mail advertising the latest books releases and top-selling electronics, Donny looked way from the man’s facial scar. Donny’s father focused on his son a second later. His eyes jumped from the middle grader’s pack, to the rolled up sleeping bag, and finally to the tent. The man asked his son, “Where do you think you’re off to tonight?”

“Camping,” Donny answered. “Can Toe come along with me?”

“Who authorized this mission, soldier?” Donny’s father asked with a serious and official expression on his scared face.

Steel straightened the middle grader’s spine, making him go ridged and stand at attention like he were wearing a crew cut and in boot camp facing down a drill instructor.

“Mom authorized this special operation, sir,” Donny said, voice raised in confidence. “All the paperwork has been submitted and signed, i’s dotted and t’s crossed, sir, yes, SIR!”

After considering these words, Donny’s father turned in his seat and peered at his wife. Mrs. Barrows was in the kitchen, at the stove nursing dinner. Donny took a whiff of the air. Spices from the herbal chicken baking in the oven marinated the air, making the house smell like the Middle East. The cheesy rice and honey rolls were enough to make Donny ditch his friends tonight and stay home.

Donny’s parents shared a look. His mother smiled innocently before rolling a shoulder and turning back to the stove to give the rice another stir.

When Donny’s father returned his eyes to his son’s, despite the scar of a line his mouth made, the crinkles at the man’s eyes gave away the recent smile.

The elder Barrows cleared his throat. “It appears your instructions have indeed been authorized by the highest ranking officer in this unit…” A laugh issued from near the stove. “…I suppose your mission is sanctioned then.”

The smile, warm but tired from ten hours of work today, returned to the man’s face, lighting it up in spite of the dreadful scaring tugging at his upper lip’s left corner.

“Of course you still have to produce your orders at the gate before leaving base,” Mr. Barrows continued.

Donny threw his arms around his father’s neck and his father embraced him firmly in return. Awkwardness was absent. Maybe in a few years, sometime after Donny entered high school, he would find hugging his parents to be less than cool. Hugs would be infrequent then and given only when forced, along with an exasperated sigh on the side. Until then, son and father enjoyed this moment.

“Can Toe come too, then, Dad?” asked Donny when he broke the embrace and took a step back. “I’ll look after him, make sure he’s on leash at all times.”

“Where did you say you’re camping tonight?” His father smiled crookedly, the only type he could offer.

“Hidden Rock, we won’t be far.”

Hearing the words “Hidden Rock” brought hesitation from Donny’s father. When Donny looked into his father’s eyes, he saw terror and reservation.

What? Was Mr. Barrows worried Donny and his friends would wander off and to the base, and in doing so be shot by guards patrolling the perimeter? The Scouts used Hidden Rock all the time. No one went wandering anywhere. The trails through the forest park and up through the mountains led away from Carpenter Labs, not on to it. That reason has kept Hidden Rock open all these years.

Donny gave his father a lopsided, reassuring smile. He then touched his father on shoulder, where the man’s unit patch was stitched. This contact brought his father back. Mr. Barrows shook the cobwebs from his mind.

“Yes,” Donny’s father said, “it would be a fantastic idea to bring Toe. Keep him leashed.”

“Of course.”

“At ALL times.”

“Sure, of course.”

“And listen to Toe. Don’t discount his barking, it’s—”

“Dark out there.” Donny’s mother finished for his father, laughing wanly after. “Are you trying to scare the poor son, or give him the beginnings of a ghost story for the campfire tonight, hmm?”

Donny’s father touched the scar across his cheek and attempted a laugh when he noticed his son watching closely.

“Take Toe and be mindful of him,” his father said, leaving the conversation at that.

Toe obviously knew Donny’s father had sanctioned his presence on the camping trip. The dog trotted forward and began licking Mr. Barrows’ hand thankfully, whining his absolute pleasure.

“I take it Mitch will be coming along with you. And… who else?” Donny’s father trailed off, eyeing his son closely.

Donny picked up his backpack, shouldered the tent packed in its nylon sleeve, and picked up his sleeping bag by the strap that held the bundle rolled.

“And Greg,” Donny answered, sighing. He knew his father did not approve of Greg. Greg possessed little respect, at least not on the level acceptable by most military brats; which may be fine, if Greg part of a military family these days.

A car horned sounded outside, from the front of the house.

“That will be Mitch’s dad,” Donny said to no one in particular, “he’s taking us to the grounds.

An approving nod from Donny’s father followed a stern look.

Yes, I know, Donny thought with a sigh he kept to himself. I’m not to let Greg get me in trouble tonight.

Donny glanced out the kitchen window, catching a brief sight of his mother’s emerald green eyes, her fiery red locks—both traits he shared—before he noted the sun’s orange tint, a sign of it blushingly waiting its date with the night. The amber glow made the color of his mother’s hair dance, flashing copper when she turned and gave her son a goodbye smile.

With Toe in tow, at the middle grader’s heels, Donny left by the front door.

 

 

FOUR

Toe nearly yanked Donny’ arm from its socket as he dove from the SUV in one bound, as if the dirt path leading to the clearing were a river waiting for him to swim.

The SUV’s door caught Donny in the knee, inciting a yelp and painful hiss.

“Toe’s towing you around, bro!” Greg shouted, cupping his hand around his mouth to magnify the words.

Like I’ve never heard that one before, Donny thought as he rubbed his knee and reeled in the Labrador, Toe’s nails digging into the dirt to leave deep furrows. The forest-mountain air must be stirring the canine’s blood. His tongue hung out the side of his mouth, while he panted with excitement.

“Geez, that looks like it hurt,” Mitch said, climbing down out of the SUV behind Donny and Toe.

The drop was not so bad for Mitch, who had passed up most of his class in height back in the fourth grade when he’d crested five-foot-eight. Today, the lanky middle-grader was over six-feet and wiry-thin; looking like someone had stretched him out and pulled too hard. His crazy dark brown hair and thick glasses gave him an eccentric, geeky look; regardless, a few girls in their grade thought of Mitch as “cute”. Donny didn’t see it and Greg refused to acknowledge such comments unless directed toward himself; besides, Mitch tended to be too shy to be a real ladies’ man, his mouth going numb if any girl so much as batted an eye his way.

“Nah,” said Donny, biting back a curse, “nothing I can’t walk off.” He brushed the dust of his unhurt knee and pulled Toe back from a suspicious looking piece of rotting bark.

“That is not a chew toy, Toe,” Donny told his dog sternly. Toe ignored the advice, snapping at the bark yet again but missing by an inch; the battle between dog and bark went on until Donny rubbed Toe’s neck and redirected the dog’s attention back to him.

“Could have been worse,” Greg said, “you might have landed on your… Oh wait! That might have improved your face, wiped some of your freckles away. Hah!”

“Shut up, Greg,” an abashed Donny said to his friend, while also trying to act like the comment did not offend him. Secretly, he wanted to scrub the freckles off his cheeks. Donny hated the perpetual chickenpox look.

“Will you three stop playing at being boys and act like Scouts?” asked Mitch’s dad as he walked around the side of the SUV and to the back of the vehicle. Mr. Voglar had passed on many traits to his son, including but not limited to height. If Mr. Voglar were any indication, Mitch would be near to seven-feet before he stopped growing.

Mitch would make a great center if so, Donny mused to himself, imaging his friend playing for the Carpenter High Eagles, wearing the Army-green jersey and making more girls swoon.

Joining his father, Mitch pushed up his spectacles and said to his father, “Cut us some slack, Dad. We’re still boys, not even in high school yet.”

“Never too young to practice being responsible,” Mr. Voglar said sincerely. He was the boy’s scoutmaster and oversaw their troupe as a wilderness guide, played mediator when boy-got-to-be-boys, and was an overall mentor and Boy Scout guru. He too had been a scout as a boy, making it to Eagle his senior year in high school; now Mr. Voglar was a real scout in the biggest troupe Donny knew about: the United States Army.

In what appeared to be in direct rebellion to the statement Mitch’s father had just given, Greg slapped the much taller Mitch on the back, leaving there a sign.

Donny dragged Toe over and read the spiral-notebook-sign:

 

ATTENTION BEARS! I TASTE LIKE CHICKEN!

Donny looked over at Greg, who gave his bright-haired friend two double highbrow raises. He couldn’t help but laugh at Greg’s brazen behavior. Yes, these boys were scouts—upholding the ideals of those good young American boys who came before them in khakis and neckerchiefs—but they were also fourteen-years-olds too, a year away from high school.

“Hey what is…” Mitch attempted to reach behind him and undo the sign, but even his long arms could not reach around that angle.

Mr. Voglar rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily, doing his son a favor and taking the sign off.

“There are no bears in these woods,” the adult said with exasperation.

“Who said anything about bears?” Mitch asked, looking between his too giggling companions.

After having his sign handed back to him, Greg unfolded the paper and produced it to his tall friend. Mitch appeared nonplus and remained speechless as he peered down at his shorter friend.

Greg rolled a shoulder into a shrug and commented, “Bears can’t read, Mitch. Don’t be a wuss.”

“Don’t under estimate bears, or any animal in general,” Mr. Voglar reminded them all. He continued, but so low, he could only have been speaking to himself; Donny strained to hear but picked up the words. “Sometimes even the most harmless monsters can surprise you.”

Just like Donny’s father, Mitch’s father seemed as if he were worried deeply about the three Scouts camping alone in Hidden Rock.

Why are they so reluctant about us being in the woods, near an Army base with soldiers armored with guns and rifles? This is better than being out in the middle of nowhere and out of earshot of any ranger or even a city-grown adult. Right?

Neither Greg nor Mitch seemed to notice their scoutmaster’s quiet, grim expression. Before they could have, Mr. Voglar had regained his calm and was smiling again. He went on to explain the rules of the camping trip, specifically how they three would get their merit badges.

Finished, Mitch’s father opened the SUV’s back hatch and started unloading the three boy’s camping gear, handing each item to the appropriate owner.

The elder Voglar went to grab the small duffel Greg brought, but Greg got there before the older man could handle the bag. Greg smiled, clutching the bag close and said how much he wanted to help.

All the baggage unloaded, Mr. Voglar said his goodbyes and told them more than twice to be careful and mindful of Toe.

Toe again?

