Monday, March 24, 2014

The Key, Chapter 24

The Key
by Eloise Hawking

Chapter 24

     When we entered the woods the trails were still wet with puddles from last night’s rain.  We decided to take the trail that headed east and wound along the creek.  It was always fun to follow the creek trail.   Paths near the water always proved to be the most interesting.  

     Animal tracks were more prevalent.   Hikers always left their marks in one way or another, dropping something here and there, a gum wrapper or a pop can.  No matter where you went, people always seemed to like to walk down to the water to check it out. 

     “It smells funny in here,” said Emily plugging her nose.

      “That’s the smell of decaying horse chestnuts“,” lectured Jack.  “They fall off the trees this time of year.  You are actually smelling the rot.”

     “Where do you learn all of this stuff?” asked Emily, gingerly climbing down the slope of the creek bank.

     Jack shrugged and shook his head.  He read books and watched documentaries and went to the library for fun all of the time, but even he knew it was way too nerdy to broadcast that to another kid.  

     “Just heard it somewhere,” he said, sloughing it off.

   The creek was really running hard and fast from all the rain.  The banks were muddy and slippery, but that didn’t stop Jack and Emily.  

   I hesitated a minute, looking down at my new school shoes.  I didn’t anticipate things to be so muddy back here.  I should have worn my old ones, but that is a pain.  Literally, for a kid, old shoes mean too small shoes.  When you need to wear old shoes, you usually are going on a long walk or doing something fun that kids like to do that involves mud and dirt.  Who wants to do that wearing shoes a size too small?  Already my month old sneakers already had long brown tentacles, beginning to stretch up into the canvas part.

     Down near the edge of the creek bank, I noticed a vibrating dark cloud hovering above the water about eye level. 

    “What the heck is that?” I asked aloud and wished I hadn’t, because when I opened my mouth to say it, a bug flew right in.  

   It was a giant swarm of gnats.  The woods had become a breeding ground for insects making one last shot at repopulation before the fall winds blew in an air too cold for their survival.

     I coughed and hacked and spit, and hunched over, hoping to at least attract a little bit of attention and maybe some sympathy.  The two glanced over, but didn’t ask me what was wrong.  I had to offer on my own, “I just swallowed a bug.”

     I removed my pack from my back, opened it and fished around.  I dug past my phone, some Kleenex, a water bottle, and allergy medicine to find what I was looking for. 

     “Ah ha!  Here it is!”  I said to myself with a sense of satisfaction. Bug spray.  I removed the cap and pumped a couple of squirts into my hair, and onto my neck and shoulders.

     “Bug spray?” said Jack laughing.  “You are getting just like Grandma!”

     “I am not!  I’m just prepared,” I replied.  “Want some?”

     Jack shook his head no, obviously too cool for bug spray.  I tossed the bottle to Emily without asking her specifically.  If it landed in her hands, she’d have no choice but to give herself a couple of squirts, and so she did.

     I looked down while waiting for Emily to get done with the bottle and I noticed some tracks in the mud. 

    “Hey Jack,” I yelled, “what kind of tracks are these?”

     “Probably raccoon,” he said without looking up.  “There are lots of raccoons in these woods.”

     “I don’t think so,” I said.  “These tracks are bigger.  They are kind of smeared, but they look like a dog or a coyote or something.”

     “Could be anything,” said Jack.  “All of those kind of prints look the same, even wolf prints.”

     “Wolf prints?” said Emily with a hint of panic rising in her voice.  “Are there wolfs in these woods.”

     “WolVES,” corrected Jack.  “Yes, there’s been known to be a few in these parts,” Jack said winking at me. 

    It was the wink of teasing that Emily didn’t catch because she suddenly stood up tall, and stretched her neck in every direction to see if a wolf was in fact, watching us. 

     We played around the creek for quite some time, daring each other to cross the fallen log, slippery with moisture from last night’s rain.  Jack and Emily made it across, and for a short time we were separated by the creek standing on separate banks.

     “Come on Ellen, come across,” yelled Jack.

     “Nah, I don’t feel like it,” I said, “I’ll just stay over here.”  

     In truth, I didn’t feel like crossing that log.  I knew it was slippery and watched Jack and Emily struggle to get across it.  I deemed myself the least athletic out of the three of us, and I kept picturing myself sliding off and falling into the creek.  Then my sneakers would be completely wet and I’d be in big trouble for sure.

     “What are ya’, chicken?” sing-songed Emily back to me.

     “No, I’m not chicken,” I said annoyed, however, I knew that was coming.  I decided to change up the game a bit, for fun.  “This is my land, and you two are not allowed on it.  Stay on your own side of the creek.”

     Jack and Emily exchanged glances, smiling with delight at the thought of battling for turf.   They huddled up and whispered plans low enough that I couldn’t hear them, but loud enough to for me to know they were up to something. 

   “Prepare for invasion, Evil Queen, Ellenor!  The forces of Questdom will soon be upon you!” Jack yelled in a deep voice.

     We giggled with excitement and ran to find sticks for battle.  While I was looking for mine, I couldn’t help but think that this may not end well for one of us.  I mean, three kids, muddy ground, a slippery slope, and sharp sticks.  It was an accident waiting to happen.
    I found the perfect stick, a little longer than my arm that narrowed towards the bottom to a pointed end, but wasn’t too sharp.  The stick looked big, heavy and imposing, but really it was dry rotted from the inside and it was very light.  Even if I took a swing at Jack and hit him as hard as I could, I knew the stick would probably break into pieces and disintegrate upon impact.

    The battle preparations took about five minutes.  Each of us lost in thought choosing our perfect weapon.  I had already found mine—the best stick, but one that I knew in real life wouldn’t hurt anyone.  I took up my position on my side of the creek bank and looked to see what my enemies had chosen.  Jack and Emily were huddled together crouching down with their backs to me.  I could see Jack’s elbow moving outward from his body in a rhythmic motion.  What was he doing?

     “What is it you want from me, Oh Wicked Invaders of Questdom?” I bellowed in the best British accent I knew how to do.  

     I stood my ground on my side of the creek and held my stick as a staff like Moses.
     Jack and Emily now realized I was ready for battle and had taken up my position.  With eyes a gleam from a secret they shared, they turned to face me with naughty smiles.  They held up the end of their sticks, smaller than mine, but with whittled ends!  Jack had shaped the ends into sharp points with the pocket knife he carried in his cargo pants, unbeknownst to his mother.  Good Lord.  They were serious!

    “Surrender or die, oh Evil Queen Ellenor of Questdom!  You have oppressed your people for long enough!” returning communication in his best British accent.  I had to admit, his was better than mine.

     We were getting pretty old to pretend play like this being fourth and fifth graders.  It is always fun to pretend, but when you are little, you are too young to have good ideas like castle sieges fought between evil Queens and invading knights. 

     The idea may strike you when you are seven or eight years old, but you don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to support it or make it interesting.  The good ideas come to you when you are ten or older, but you become self-conscious.  Would someone think that playing in this manner is babyish?  In a world of cell phones, music videos, and text messages, it was hard to find it socially acceptable to play like this.  Being in fourth and fifth grade left you caught between a world of creative play of an elementary student and the teen world of texting.  We stand somewhere in the middle, in that gray area that sociologists called “the tweens."

    “Long live Questdom!” I yelled back.  What the heck?  Why not play along?  After all, it was just the three of us, alone in the woods.  Nick was engrossed in his nose picking 500 yards away, so I was not worried in the least about being found out.  I held my stick straight armed out in front of me, and took my stance balanced on the base of the fallen log.

     Jack returned the gesture and took one step toward me on his side of the log.  I actually had the better vantage point.   My side was bigger and I could easily stand on it with both feet without wobbling.  The creek bank on my side was higher.  If he was going to fight me, Jack literally had an uphill battle.

     For the next five minutes, Jack would inch forward on the log, and I would return every advance with a step of my own.  About two minutes into the balancing act, I began using my stick as a tool rather than a weapon. 

     I used the stick like The Great Charles Blondin.  He was the French acrobat who crossed the Niagara River at the top of the famous falls on a tightrope.  He did it wearing ballerina slippers and a rather feminine looking outfit.  Seriously, did guys really think it was cool to dress like that back in the day?  

     The picture I had of him in my mind was one of him with one foot in front of the other on a cable slippery from the mist of the falls, holding the stick horizontally in his hands.  When he would wobble or begin to lose his balance, he’d tip his stick in the other direction to steady himself.  I thought I’d give that a try.

     As soon as I used my stick in this way, I was able to advance to the center of the fallen log without many wobbles.  Jack glanced up and noticed my technique, yet was too proud to copy me.  

     “You have it easier, Ellen!” Jack reminded me in his regular voice.  “You have the bigger end!  I have the skinny side and I have to go uphill.” Jack swatted the mosquitoes that were buzzing his head and leaving me alone.