Left alone with the setting sun slumping down and taking away the daylight, the three boys and loyal Labrador set up camp.

They each pitched their tents before losing daylight to work by, throwing in their sleeping bags afterward. Donny tossed a couple blankets down inside his own tent for Toe to sleep on. The Labrador immediately stepped inside through the unzipped flap and inspected the bundles. Sniffing and clawing at the bundle as if making a proper nest, the dog proclaimed the makeshift bed satisfactory and plopped down to nap.

Greg—after much persuading—gathered more than an armful of dry tree branches to make a fire, with enough left over for fuel later. Donny used a collapsible travel-sized shovel to scoop sand into a tiny bucket, just in case the fire needed dousing at some point. After all, the three boys were Scouts. And as such, they practiced forest safety. “‘Only you can prevent forest fires’,” Greg quoted in his best, gruff bear voice as Donny set the bucket down near the fire pit with a grunt of effort.

The three friends all chuckled.

Mitch knelt down at the pit, took out flint from his pack, ran the blade of his pocketknife over the metal bar and within a few minutes, he produced sparks that caught the kindling underneath the branches.

The fire was soon popping and cracking with hungry life, spreading out a ring of light over the quickly darkening camp. Toe ventured out of Donny’s tent and laid down close enough to feel the heat, putting his head down on his front paws.

Donny and Mitch settled down in front of the fire, Donny beside Toe. They both pulled out tin mess kits with enough dents and dings to qualify for medals of valor in any war. They brought out hot dog links from a cooler, sticking four of the dogs on four separate skewers, ready for the open flame. Donny got out his pocketknife and a can of beans, using the can opener tool to bite into the aluminum top and punctured an opening large enough for the beans to slide out. Toe perked up his head. The Labrador sniffed the air and began to salivate.

“Not yet, Toe,” Donny told his canine companion, “they still need to be cooked.”

Taking out a portable pot, Donny upended the beans inside and placed the pot on to the open fire.

Hands placed behind his head, Mitch reclined on his back and took in the night air. Crisp and clean, the bite of winter not just nipping yet. Whatever their parents did at Carpenter Labs, the projects and experiments had not polluted the air. Well, as far as anyone could tell.

Mitch was about to stretch out his legs, which if he had would have been shoved in to the campfire. In order to stretch out properly, the tall middle grader’s irregular giant height, for his age, forced him to crab-walked backwards.

“Being tall ever get annoying, Mitch?” Donny asked while scratching Toe on the back of the neck.

“How do you mean?”

“I keep imagining your forehead kissing the top of doors. Or, I can see your feet dangling past the edge of the bed every night.” Donny gave his friend a genial grin and then laughed the way only a true friend can when making fun of a best bro.

“At least I don’t need a footstool to reach the cereal box in the morning,” Mitch replied drying, indicating he wished everyone else were taller or he shorter so he could blend in.

“You’re also the first one to know when it rains.” Donny laughed again.

Mitch reached a long arm over, striking as quick as a snake with the intent to bite, and slapped Donny across his injured knee.

“Ouch!”

Mitch smiled and sighed easily. “I also have the benefit of having a long reach.”

“Careful or I’ll bite your ankles off and take you done!”

This time they shared the laughter.

“You’ll still need a stool to go at me, Donny,” Mitch reminded of him.

“Fine! I’ll chew your knee caps off or…”

Without warning, Donny leapt on top of Mitch and socked him gentling in the ribs a couple of times, then he took Mitch’s glasses off his face and waved them above his head with one hand while pinning his friend to the ground with the other. Mitch pulled at Donny’s arm but he could not find any leverage with his shoulder blades pinned to the ground as they were. Toe barked and danced around his master, waiting to add aid if a dog pile was initiated.

“Not so tall when you can’t stand, huh?”

“Give those back, Barrows! If I break another pair my mom’s going to make me tape the pieces back together… we can’t afford a new—”

“What are you two girls doing over there?!” said a voice.

Greg had been in his tent but the rustle and tussle of Donny and Mitch’s struggle to see if a dwarf could outwit a giant, had brought him out.

“Are you having a pillow fight or fighting over a doll?” Greg asked, stepping out his tent.

“Why do you have to be like that?” Mitch asked.

Donny climbed off his friend and handed back the spectacles to Mitch, without the other having to ask. The only person involved in the friendly scuffle who didn’t want the fun to end was Toe. The Labrador danced around the boys, trying to pull them into a rough and tumble play. Donny pushed the dog away when Toe nipped at his hand.

“‘Like’ what?” Greg asked. “You two were the ones rolling around like giggling sissies in love with each other.”

That comment forced Mitch and Donny apart quickly. They both shoved space between them, as if to say they were too mucho to be in hugging distance of another guy. Mitch laughed, touching his side where it was splitting—figuratively, of course.

“Friends don’t act cruel to one another,” Mitch told Greg, his tone reserved, not telling per se but suggesting Greg be nicer to his best friends.

Donny hooked a thumb at the tall middle grader with glasses. “I’m with slim and tall there. You can be a real jerk, Greg. Save all the bravado and spite for idiots who want to stab you in the back, not people who watch it!”

Ever since they three were kids in the third grade, when Greg’s mother married his stepfather and when mother and son moved to Carpenter to be with the man, the newly made military brat had put on a hard callous shell. Armor. He joked harshly at every situation, seemingly afraid to be concerned with anyone or anything. Greg poked fun at every person who crossed his path, even his friends. He played pranks on people. Once, in the fifth grade, he’d somehow managed to switch the signs on the girls and boys bathrooms. Several boys went into the girl’s toilets. Horror and humiliation run out… but let’s leave the details at that. Needless to say, there were a lot of screaming girls, red-faced teachers and many boys being called “sissies”. Greg did not win any friends that day. He, Donny, and Mitch did laugh for a week while Greg did hard time in detention, though. And the bruise when Greg got home, we won’t go there. That was another thing Greg’s humor hid.

“Lighten up, you two!” Greg waved them off and joined them around the fire. He had that bag, the small duffle he would not let Mr. Voglar handle. He set down that bag between his spread feet.

Strange. Donny could have sworn he heard the clinking of bottles…

“How many times do I have to tell you both?” Greg went on. “Doesn’t matter what I say…” He trailed off his sentence, then looked at them both in turn, waiting for one or both of them to finish the words he’d spoke religiously before.

Both Donny and Mitch sighed tiredly, before reciting together the words they had heard so often since being friends with Greg Day. “‘All that matters is I got your back. If I don’t like you, you’ll turn around and I won’t be there, someone else’s fist will be instead.’”

There was an odd, poetic rhyme to the words, if a surly sailor with a penchant for bar fights had written that poem.

Greg raised his hands in a There you go gesture.

“So,” Greg said, “you sissies ready to heat up the dogs and start having fun?!”

“First off,” Mitch interjected, which drew a crafty grin from Greg. I was waiting for you to say this, it said. “What’s in the bag? You wouldn’t let my dad touch it.”

“You didn’t think this trip was solely about merit badges, did you, Mitch?”

“Honestly, yeah, I did believe that,” Donny said, mollified.

Greg reached down and opened the duffle, pulling out a brown paper grocery bag. The bag made that crinkling sound as Greg pulled out a six-pack of something.

For a moment, Donny believed his friend had brought sodas along on the trip, enough to give them all a sugar rush. But no…

“Oh… no… this is not a good idea, Greg,” Mitch said, waving his hands in front of his face. “You snuck a case of beer on the trip?! In my dad’s car, with my dad driving and nearly finding it?”

Greg pulled one of the cans from the plastic six pack yoke and held it up, proffering it toward his bespectacled friend.

“So I take it then that you want none of this nectar of the gods?” Greg asked, tilting his head to the side and raising an eyebrow.

Mitch pulled his knees into his chest and tried to speak. No words came out.

Every kid in middle school wondered what it would be like to have his or her first drink of alcohol. Likely Mitch was part of the large minority. Some had a taste by accident, perhaps at a wedding when instead of a virgin-something-or-other a little liquor in the Shirley Temple. Others sought out their first beer, those who cared little for the rules. Those like Greg.

I bet he stole the beer from his stepfather’s cache, Donny thought to himself, worried for his friend’s well being. Greg always toed the line of authority; sometimes his actions were enough to get him attention and test the patience of adults, other times his actions angered, and incited painful punishment. None of the punishments seemed to sink in either. Military brats like Mitch and I, born into the club as we are, don’t mess around with these things. We follow the rules and show respect for those people who write down those rules. Corporal punishment is more common than an everyday civilian spanking. Greg always did have a hard time fitting in with the lifestyle of the military brats. Greg probably was never going to assimilate.

During Donny’s internal mussing, Mitch reached out a hand and took the can. Greg seemed pleased with his tall friend, another converted follower.

Greg turned his attention to Donny as Mitch popped open the can.

“You joining or are you going to hang back?” Greg asked, less sure of his normal peer-pressure speech. Giving in was not what Donny was known for, in the group he was the tent pole that held up the shelter against rain and sleet. To an adventurer like Greg, that was important, to be checked once and while. Donny represented stability, an anchor… even if stopping the rebellious middle grade would never be possible. If things became tough, Donny would be there.

“Nope. You go ahead if you’re inclined to get drunk and be an idiot,” Donny told his pressuring friend before shooting a reproachful look at Mitch. Mitch ignored him.

“Don’t sniff the beer, Mitch,” Greg bellowed load enough for the Carpenter Labs to hear. “What? You think the thing is a flower? Take a pull and be ushered into manhood. Yeah!”

And so the night began. Donny scratched Toe behind an ear and then underneath the chin. The dog eyed the uncooked dogs, waiting patiently for his supper.

If Donny thought Mitch vomiting his first-ever beer would top the night’s horrifying events… well, the middle grader was sourly mistaken on that assumption.

 

 

FIVE

By the time the dogs—hotdogs that is—were finished cooking over the open flame of the boys’ fire, the sun had gone down completely. Overhead the sky had turned a dark bruise. Although Carpenter laid close by, and being a town slightly larger than small, the town’s ambient light did little to diminish the starry curtain overhead.