     Because there was not room enough for more than two on the fallen log, Emily was pretending to  duel with the make believe forces of evil.  Emily takes karate classes and I could tell by her lunges and stances that she was doing her moves she learned in class.  

     I giggled.  “Emily!  I don’t think knights moved like that.  They would have been wearing armor.  They didn’t do chops and flying kicks.  You are fighting a battle on the wrong continent.”

     Emily didn’t like my teasing and I regretted bringing her out of her daydream into slight humiliation. She was suddenly aware that others were watching her, even if it was just me and Jack.  She made her eyes all squinty and mean and I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head. 

     “Charge!” Emily yelled.  She put her stick straight out in front of her and ran right through the ankle deep water to my side of the creek, new sneakers and all.

     This distracted me enough to wobble and almost lose my footing, but with the help of my Blondin stick, I was able to regain my balance.  In my moment of weakness, I looked up to see that Jack had set his pride aside and held his stick horiztonally, too.  He was able to take three steps forward with ease, meeting me in the middle of the log.  Both of us hovered three feet above the creek.
     Jack advanced on me with the whittled end of his stick, thrusting it at my abdomen.  “Hey!” I yelled, “Be careful!”  I blocked the thrust with my stick, which began a duel.

     Emily, meanwhile had scrambled up the bank on my end and was advancing on me on the log from my own end.   And once again I found myself sandwiched in the middle with nowhere to go really but fight hard and hold my ground.  My only other option would be to jump to save myself.

     “You have lost, Queen Ellenor.  Surrender or die!” yelled Jack.

      I could feel Emily quickly approaching from the rear, as she also employed my Blondin technique.  I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  I guess that made Jack the rock and Emily the hard place. 
It‘s just a game, I thought to myself.  Jump and save yourself!   Who needs a puncture wound to the abdomen

     I just couldn’t do it.  If I couldn’t out fight them in physical strength, I’d have to out think them.  And that is exactly what I did.  Playing a defensive game is often more important than a strong offense.

     “Lady Emily,” I said calmly as I dueled with Jack, “do not be duped by the male kind.  He’s just using you for your cunning fighting ability.”

     Jack giggled knowing fully that I was on to his game.  As a result he lost focus and he began to lose his balance.  His focus went back to his stance.

     I took this opportunity to work my head game with Emily.  “Lady Emily!  We of the female kind need to stick together.  Come to my side and fight with me.  I promise to reward you for your bravery.  You will be given the highest position in my royal army.  You will be an archer and can guard my Queendom from a top the highest turret of my castle.”

     “Do Royal Archers get paid a lot?” Emily asked.
     “Yes.  You will share in the riches of the Queendom where no boys are allowed.”

     That did it.  The no boys thing.  Emily was all mine. 

     “At your will, My Queen Majesty,” Emily said in her best British accent which had an Asian undertone to it.  Although my back was to her, I believe she bowed down.  I could feel the vibrations of her footsteps as she retreated and left the log to climb a nearby tree.

     Jack broke his focus from my midsection to see that Emily had defected to join my royal forces.  He had a new fire in his eyes and I could see his jaw clench as his back teeth bit together.  He started swinging his stick at me all the harder and it was everything I could do to deflect the thrusts and maintain my balance.  I couldn’t even swing back.  I had to even take a step backwards up the wider end of the trunk to have more secure footing. 

     “I’ve got you now!” Jack said, in his regular Jack voice.  I think I pushed him over the edge.  I lost him.  Now the inner urge to win took over the rationalization that we were just playing a game. 

     My heart started to beat faster and my mouth got dry.  I couldn’t come this far and lose, yet I didn’t want to wound Jack or hurt myself.  I was just considering saying, “Game over!” when I thought I heard Emily say, “Guys…” in a soft voice.

     I stopped swinging for a second to see if that was her saying something.   In the pause I heard it again, a little louder this time, and loud enough to get Jack’s attention, too.
     “Hey, Guys!” Emily said in a hushed, tight whisper.  There was a sense of urgency in her voice.

     Jack and I stopped swinging altogether, sensing something important was about to happen.  I slowly turned to see Emily from a high vantage point in a nearby tree, facing the east.  Her back was toward us and I couldn’t see her face, but I could sense the seriousness on it. 

    “Fangs,”  she said.  

     Jack was right.  The prints were that of a wolf.  The big bad neighbor dog named Fangs.  All three of us stood frozen in fear, contemplating what to do next.  

     Fear, maybe that was the key to all things because being afraid forced you to act.  No matter what we decided to do, we had to act quickly, because the thunder rolled.

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