Donny tilted his head back and looked up through the dark canopy of trees creating their campsite. It was as if a god had stuck out his finger and poked holes in the sky to allow light to fight back the darkness of the night. The thought warmed Donny, providing him with a feeling that some being larger than he was looking down over all them, giving the human race light to navigate the everyday dangers of life.

Donny took a bite of his hotdog. The hot meat juices squirted in to his mouth, teasing his stomach before the meat even had a chance to slide down his throat.

Toe set his head down on the knee that earlier in the evening Donny had banged against the door of the SUV. No pain. He doubted a bruise would appear tomorrow morning. The Labrador licked his chops. Despite having had two entire dogs, no buns, the Labrador with a missing toe and nail still wanted more.

Donny peered at the last bit of his hotdog, wondering if he should offer it to his canine friend. Either this or some beans…

Then he remembered Toe would be sharing his tent. Dog farts were not odors meant to help a person sleep.

Donny tossed the remaining bite of dog to the ground; Toe ate that in one swallow.

“You’re a pig,” Donny said to Toe with a laugh. The middle grader rubbed the canine’s buff-colored head and scratched his ear.

Toe begged for Donny’s beans but the middle grader would not relent, a fartless sleep was too tempting.

But that did not stop Greg.

“What are you doing, Greg?!”

Greg, after feeding Toe two butt-busting spoonfuls of steaming hot beans, was letting the Labrador lick his spoon. Across Greg’s face, a malicious gleeful grin, his eyes wide with perfect clarity. “Happy sleeping, bro! Remember to zip up tight! Tonight will be a cold night. Good thing you have your furry buddy, huh?”

Greg fell back with laughter as Donny attacked him, kneading his knuckles into his friend’s ribs. Not hard enough to bruise flesh, but hard enough to make laughing hurt a little for the moment.

The three boys spent the remainder of the evening telling stories. Greg’s were the scariest, perfect for the campfire. Albeit the amber light from the flames were comfortable and cozy, no one could forget about the forest’s shadowy claws scratching at the protective ring of light. No one could help feeling exposed with their back to those shadows, moving with each breeze, every tiny breath.

Among the scary tales Greg told his friends was the story of Martha Butcher, a high school prom queen who had gone insane and chopped up her family, later baking their innards into pies. Those pies won blue ribbon prizes at her county fair. Then there was the story of Jeremiah Hiccup, a southern preacher who ran a dying congergation with no new membership in twenty years and only widows filling the pews. Reverend Hiccup prayed to God for his words to bring life to his church again. An angel granted him a silver tongue in answer. Little did the preacher know, but the angel was in fact the devil and the silver tongue gave him a bad case of cursing which ran off any existing membership in his church and kept others from visiting. The townspeople, believing demons controlled his tongue, overreacted some by pulling out poor Jeremiah’s tongue.

Donny enjoyed a good scare. Mitch rocked back and forth and said nothing, probably frightened over losing his own tongue if he spoke out at the wrong time. The four-eyed middle grader hung on every one of Greg’s words, his long pauses near to making Mitch sweat and think himself a man dangling from a cliff by one finger. Any sudden moves… he would drop to squishy death.

A rustling of leaves made Mitch suddenly leap from his seat and yelp like a little girl having seen a spider. “Dude, that is not cool! Adding sound effects now to make my heart swan dive out of my chest?”

“Not me, Mitch,” Greg said, arching an eyebrow. “And I didn’t hear anything.”

Mitch raised his half-drunk bottle of beer and swished the liquid inside around, experimenting with the question of how much alcohol he had consumed tonight. Two beers by now, maybe?

“Can’t handle your booze?” Greg commented, taking a swig himself.

Mitch put down the bottle. “I think I’ve had enough for one night.” He let out a belch, which he covered too late with a hand. “Excuse me.”

“You are definitely a light-weight, Voglar,” Greg said. “Good thing you have your own tent. If not, and you wanted to bunk with me, I might be tempted to switch you out with Toe. The dog’s bean-fueled flatulence is preferable to waking up with you vom—”

Donny shushed Greg and any response Mitch may have slung back at the other. “Quiet down, both of you. I think I did hear something.”

Mitch offered Greg a reproachful glare, See! I’m not insane. In response, Greg rolled his eyes and huffed.

As if to confirm Donny and Mitch’s suspicions, Toe raised his head from his paws, his ears going erect with alarm and concern.

Silence filled the campsite like an old unwanted guest harboring a grudge but arriving with a smile. Creepy. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the haunting hoot of an owl somewhere in the distance.

The Labrador growled.

Before the dog could run off into the deep dark of night, Donny grabbed the dog’s collar and tugged him back. Doing this, Donny became aware of the sweat on his palms, his grip slick.

Someone swallowed.

A branch went snap!

Wings fluttered and something squealed in terror.

Greg laughed, breaking the silence within the warm glow of the campfire’s ring.

Donny peeked over his shoulder at Greg. The other middle grader pointed across the campfire at Mitch, who raised his hand in confession.

Donny let out an unsteady breath of relief, understanding. Mitch had screeched and Greg laughed at him.

Then why was Donny’s back still damp with sweat, his limbs prickly with nervous tension comparable to tuned violin? And why was Toe still growling, pointing his aggressive warnings to a specific group of shadows?

Toe let out a challenging bark, spraying thick globs of dog spittle across the dirt floor of the campsite.

Another branch broke. Donny felt the snap in his spine, the sound making him jerk in surprise and inhale sharply.

A pair of eyes blinked open, nestled in the deep shadows of a bush.

“See! It’s nothin’,” Greg said, gesturing to the curious eyes. “A raccoon is scouting our camp, waiting for us to go to sleep. When we do, he’ll come in and get at our food.”

Greg picked up a rock, moved to stand beside Toe, and chucked the rock at the eyes. Whatever waited in the shadows scampered away upon the projectile entering its hiding place, but not before hissing in retaliation.

“You threw a rock at the thing?” Mitch asked, incredulous. “You could have hit it, or hurt it?

In disbelief, Greg turned toward his tall friend and scuffed. “That was the plan. I wanted to teach it not to mess with us Scouts.” He threw his fist in the air with dramatic pride.

“As Scouts, we’re supposed to respect wildlife, protect it,” Mitch went on, bothered and frustrated, not wanting to let Greg diminish their group’s values. “Throwing the surrounding environment at the animals that call it home is not protecting—”

“Nope,” Greg said, “it’s called resourcefulness. And anyway, I thought life was all about survival of the fittest? Well, if whatever was in the bushes wanted to survive it would move faster or stay away from me completely.”

This statement struck Mitch dumb. His glasses slipped down to the tip of his nose and stayed there while his mouth went agape.

“I think he’s serious, Mitch,” Donny said after looking between his two friends.

Mitch pushed his glasses back up, drew in a long breath, and shook his head. “Yeah, I know. I think that’s the problem.”

Still beside Donny, sitting on his hunches, Toe shifted on his backside, whining at the shadows outside the campfire’s ring of protective light. While the boys argued over a Scout’s duty to the environment and the furry creatures living there, they ignored the warnings Toe urged. Even when the Labrador slipped his head underneath his human friend’s arm and nudged Donny’s ribs, or when he nipped at the middle grader’s arm, Donny ignored him. Donny pushed him away.

Toe let out a whining bark, a high screech like a whistle.

All three Scouts finally turned their attentions to the dog.

A rustling came from the darkness, a few feet to the right of the hiding place where the hungry critter had been. The sound was subtle. Only a dog’s sensitive ears could have picked up the slight noises of creeping movement.

“Oh-ho! The little troublemaker is back!” Greg turned around in circles, searching the ground. After a couple of seconds, he found what he was looking for. A rock the size of his fist. An evil twinkle sparked in Greg’s eyes. Donny and Mitch both saw this.

“Let him be, Greg,” Mitch pleaded with open hands. “This is the little guy’s home turf, we’re encroaching.”

“Survival. Of. The. Fittest.

Greg wound back his arm, ready to pitch his projectile.

Then, from the bushes, four dark silhouettes emerged in a rush.

The gloom enveloped these four intruders; even when they entered the fire light, the shadows clung greedily. Only their flesh stood out, that and the leader’s tall, stiff, spiky hair.

Toe began to bark once more, pulling against his leash, wanting Donny to loose him, recognizing a fight when he saw one.

 

 

SIX

Arm still cocked, Greg hesitated for only a split second. Yet he did throw, and he threw hard. For all Greg’s boasting, Donny knew his friend would never have meant to hit whatever critter may have been hiding, waiting in the dark to steal the Scouts’ leftover food.

Since the critter had turned out to be a darkly dressed punk with too much Elmer’s Glue in his hair, Greg’s intent changed.

Unfortunately, the rock missed Spikes’ head by inches. Air may have grazed the side of the skater goth’s face, but he ignored the distraction and went straight on to tackling Greg. They both went down in a heap. With fists balled up, Greg flailed his arms in a desperate, scrappy attempt at making contact with any part of Spikes’ body.

This is one of those moments I wish my parents had let me take karate, Donny thought to himself with abject longing.

With Spikes having brought a fourth man along in his group, the three Scouts were outnumbered. However, strangely, the other three middle graders did not attack. They stood by, eyes darting between their spiky-haired leader’s fight with Greg and that of Mitch and Donny.

They’re here only to make sure we don’t interfere with Spikes’ pity revenge, Donny figured out quickly.

Fights between middle graders are not professional in nature. In most cases both boys (or in rare cases girls armed with ten nails) had no clue how to fight. Anything went. Biting. Hair pulling.

Greg kneed Spikes in the groin. The skater ceased punching the other middle grader’s ribs, groaning and cupped his crouch. While hissing in pain Spikes rolled off Greg.

Yeah, and going for the soft manly parts happens too, not pretty or acceptable but the move is done. Suffice it to say, fights in middle school and elementary school are brutal and messy and certainly not pretty.

Donny watched as his friend rose, breathing hard, his clothing and hair disheveled and dusty from the dirt ground. His cheek bled from a scrape the fall had dealt him. Greg was rather short, under average, and possessed a weight and size of little intimidation. Brown hair and eyes a gray-green, Greg’s cheeks were pocked with acne craters. The acne always left Greg with an oily sheen to his face. Right now, his face was redder than usual from exertion as he took quick desperate breathes.

Spikes found his footing but as he stood, he remained slightly bent with pain, his knees turned inward.

Not waiting for Spikes to recover, Greg found one of the extra tree branches set aside for when the campfire required more fuel. The piece of wood was as long as Donny’s arm and thicker than two thumbs. It would not break.

Greg lunged at Spikes and used his stick to strike the latter in the arm and in the left shin. This second blow brought the skater goth to the ground. Dust plumed around the fallen middle grader and a new pain—from his rear!—must have shot forth because Spikes yelped.

Donny found himself whopping in delight and in support of his friend. On the other side of the pit that held the campfire, Mitch struggled to find his feet and jump into the fray. The same huge portly skater from earlier in the day, kept Mitch from doing more than standing, acting as a defensive wall.

The skater keeping an eye on Donny—the middle grader was near as whipcord thin as Mitch but more Donny’s height and with a closely shaved head—kept his distance. Toe made sure of that. Showing his teeth and growling was enough to warn off the shaved head skater, who had his hands shoved out in front of him to placate the canine. For a moment, Donny thought about letting Toe go and jumping into help Greg. No. Greg needed to fight this battle on his own… for the moment. Bruising Greg’s ego would not stop Spikes from bullying them. Sometimes a person needs to restrain their help, allowing their friends to fight battles on their own, to grow stronger on their own.

Spikes crab walked back and away from Greg, who still held the branch in his right hand, pointing the makeshift weapon down and away from his body. The skater goth leader threw up an arm over his face in case Greg wanted to rearrange anything there, a nose maybe.

Before Greg could fake such an intension, perhaps to scare Spikes, the fourth skater in the group rushed Greg, kicking his left leg out from underneath him. Greg went down, and the fourth skater stepped on his hand. Donny’s friend cried out sharply in pain, letting go of the tree branch and clutching the hurt hand to his chest.

Struggling to get up again, the fourth skater grabbed Greg, using his skateboard to pin the latter against the front of his body. The fourth skater raised the side of the board up against Greg’s chin, almost as if he intended to choke Greg.

Mitch shouted for the fight to stop, his wiry stature disappearing behind the girth of the portly skater assigned to make sure he didn’t interfere with the fight.

For a couple seconds, time appeared to slow. Donny swore he could hear the rapid beating of seven hearts slapping his eardrums. The fire danced maddeningly, fueled by the chaos spewing before it, as if the struggle tonight were a Native American dance performed after the bloodletting of a battle. Their seven shadows stretched across the campgrounds, an audience of demons egging on the festivities.

Then, Toe brought Donny’s mind back. Time renewed its usual pace.

Choking, Greg’s face turned a blueberry color while spittle ran over his lips, his smashed hand forgotten.

Mitch frantically fought against the brick wall holding him in place, arms reaching around, clawing the air.

Spikes regained his feet, wincing against the pain still throbbing between his legs. He approached Greg with an odd gate, like a person who had ridden horseback too long or who needed to drop of load.

Despite it all—the situation, the beating approaching him, the impaired flow of oxygen to his lungs—Greg managed a half grin, coughing.

“On top of the world, huh, Greggie?” Spikes said, flicking out a blade. Not a pocketknife like Scouts carried, but a nasty switchblade slightly longer than an adult’s index finger. “Are you so dumb you don’t know when the world is splitting open between your feet, when Hell is opening up to swallow you whole?! Huh? Do you, or are you stupid and blind?”

Greg tried responding but his words came out a spurting mess of spit and gurgling.

“Let him breath for a second, Wes,” Spikes said, stepping closer and turning the blade in his hands, before Greg’s wide eyes. The metal caught the light of the fire, the surface turning a flickering orange-gold.

With the skateboard lowered, air filled Greg’s lungs again. After a ragged breath or two, he managed to speak. “If I’m going to Hell, I’ll see you there, Stevie!”

Spikes sucked on his teeth, Greg’s words rattling around in his brain like loose marbles. A maniacal grin eventually spread across his face. He held up the knife and considered it. “Huh. Maybe you’re right, I’m no damn winged angel playing a harp. If I’m headed down south, I should probably make a reservation, tell them to save a badass apartment nearest the river of fire. I can carve the reservation in your skin, your belly… just in case you arrive before me. What do you say, Greggie, huh?”

That was it. Donny could not, would not, stand by and let his friend be cut up by some idiot. Even if Spikes was simply trying to scare Greg into wetting himself or crying like a baby just out of the womb. Greg was past the learning curve and headed straight for a collision course.

Donny let go of Toe’s collar.

Already set on skater-seeking mode, the Labrador sprang into action. He darted forward and attacked the skater watching over Donny, or rather the middle grader with all the piercings—a ring in the nose like a bull, several studs and smaller rings along the lobes of both ears. The skater, already afraid of Toe turning him into a chew toy, uttered a shriek that would have his friends naming him Ms. Pierce by Monday at first bell. He turned to show the dog his backside and make an escape. Bad idea. Toe lunged, opened his jaws wide, and clamped down on the middle grader’s rear end. Ms. Pierce howled, his hands finding his butt but coming away with no blood. Toe, came away with a piece of the skater’s pants and boxers, boxers with a horde of happy, smiling devils riding skateboards as the print.

Everyone had their attention turned to the dog with a missing toe and his knew chew toy.

No one saw Donny spring from his crouch and elbow the skater holding Greg.

Greg seized the skateboard choking him; or rather, his arms went up, hitting the board and sending it flying up into Spikes’ face. A spray of blood burst from the spiky-haired skater’s face. He dropped the knife and clamped his hands over his busted nose.

Greg would have gone for the knife. He was in the middle of bending when Donny grabbed his friend’s jacket collar and dragged him to the edge of the firelight.

In the scurrying retreat, Donny shot a glance at Mitch and passed an instant communication between the two of them. Scramble!

Instead of going through the wide skater, Mitch shuffled to the side and dove into the dark, making his way around the perimeter of bushes and trees to join his fleeing friends.

Donny put his index and middle fingers to his lips and blew out a shrill whistle. Toe’s ears perked. The Labrador gave his pieces of pants and devil boxers one last shake before darting in the direction of his master. Donny didn’t wait. He hauled the raging Greg along and into the shadows of the tall oaks encircling the site, Greg all the while kicking and screaming for a chance to get back and finish Spikes off. A rush of cold fright washed over Donny—maybe brought on by the fire’s warm retreating or the situation he and his friends were running from—and suddenly he became aware of how much he had been sweating.

The sudden burst of lightning didn’t help either.

Wait… was that blue lightning? And, did it come from… someplace between the trees and not the sky?

Donny shook off the thought. Current problems needed attention.

Behind them, Spikes was calling for his friends to assemble like some League of Terrible Skate Punks and to follow the three Scouts.

“What are you idiots waiting for?! Get after those geeks and shove their faces into some Poison Oak! Now!”

The chase was on.

 

 

SEVEN

The night’s gloom kept Donny from seeing. All he knew was he had to run. Run and hide. Spikes and his skater cronies would wander around and get lost in Hidden Rock’s thick forest. As Scouts, Donny and his friends could survive until sunrise and then in the morning track their trail back to their original campsite.

We just have to put some distance between us and Spikes’ crew, Donny reminded himself.

Branches, like the dark claws of salivating demons desiring to rake at Donny’s flesh, slapped the middle grader in the face and across the arm he held up before his face. Roots and fallen trees attempted to trip him too, making it easier for those demons to grab at his limbs and pull him into a pit in the ground.

Stay focused, Donny told himself. Stay focused, there is no such thing as demons and monsters. Hidden Rock doesn’t even have animals scampering about! Well… nothing that wants to rip me to shreds with its claws or stick me with antlers.

So why then was his heart pounding so quickly, wanting to run out in front of Donny? You’re going to slow!, his heart cried.

Greg tugged at Donny’s arm, threatening to yank the limb from its socket. Not even Toe exerted that much force when I was excited to be on a walk.

“Let go of me, Donny!” Greg protested loudly. “Let go! I can take care of myself. Spikes got nothin’ on me.”

“Will you quiet down, please?” Mitch said in a quiet voice from somewhere to Donny’s left, his statement more a request than an order. The trees, tall as giants with expansive canopies that blocked the moonlight, kept Donny from seeing where his friends were around him. From the panting at his feet, he knew Toe was loping beside him, keeping pace, likely slowing down so the humans could keep pace with him.

“Mitch is right, Greg, you shout too much and Spikes will be on us,” Donny said, throwing his voice over his shoulder.

“Let him and his poser buddies come!” Greg bellowed in the direction they had come from after fleeing the campsite, an invitation if Donny had ever heard one.

In the distance voices called out. Donny could swear he heard Spikes directing his pals to follow Greg’s boisterous summons.

Act quick, Donny told himself, you gotta throw off the pursuit and get Greg to shut the heck up!

Donny hoped Mitch would know to follow. Toe would instinctively stick to his human companion, no worries there.

Without warning, the middle grader shifted his direction with a twist of the foot. Donny almost slipped in doing this. His knee still hurt some, which did not make this move any easier. He held back a wince, made sure to bump into Mitch to indicate the change of course, and whispered, “This way.”  The sudden shift jerked any quick wit and snappy wordplay out of Greg, who made a noise suggesting he had left his stomach behind at the last intersection.

Not having stepped five feet after making the hard left turn, Donny’s foot caught underneath a root and tripped him. He and Greg went down together. Mitch, instead of finding the mischievous root, stumbled over his friends, grunting.

A rustling and snap, Donny slapped his hand over Greg’s mouth and pressed down hard.

“Don’t say a wo—”

“Where’d they go?” a voice asked, not issued from Spikes but someone else.

“Greggie’s voice came from this direction,” said another voice, Spikes’ voice this time. “Keep moving, we’ll run into those sissy Scouts eventually.”

More lightning shot out somewhere far off. Except this time, without his own heavy breathing clogging his sense of hearing, Donny’s ears picked up something strange. The lightning made a sound. But lightning doesn’t sound like anything. Sure, thunder accompanies it with a smashing, wobbling duet. This sound was different, a sharp crack and sizzle, like something being shocked and burned.

As quickly as the strange crack-sizzle lightning arrived, it left again.

“You heard that, right?” the unknown voice said, a quaver in his voice.

Spikes didn’t respond for one or two heartbeats.

“Don’t worry about that, lightning probably, with thunder.”

“I don’t remember clouds or a storm coming in.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Spikes hissed angrily, impassioned and wretched. “Get going before we lose them for good and get stuck out here.”

One can hope…

The voices moved away at a quick pace. The soft crunch of feet over leaves and regular forest debris followed until disappearing, an unsteady silence settling in the wake.

Greg swatted Donny’s hand away and sat bolt upright. Donny scrambled to find Greg’s belt before he ran off after Spikes.

“You can’t run off,” Donny told Greg in low tones. “Spikes has three other guys and has no reservations about having all his buddies gang up on you at once. A tenderized Greg is easy to beat down.”

“Man, don’t be stupid. Stay with us,” Mitch put in, wincing. He probably hurt himself in the fall. Hopefully just a minor bruising.

Continued silence. Without proper light to see by, Donny could not see Greg’s face and was unable to read his expression.

Finally, Greg spoke, his rage uncontainable. If he rants too long, Spikes and his boy’s might hear. “If I go you won’t follow me, yeah?”

Donny wanted to say that of course he would leave Greg to his own stupid end. If his good friend was set on such actions of stupidity, which would likely end with him black and blue and unrecognizable to his own mother, then Greg could go headlong on that suicide course. Part of Donny didn’t answer right off because he hoped Mitch would step in. Mitch did not though. Donny didn’t want to be the one to aban-don his friend. Scouts don’t leave a man behind, they stick together, even if one Scout was acting like he’d been cloths-lined by a tree branch and had his marbles shook loose.

Plus, Donny could tell Greg’s voice was filled with ache. He didn’t want his friends to go but he expected as much. He didn’t want anyone to abandon him but he waited for such an event to occur. Does Greg verbally attack people to provoke a response, thinking and maybe wanting to have people abandon him? Afterwards he might blame himself or curse those people who left him behind. Either way, Donny’s friend was torn up inside.

Greg was about to get up when Donny grabbed him by the wrist.

“We’re not leaving you, end of discussion,” he told his friend, trying to put sincerity in his voice and strip away the doubt.

“But we can’t let you be stupid either,” Mitch put in, being of the same mind as Donny. His voice shook with trepidation. “If we have to… to…”

“If we have to,” Donny picked up the sentence for his friend, who obviously was uncomfortable with making threats, no matter how good intentioned the threat might be, “we’ll knock you out cold and drag you back to camp.”

Oh yeah, that will convince Greg. And when Greg wakes, he’ll be in a stellar mood. An idea struck Donny just now, a line of reasoning that may sway Greg to reason. Might.

“Think about it, Greg,” Donny mentally crossed his fingers and prayed. “Let Spikes go free. He’ll wander all night, him and his buddies, in the dark with no way of knowing where the heck they’re going. Chances are their parents don’t know they’re here. Hey! They might even trip and break something. They have no food or supplies. At a minimum, they won’t figure out a way out of the Rock until daylight arrives. Meanwhile, we go back to camp, get the heck out of here, and laugh our butts off on Monday. How does that sound?”

“I personally,” Mitch began to say, “would prefer the less aggressive—Ouch!

Donny elbowed Mitch, at least, he thought that was the tall Scout. Last thing Donny needed was Greg thinking this alternative plan might place him in the humiliating spotlight of a coward. He needed Greg to think this plan was clever, a prank worthy of Greg.

After some considerable time, Greg finished contemplating Donny’s suggestion and sighed, relenting. “Alright, Donny, you convinced me. Do you know the way back to camp?”

His friend’s voice possessed the hallmarks of exhaustion and fatigue, the adrenaline having been lowered several notches. Donny was confident that by morning Greg would be chuckling about how he had gotten the better of Spikes in the end.

“How are we getting back to camp, Donny?” Mitch asked.

Donny felt around the forest floor with his hands, searching for…

Nearby, Toe’s tags jangled and jingled as Donny tugged on the Labrador’s lead.

“No worries,” Donny assured his friends. He then directed his voice to Toe, interjecting confidence and commend. “Toe, find camp.”

Then the Scouts were off. Within twenty minutes, a pinpoint of dancing light appeared. The firelight grew, becoming a welcoming beacon in a raging sea of hopeless.

“Good boy, Toe,” Donny cooed to his canine pal. “Good boy…”

 

 

EIGHT

The three Scouts found their camp in shambles.

Before pursuing the three of them, Spikes and his skater pals must have taken the time to stomp all over the grounds.

The three tents were broken down into heaps, the support poles bent and pinched into unusable states. Some of the poles stuck out from the nylon weave fabric like shattered bones from torn flesh. The skaters had quickly rifled through the Scouts’ packs, pulling out all the contents to throw in every which direction. The packs themselves smelled awful of an acidic stench and were damp. Donny did not want to know what Spikes and his friends had done.

Greg uttered multiple curses as he gathered up his belongings. When he took a whiff of his own backpack, he pulled his head away immediately and spat at the ground, the odor having made its way from his nostrils to his throat. He nearly sobbed when he found his stepfather beer, which he had stolen from the man’s stash, mostly drank. The shards of broken brown bottles, scattered around the outside of the fire pit, twinkled like diamonds in the diminishing light.

The skaters had tried to stomp out the campfire, or they had run through the fire, kicking up the wood from down inside the pit. In either case, strewn about the site, the contents of the larger campfire created smaller fires. Thankfully, those mini fires had not spread. Mitch went around with the bucket of sand putting out the small fires.

Seeing the clean up required of him, the task to organize the mess Spikes left for each Scout, brought on an overwhelming sense of duty. Imagine staring at a landfill and being told to clean up the yard so a playground and park could be built there. Do that, and the task, which befell Donny and his friends, can be understood. Donny wanted to sit down in response. But he couldn’t. He needed to get his stuff packed and his tent collected; he doubted the tent would fit in its sheath now. It took effort, along with some huffing and groaning, but Donny managed to begin his task.

Meanwhile, Greg failed to motivate himself into clean-up action. Instead, he nudged his wrecked camping gear with his toe, as if doing so would jostle the tent into fixing itself and magically set the backpack to the task of collecting its scattered contents. If the result is not obvious, let’s break it down simply: the tent and backpack were more stubborn then their owner. He stomped over to the fire pit, to where the beer bottles lay he had brought tonight, and picked up one of the remaining whole bottles. Turning it in his hand, he probably considered drinking what remained of the former contents, wanting to dull his senses and feel something other than fear and embarrassment at being chased off by Spikes and his skater cronies. He took a swig, long and deep, the honey brown liquid dribbling down his chin. Then Greg began to curse for a good ten minutes before finally resigning to pick up the few empty, intact bottles and stowing them away in his bag for later evidence discarding. Using Mitch’s collapsible shovel, he collected the broken shards.

“Have you found your cell yet, Mitch?” Donny asked after having finished forcing his tent back into its sheath.

“Nope. Damn, those posers probably tossed it in the bushes somewhere. I’ll never find it.”

“We’ll have to hike out, the main road can’t be too far,” Donny concluded.

“But it’s not my phone,” Mitch implored, stomping to the edge of the site to search further. “My dad gave me the cell. The cell is his. He’s going to kill me for sure.” Mitch’s voice trembled with fretting.

Mitch bent at the waist and peered into the thick gloom. After several minutes without the aid of a light, he gave up.

“You would think the posers would have the common decency to respect other people’s stuff,” Mitch complained to no one in particular, half the words mumbled under his breath.

“What was it you said?” Greg asked, catching only a small fraction of Mitch’s rambling.

The tall middle grader stood up straight upon being addressed, but did not speak right way. He took off his glasses and wiped his brow, stalling for time.

Donny could read from his lanky friend’s posture that he was gathering some measure of patience, dialing back his nerves to a safe level.

“You can say it, Mitch,” Greg said between clenched teeth. He currently knelt over his pack, having begun loading the contents he had scrounged from around the camp.

Donny peered over his shoulder to find Mitch turning around. His eyes closed, massaging the bridge of his nose. He swayed back and forth, the motion slow and lethargic, Mitch had the dejected stance of a person fed up and exhausted.

We’re all more than a little tired, Donny admitted, and we still have to walk back to main road and find a payphone.

Beside Donny’s right foot, Toe laid with his head resting on his paws. The Labrador looked up from his sleep, tilted his head, and gave Donny that look dogs provide when the world is falling in around everyone and they, the dogs, still can’t find a reason to worry. Not long, Donny found himself sighing and feeling better.

“Say what?” Mitch asked Greg, his tone short and words clipped.

Greg launched himself to his feet, took his pack in both hands, and then tossed it down into the dirt in an effort to release his frustration at a safe target rather than empting the artillery as a populated area. Donny caught his friend’s gaze for half a heartbeat and saw the anger pointed inward, not at Mitch.

“This is my fault,” Greg professed with an exaggerated shrug. He spun in a circle, nearly tripping over his own feet because of the lack of control he had over his emotions and facilities this moment. “Uh-huh. Say it! It’s what you’re thinking. Mitch, you believe this entire messed up trip is my fault.”

A deep exhale left Mitch, warning Greg, Don’t go there because you won’t like the territory you across over into. “I never said any of this was your fault. Spikes is a jerk, everyone knows it.”

“But if I’d kept my mouth shut earlier today,” Greg said, temper rising, “he would never have felt the desire to come and find us. Yeah?” He balled up his hands into fists, ready to punch the next tree or person who got in his way.

“Spikes doesn’t like any of us,” Donny put in to try to save the conversation from going to a place no one wanted to stop off at. “We’re Scouts. He doesn’t like any of us. Rob, Bernard, Pete, and Petal all get a hard time too. We’re military brats. Our households are strict, that’s how we’re raised. While everyone else tries hard to push the boundaries of the rules, to rebel against the little social experiment we’re involved in until we graduate and go to college, we joined an organization that exemplifies what the military stands for. We follow the rules and are held up as good examples.”

“We’re not cool,” Mitch agreed with disappointment.

“Still,” Greg said and paused, not wanting to let go of the blame. His head was lowered so his chin rested on his chest in conjecture, his hands shoved inside his hoodie’s pockets. “Still, I egg him on. I push his buttons and draw attention to myself and you guys, because your best buds.”

That statement, Donny had a difficult time denying. Mitch said nothing further, he only pretended to clean his glasses, which he had been doing since Greg began this confrontation. Donny could hear the clean squeaking of the lenses from across the campsite.

What was left of the campfire in the pit spit and crackled, filling the silence between the three Scouts, pleading for more fuel to consume.

Boys do not hug out their problems. Nor do they confront issues. Boys, since the dawn of time when a bonk to a girl’s head and a grunt afterward passed for smooth talking, do not as a general rule air their dirty laundry. Hence, these moments of extended exchange can quickly turn rather awkward, requiring someone to say something stupid and brazen to move the conversation along to topics more comfortable. Topics such as sports, or scratching, or any activity requiring less talk and a great deal more posturing.

“You’re an idiot,” Donny said, turning back to the task of finishing packing his pack, “nothing new.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Donny picked up Greg scowling like a caveman who had just been told his favorite club was nothing more than a tree sapling. He swore he heard a knuckle pop too.

“Doesn’t matter, though,” Mitch added quickly, “we stayed at your side and didn’t run like girls.”

Before Greg could refocus his anger on the taller middle grader, Mitch had found a pen-sized flashlight and was back to combing the outer perimeter of the camp for his father’s cell phone. He glanced over his shoulder now and then, just to be safe.

Not long later, Greg hunkered down beside Donny. He rubbed his hands together, dirt was jammed underneath the nails, and his knuckles were scraped and bleeding. After a number of rapid heartbeats and Greg did not swing a fist at Donny, the former sighed and spoke.

“I don’t fit in very well around here, do I?” Greg admitted in a low voice. “I’m not born into this boot camp lifestyle. I prefer my dad’s place. Things are easier when I’m there I’m more… laid back there. I’ve got my younger brother and sister who are more like me too. Here, everything and everyone’s uptight. Well, except Spikes. He’s far from the average military brat Carpenter breeds. I mean, how does Spikes dress like a vampire employee from Hot Topic and not go in front of a parent firing squad?!”

Donny grinned and laughed wanly. The confession just uttered by his friend was more than two grunts. Impressive. “I doubt he looks like that at home. Spikes probably changes his cloths somewhere along the way to school and back again on the way home. None of the schools are run by the Army, the dress code is lax.”

“Hah! So you’re saying Spikes is like a girl, except he’s hiding black eyeliner and tight pants instead of a short skirt and too much makeup.” Greg laughed easily and punched Donny in the shoulder. “I like that, Donny. Good one, not as good as my funnies but more than passable.”

Donny exhaled slowly, easily, the tension between his shoulders slackening. They still needed to get out of Hidden Rock… just in case Spikes and his skate crew doubled back again and started another tussle.

“Guess we’re not getting merit badges after this is over,” Donny said.

“Maybe a teenage-years-survival badge,” Greg said, adding a snort.

Just then, Mitch called out with an excitement that caused both Donny and Greg—even Toe raised his head—to turn their heads to his merrily frantic noise. “I found the cell! No long walk for us tonight, boys!”

A cold chill ran down Donny’s spine.

Having just stepped inside the ring of firelight, Mitch held high his father’s cell phone; his renewed mood nearly set him jumping and skipping. Behind Mitch, was something that siphoned Donny’s primal flight mechanism. He could not run, his legs failed to work. He could not utter an intelligible sound, not even “wha-”.

Toe barked twice and proceeded to growl, rising to his feet and stepping protectively in front of his master.

“Why are you looking at me like that, guys?” asked Mitch, completely unaware of the danger that stood, looming behind him.

 

 

NINE

 

“Guys… you’re freaking me out,” Mitch said, the exaltation from finding the cell phone leaving his voice like a scared rabbit making for the safety of the bushes.

You should be, Donny thought, intending to speak the words but his mouth was uncooperative. You should be running… I should be running.

What did he know about encountering animals? Stay calm. Don’t make any sudden movements. Retreat slowly. They should have just told us not to look appetizing and easy to rundown! Oh heck, this isn’t even a bear or something else I know!

Mitch’s head swiveled left and right, looking around his general area, but failing to check the shadows behind him. If he had, the tall, lanky middle grader would have immediately faced a pair of the glowing golden-green eyes. He would have noted the dark silhouetted frame the eyes belonged to: powerful in the arms and chest area, two heads taller than Mitch’s own height, standing on two legs… and diffidently not human.

Warm air exited the thing’s nostrils, reminding Donny of a bull snorting in indignation, right before it would charge the matador.

Obviously, Mitch felt the thing’s breathing as the air pressed against the back of his neck. His head ceased looking around, his body going as still as frightened animal sensing the predator near.

If Donny’s lips would not aid him, he would do the next best thing. He mouthed the words, “Behind you…” Then he pointed with his line of sight to the space directly behind and above Mitch’s head, trying to direct his friend’s attention.

Donny heard his friend’s Adam’s apple roll around in his long stork-like throat as he attempted gulp down his growing fear.

Mitch turned slowly, his knobby shoulders rising to touch his earlobes.

To his credit, when Mitch saw the intruding what-ever-it-is, he did not squeal like a little girl. He shouted a curse in a somewhat manly baritone. His rational thinking ended there, though, and he seemed to throw away everything Donny had cited about dealing with wild animals. Mitch stumbled back on his heels and fell flat on his rear, his glasses bouncing off his nose and on to his chest.

Toe barked again. Donny felt the dog leap forward, the force yanking on the lead and by extension Donny’s arm.

From this point forward, everything happened fast and with little clarity.

The combination between Mitch’s sudden bumble stumble and Toe’s aggressive defensive mood activating, incited a reaction from the intruding what’s-it. And don’t think the thing chose to flee, that he’d been spooked by the most dangerous game on the planet: humans. Oh no, the what’s-it pounced.

It crouched like a predator and then sprung, leaping forward with long upper limbs stretched out in front, sailing over Mitch, who threw his arms over his head to protect himself. What, was monster-size raindrops hurtling down threatening to soak him?

The what’s-it landed on the other side of the campfire, nearest Donny, Mitch and Toe. Upon landing, its back legs swept the embers of the remaining fire into the air and directly at Donny’s face. The middle grader’s legs still refused to work properly and extract him from danger.

He could feel the heat of the smoldering pieces of wood and flecks of flame, smelled burning hair.

A hand clamped down on Donny’s shoulder, roughly and quickly pulling him to the side and out of danger. In the process, Donny’s other arm, his hand still clutching the lead attached to Toe’s collar, flew out. Instinct made Donny let go of the lead’s loop-handle.

Cool night hair brushed Donny’s face as he fell to the ground. Someone else beside him grunted in pain. Donny glanced to his left. Greg laid there, his hand still resting on Donny’s shoulder. His primal survival instincts were fully aware and firing rapidly along in time with his limbs; Greg rose to a crouch and smacked Donny’s cheek.

“Get it together, man,” Greg urged. He was scared, who wouldn’t be. Yet his voice retained a steady reality Donny could grasp on to and use to anchor his resolve. “We’re going to die if we don’t think, react, and get the hell outta here!”

A small amount of the recently pathetic campfire remained in the foot-deep hole surrounded on rounded stones, enough to see the nightmare couching on all fours before them. Donny’s eyes meet the tiny eyes of the what’s-it. Malice, desperate fear and hate swirled in its golden-green vision. The thing, creature, monster was confused, pulled taught and ready to fire upon being provoked in the slightest.

“What is that thing, Donny?” Greg asked in a hushed tone.

Donny shook his head.

“If you tell me, werewolf, I swear I’m going to laugh at you,” Greg warned with what could only be a forced smile intended to slap the face of the dangerous situation before him. “Despite it all, I will laugh at you and probably pee my pants at the same time.”

Donny did not believe what was crouched before them was a werewolf, not any type of wolf or man or something between myth and legend. Across the campfire pit was a Frankenstein-style monster, a creature cobbled together from a couple of animals. The massive long arms, thick as tree trunks, were like that of a gorilla. His scrunched up face too had a primate appearance, apart from the horns sticking out and curling away from its head. Those legs that had cleared away the fire, they might have belonged to a goat. Hooves replaced feet. The what’s-it, scratch out furrows the size of Donny’s face with those hooves.

How in the world did the thing run so fast on hooves, how was it so nimble? Forget that, how did what’s-it perform its previous acrobatic leap? For all the waning fire light alluded him, Donny could tell its torso was lean and hungry. Despite that detail, the what’s-it’s massive upper body was heavy, especially when set atop the smaller goat-like legs underneath it.

“Mitch! Psst! Stop being a department store fashion dummy and get over here,” Greg said, waving a hand and speaking tersely to stress the urgency of being so near a monster that probably saw him as being tastier than a banana. And gorilla’s love bananas!

Donny shook himself from his stupefied daze with considerable effort, his head felt muddled by a thunderous, humid fog. That’s when he realized…

“Where’s Toe?”

Greg did not avert his attention from Mitch. “The dog probably did the smart thing, unlike us. He high-tailed it out of this horror-fest, made for the trees… which is what we Scouts should do!” He shifted his voice’s direction toward Mitch. “Mitch! Move your butt, slowly scoot away from it and try not to squeak like a little wussy!

Something was wrong. Mitch could not move, or would not move. Similar to how Greg and Donny had been a short time ago. He sat upright, knees bent with his feet planted flat, arms leaned back to prop himself up. Strange, no matter how much Donny concentrated, he failed to shake that weird haze in his head, the thunder inside pounded on his thoughts.

Another thought fought its way from Donny’s cotton-filed head. “The crazy gorilla-Minotaur hasn’t attacked Mitch yet.”

“And that’s a bad thing?! Donny, get your head together, will you!”

He was trying to do just that. Donny focused his attention on the odd hybrid monster. The what’s-it’s concern was not trained on Mitch at all. It was scanning the surroundings, smelling the air. More warm air shot out of its nostrils, collecting around its tiny head as if it were smoking a pipe, before dissipating into the colder air.

It’s distracted by something other than us, it’s worried or looking out for…

Apparently, Greg had not picked up on this tiny detail. He had somehow found his bag, the one with the remaining unbroken and empty beer bottles, which he should not have had in the first place. Greg pulled out one of the brown bottles.

“Don’t be stupid!” Donny moved quickly, crossing his hands in front of Greg, gesturing for him to stop.

“Outta the way, Donny! I gotta get Mitch…”

As he spoke, in the middle of finishing the sentence, Greg chucked the empty bottle in the direction of the what’s-it. The glass shattered across the thing’s humped back and the gorilla-Minotaur thing howled with indignation and pain.

“Oh. Uh. I meant to throw over its head and into the trees, you know, to draw its attention,” Greg confessed.

“This is why you get picked last for baseball and basketball,” Donny said, not taking his eyes from the raging what’s-it, “your aim is horrible.”

Suddenly, a heavy wave of depression slammed down on Donny. Greg felt it too; he too fell to his hands and knees. Not far away, Mitch began to cry out along with the monster that had invaded their camp. Donny and Greg joined in.

Emotions flooded Donny immediately, striking in rapid succession. Betrayal. Humiliation. Condemnation. Fear. Anger. All of these joined, making Donny want to hurl himself off a building. Donny’s face felt wet. He was weeping, his nose dripped with snout. This thing, the what’s-it, didn’t just have strength… it had a power to manipulate the Scouts.

Just when the middle grader thought his own tears would drown him, that the world would not cease in stomping on his life, everything quieted and settled. He was still breathing hard, his heart pounding lickety-split, but the what’s-it’s immaterial spoon was not stirring Donny’s emotions. He could focus. Barely focus. He could…

There was barking.

T-t-t-oe?”

There was another voice too, larger, deeper than a bass drum. “You are not of their kind. You are closer to us, of our progenitors’ kingdom. Why protect our jailers?”

Fantastic! The big gorilla-Minotaur guy can talk too.

Toe would not relax his barking. Quickly he shifted into a more aggressive mode, adding mouth-foaming growls.

Donny raised his head and saw the monster peering down at the Labrador as a human would an insect, tilting his head and considering smashing the smaller creature.

No! Not my dog!

Donny managed to get to his knees and started to feel around frantically. He found Greg’s bag quick enough and reach in, grasping between his three fingers the necks of two bottles.

“If you will not leave this place and be free, then your fate—” the what’s-it began to say when the brown bottle made contact with its nose.

Blood—or what Donny suspected as blood—spurted into the night, arching high as the monster arched its back and spreads its hands. For the first time Donny wit-nessed the things claws, not nails at the ends of fingers… claws, digits that narrowed to razor-points.

That threat could not stop Donny, nor could the sudden return of the monster’s negative passions upon Donny’s own emotions, brought on surely by the cruelty it had suffered by whoever had created and kept it. Donny took the second bottle by its neck, smashed its bottom against the ground to create a nasty jagged weapon, and sprinted forward toward what he knew might be his death. He did not care. When it comes to boy and dog, you do not mess with either.

The creature tightened its claws into fists and brought its wrecking ball sized hands crashing to the ground. Narrowly, Donny missed being smothered into banana paste. He found himself in the space between the what’s-hands, between it and the Labrador.

For a heartbeat, the remaining firelight showed the middle grader the monster’s scrunched primate face. The matted fur across its shoulders and chest. Its scars, the lean, terrible lines resulting from a harsh life, etched across its shoulders and face where fur could no longer grow. In that interim moment, he could even smell the what’s-it’s breath, the rank stench of aged meat… not bananas. Donny didn’t care for none of this. The fire’s struggle to keep alight failed and the thick shade brought on by the arching canopy of trees wrapped itself around the camping area.

Donny struck. Using his make-shift bottle weapon, he sliced at the back of the what’s-it’s right hand. The ground shook as the hand rose and fell in pain. The middle grader thrust the jagged end of the bottle at the monster’s chest several times. He missed at least once. The second attack amounted to a scratching. The third dug deep and Donny’s face felt warm blood.

Again, the what’s-it hauled. It smacked the ground around Donny with its clawed hands. The world tried shaking apart and Donny’s teeth rattled in his mouth. He dropped the bottle and its brown glass shattered around his tennis shoes.

The what’s-it hit the ground again with its hands, this time the quake knocked Donny off his feet and too the ground.

He saw the wrecking ball hand swing up, the limited moonlight shimmered on the blood coating the claws ready to rack across the middle grader’s soft belly.

Blue lightning blinded Donny in that moment when he felt his heart beating back and forth against his breastbone and his back muscles. The sound of sizzling, high-voltage electricity tickled the middle grader’s ears.

After that, with a loud thud, the what’s-it toppled to the ground beside Donny.

Toe no longer growled. The Labrador stood at Donny’s side, a golden guardian, licking the teen’s face and whining, a dog’s way of asking, how are you doing, pal?

Before Donny greeted the blackness of unconsciousness, the bliss of sleep, he glimpsed the form of a male soldier with two metal tubular tanks strapped to his back. Things could not plunge deeper into Weirdsville.

The silver moonlight streaming through the opening in the canopy of trees obscured the man’s features, outlining his form only. The adult shift and turned slightly, speaking to someone Donny could not see. Donny saw something familiar, a patch on the soldier’s arm… a blue lightning bolt within a rectangle of gold.

Donny fell asleep listening to the heavy breathing of the slain monster next to him.

 

 

TEN

Wakefulness arrived slowly for Donny, with a gradual care every child can associate with sleeping in on a Saturday. Gone is taking care to surface from sleep on time, the dreaded anticipation of the alarm’s buzzer nagging you to move your lazy butt. You wake up on your own terms, and in your own time. You wake when your tank is full. You greet the morning (or afternoon if you so choose to be a lazy-puss) on terms you choose and not forced upon you through the subjugation of parents and authority figures. Animals! Can they just let a kid sleep? In most cases, nope.

This waking is slow, not a sprint or even a jog, but a walk with periodic pit stops along the way.

Take the cotton out of the ears. Yawn a few times. Stretch out. Smack the lips to relieve your mouth of the additional cotton. Oh! Wipe the droll away from your mouth, please!

Donny found his waking similar to this.

Except when he swam nearer to the surface from the depths of sleep, a wet licking greeted him.

“T-t-toe? Stop that, you furry idiot!” Donny said, placing his hands gently around the Labrador’s snout and attempting to push him and his lapping tongue to the side.

Donny still kept his eyes closed. Which was easy. No light burned against his lids. It must still be evening, maybe early in the morning before sunrise. What was I doing last night, again? His mind was still trying to turn over and get revving again.

Toe continued to lick at the middle grader’s face with concern, whining between the licks, once nudging Donny’s cheek with his wet, cold noose. That tickled. Donny laughed softly, absently.

Touching his face, Donny’s fingers came away sticky. Why was his face sticky again?

An unfamiliar voice spoke, not at Donny but the recipient was near. “Will you please cease that? You’re not helping me in my work. Huh. Honestly, are all of your kind such primitive, four-legged annoyances? Can you not speak at least and answer me?”

Knowing simple doggy commands, Toe obeyed the owner of the smooth, silky female voice. The Labrador barked twice.

“The boy is waking up,” said another voice, male and very familiar. This second voice was deep and throaty, and belonged to someone sure of his purpose and orders. Surely military. Certainly an adult. “Monster, you need to work quickly once he’s regained control of his facilities. Do you understand, me?!”

“For the love of… Yes, of course, sir.” said the voice with a purr of exasperation and sadness. Donny sensed this person was trying to hide her first words… out of fear?

Wait. There was something else peculiar…

A purr? That person purred. A noise similar to what an annoyed cat makes when left out in the rain, almost a snivel. Did Donny hear right? A human had not made that sound, no human could!

Donny rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. He noticed for the first time the hard, packed ground and felt the dirt as he moved around on his back to test his limbs.

Toe’s doggy face greeted the middle grader as he blinked his eyes open. Tongue hanging out, slobber dripping, ears pricked up in excited surprise. Donny must have been holding a whole cow femur bone covered with sweet barbeque sauce.

Directly overhead, the small swath of night’s sky was still a dark blue, illuminated by millions of twinkling stars. Definitely not morning, not even close, maybe the time was closer to two or three in the morning, at most.

Donny scratched his golden-haired dog behind the ear. Toe’s eyes rolled up inside his head and he sat down with strong compulsion to thump his back leg like some cartoon rabbit. Always the leg missing the single toe, always. That fact was comforting to Donny, until he spotted the ruby red blood on his fingers! What?

“Wonderful! You are indeed awake then,” said the first voice with the inhuman purr.

“Work quickly!” said the second voice firmly, as if looking for a reason to pick a fight. “You’ll have more work with the wiping if he sees your face.”

One second Toe’s happy doggy face was panting over Donny, the next second a large wide paw shoved the canine out of view.

Another face snapped into place over Donny. He must be still sluggish of mind, his vision hazy after waking from sleep. The face above was not human. If the triangle ears set high on its head did not give that detail way then the heart-shaped face surrounded by light-blue fur, lustrous in the moon’s light, accomplished such. The features were hoity and proud, down to the tiny pink nose, just… like… a… cat. A human sized cat. This creature was not frightening, though. Its narrow, tilted-up green eyes, flicked with gold, broke Donny’s heart when they peered deep into his own. Its feline gaze, pupils slits, gave the impression of wanting misery.

The cat-like creature leaned in close to crouch over the middle grader, and proceeded to sniff at Donny with the curiosity of a child examining a new toy. As it did this, the creature purred softly, tickling the flesh of Donny’s neck.

Above its head, a huge fluffy tail appeared and began to swish from side to side.

In Donny’s ear—whether it intended to speak directly to him or not, Donny knew not—spoke so low only he could hear. “So, you are one of their offspring. Curious.”

Donny gulped despite being oddly calm and at ease with the situation, his nerves dull, as if every day strange, otherworldly monsters thought him a cat toy ready to be batted around in play. By now he had even remembered the huge gorilla-goat thing that earlier had attacked him, his friends, and his dog. The blood made sense now. Could some recombination of genes make both the cat creature and mad gorilla-goat relatives of a sort?

Suddenly a thought occurred to Donny. Why Carpenter existed and why the Army had brought their parents to this—

“Make sure he doesn’t remember, monster. We don’t want him to remember anything about tonight, especially your brother. Force the boy to forget like the others.”

The others? Mitch…? Greg…?

The cat-creature jerked forward, falling on top of Donny after not complying with orders quickly enough. Its weight surprised Donny. The creature with the appealing voice must be as heavy as a small adult. Yet he felt no need to push it off him. Donny, at this moment was fine with being smothered and having his chest crushed in. Did this creature also have the same emotion manipulating powers as the earlier monster?

“Yes, sir,” said the first voice, so sad and defeated, yet sweet. Donny wanted to listen to this voice, wanted to mend its owner’s hurt, and wanted to pop the nose of the arrogant military man roughing up the poor thing.

The owner of the first voice, the human-sized cat, lifted her weight off Donny, wiggled her triangle-shaped ears and pointed them forward as if in deep concentration. The fur around her face bristled, standing on end.

A wonderful, blissful feeling washed over Donny. Sunlight and a cold soda on a hot day could not have been better.

More blackness overtook Donny, like a satisfied sigh after a long day of hard work.

 

 

ELEVEN

Fitful dreams dominated Donny’s sleep. None of which add up to a lick of sense. Or rather, the dreams made less sense as they progressed. What Donny’s sleeping mind watched was more a last-minute-thrown-together slideshow than a movie with a plot and character development. The later would have been easier to follow.

The more images the Scout saw, the more he was confused.

A crackling campfire stood out in the dark. The flames roaring with flesh searing heat.

Flakes of ash float up to a star filled night, like SOS letters pleading for rescue.

Greg telling stories. Ghost stories. Scary stories.

A beast from the depths of a horror novel attacking the campgrounds he shared with his two Scout buddies, Mitch and Greg.

Spikes and his skater goons, harassing the three middle grader friends for simply being goodie-two-shoe Boy Scouts, dressed in starched and iron-pressed khaki uniforms.

A knife glitters in the moonlit night. Or was that a broken bottle?

A run through the Hidden Rock forest, the unseen hoots and howls of night all around them, panic stumbling.

Monsters. Two monsters, attacking the camp. One a sad human-like feline, the other a rampaging gorilla-goat what’s-it looking for a banana.

Greg telling stories. Laughter. Screaming.

Finally, blue lightning.

Donny woke when thunder clapped in his ears, a cold sheen of sweat coated his entire upper body.

He expected to find himself tucked inside his sleeping bag, within his tent, at the campsite. So of course, surprise overtook Donny when he scanned his surroundings and found himself to be in his room, sleeping in his own bed. He pressed his palms against his face and dragged his hands downward, pulling at his cheeks and lips.

On his bedside table, a radio clock told Donny it was five after eight and Sunday. Sunday, not Saturday morning.

What happened to Friday night and Saturday? Donny wondered. Last thing he remembered was kicking back with Mitch and Greg around the campfire. Had Greg spiked Donny’s water bottle with some of the beer he’d snuck on the trip? Donny had never drank beer, let along been drunk. Not even on accident. Could this be what happened when a person drank too much alcohol?

Donny slipped out of bed and was across his bedroom before his brain understood why.

Draped over his desk chair was his Scout sash, stitched with all the merit badges he’d won over his tenure in the Boy Scouts. But that was not what drew Donny’s attention.

Toe yawned over in the corner of the room, still lounging on his large pillow bed, curled up on his side with tail tucked between his legs and white belly showing.

Set on top of a stack of unfinished homework rested a round patch. Donny picked up the patch and fingered the colorful stitching of the white bordering, the green pitched tent against a background of snowcapped mountains.

We did go camping then, Donny deduced. The only way that he could have earned the patch was having stayed overnight in the wilderness.

Why can’t I remember much about the night? I remember up to Greg’s scary stories but after that… I don’t know.

After dressing in shorts and a t-shirt, simply to change out of his pajamas, Donny went downstairs. Toe followed, probably picking up the scents of breakfast even before Donny did, beacon the most prominent. The sizzling of the pork strips became stronger as Donny hit the last two steps before the main floor.

His parents were sitting around the table. His father sipped coffee and read the morning paper while his mother finished putting the pancakes and syrup on the table.

“There you are, hun,” said Donny’s mother, still wearing the sweats and baggy shirt she preferred for sleeping, “I thought I heard you rustling about up stairs. Sleep OK?”

Donny scratched his head, his brain still sluggish and trying to process the gaps in his memories. Should he have not slept well?

You’re thinking too deep about a straightforward, normal question any person asks a family member in the morning, Donny told himself, albeit with little conviction.

“Y-yeah,” Donny finally replied, “better than sleeping on the ground at a camp, I guess.”

“You’re stiff?” his father asked. The elder Barrows turned over a page in newspaper. Donny nodded, taking a seat around the booth-style eating area in the kitchen’s corner. “I remember being stiff like that, when I did a tour in the Middle East before you were born. Enemy had my squad pinned down for days. I slept on the desert floor in a six foot trench, one eye open while hugging my rifle like it was a teddy bear.”

Donny’s father rolled his neck, stretching the muscles and cracking his neck. He finished with a pleased sigh. “To this day, I still haven’t gotten that kink out of my neck. Oh well.” He took a sip from his coffee and offered his son a smile, raising his streaming cup of joe in a salute of respect.

Five pancakes, two slices of bacon, a sausage link (he snuck a second link underneath the table to Toe, who thought the amount was poor and begged for more) and some milk later, and Donny asked what he thought sounded like a silly question.

“So, what time did I get home yesterday from Hidden Rock?”

Both his parents did not answer right off. Donny was about to repeat his question when his mother spoke.

“Oh, uh, I would say around noon or so.” Her tone was dismissive, as if she barely gave the question a second consideration.

“Who brought me home?”

At that question, two sets of eyes went up to meet Donny’s own. His mother’s fork stopped midway to her gaping mouth. His father’s eyes peered at him over the rim of his coffee cup. The first question could be dismissed, a second question about recent events, which Donny had participated in (should have at least), moved from silly to just plain forgetful crazy. After all, Donny was young, a hundred years away from losing his memory and sipping prune juice.

Instead of answering, his mother got up out of her seat, walked up to Donny and placed her hand on his brow to feel his temperature.

Donny rolled his eyes and gently pulled his mother’s hand away, telling her he felt fine. She hovered beside his chair watching him, unsatisfied with his self-diagnosis.

Flashes of the dreams and nightmares tried to shove themselves in to the unfinished puzzle of Donny’s memory, but those dreams were fading slowly as a dense, comfortable mist settled. Unusual, no, Donny rarely recalled his dreams and when he did, the recollection only stayed around for as long as he concentrated on those specific images. Donny felt his eyebrows trying to knit together as he concentrated on holding on to his dreams. However, fog always slips through your fingers.

When his father saw the middle grader’s misery, he clapped his son on the shoulder and recounted what Donny had obviously told him when he, Donny, had arrived home Saturday afternoon from the overnight campout.

The three Scouts had some trouble with some bullies. Nothing major, Donny had assured his parents the day before. The middle grader goth skate gang always picked on people. And they tended to target Greg more fervently because he did not make their self-imposed jobs easy. Donny’s father grumbled about how much he didn’t think Greg was a good influence, but he was silenced by a sympathetic, hard look from Donny’s mother; mother’s have that look, Godzilla coming to Tokyo is a less scary sight to behold. The elder Barrows cleared his throat and moved on quickly. The Scouts fled, leading the skaters away and discharging a return visit the camp. They left the camp in disarray as a parting gift but no one was terribly hurt. The rest of the night was uneventful. Mitch’s father picked them up the next morning and certified them as having completed the camping badge requirements. Done and done.

Donny’s mother continued to use her motherly X-ray vision to examine her son from afar; she had not sat down again. When her strange Earth mom powers failed to discover anything, she turned to her husband and said, “He told us he got bumped on the head, tripped when leading those skateboarders away.”

Skaters, Mom,” Donny said under his breath. She ignored her son.

“Could the bump have caused some damage to his short-term memories?”

What? Was Donny going to be handicapped for the rest of his life, not able to remember the plot of a movie a few hours after viewing it?

Donny groaned and bowed his heavy head, catching it—wow! It was near as heavy as a bowling ball right now—just before face-planting into his maple syrup leavings.

He felt a hand on his head, ruffling his tangled red mess of hair—he’d forgotten to comb his hair in his haste to descend the stairs and figure out what happened within the black gap of his memories. His father’s hand possessed a reassuring weight, not heavy but filled with the strength necessary to pick up his son when times got tough.

Raising his head, Donny inhaled deeply, held the intake of air, and then exhaled deeply. The motion made his back shiver with a tingling sensation.

He looked into his father’s eyes as the career military man spoke softly. “All boys get knocked on the head. It’s a merit badge life gives all big-headed boys running head-long to adulthood. Enough of those knocks will turn you into a man, kiddo.”

Donny’s mother snorted but he sensed the humor in the scuff, not belittlement. Remember, boys are different than girls and have to grow up differently. Slumber parties end in pillow fights. Camping trips end in… well… Donny could not remember what his overnight stay in Hidden Rock ended with, except that a lump or two was normal.

On top of his head, Donny felt with gentle fingers. He found a tender spot around the crown area. He must have indeed fallen a couple of nights ago.

Thinking of lumps and the battle scars of youth, Donny’s eyes went to his father’s scar, the one on his cheek. He traced the white puckered line with his index and middle fingers.

“Do I need one of these to become a man?” the middle grader asked with a half smile, which he forced.

Donny’s father, on the other hand, did not smile. When the elder man tried, the attempt was half-hearted. His eyes—surrounded by wrinkles that had little to do with age and more so with the stress of his job—stared through his son and into the distance, likely to the day when the scar became a permanent mark.

After a long moment, the man shook himself from his horrible mental holiday and regarded his son’s concerned expression with a broad smile.

“I think you’ve lived through enough, son, to call yourself a ‘man’.”

With that, Donny’s father took up his Sunday newspaper once again, shook it out, and disappeared within the folds.

Donny took enough pancake and shared a tender smile with his mother that said, I’m alright, Dad says I’m a man now. For the rest of the day Donny’s chest stuck out a little more. The bad dreams from the previous night drifted into the place where nightmares are smothered but never forgotten. In the mean time, Donny occupied his mind with considering where on his sash he would sew his new merit badge. The pain associated with the lump on his head faded, so did the dreams and nightmares.

 

THE END

© 2011 | Clinton D Harding

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