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Authors: Kurtis Scaletta

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BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
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“Most forest fungi consume wood that is already dead or dying. The trees aren’t dead because of the mushrooms; the mushrooms are there because of the dead trees.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t convinced, but she was a science teacher.

“You know, you could do a science discovery project about it,” she said. We could do one of those a quarter for extra credit. Kids brought in dead caterpillars and broken geodes, stuff like that. “Just remember that you can’t just bring something in. You also have to research it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Last year I’d brought in Dad’s tuning fork but couldn’t explain how it worked. “Where do I start?”

“Look up the honey fungus,” she said. “And get your sample soon, because the first cold snap will wipe out the mushrooms. None of them survive the first frost.”

“Got it.” Honey fungus: that was easy to remember. I didn’t bother to write it down. The bit about the first frost was good news, too.

“The Internet is a starting point, not the only source of information!” she called after me on my way out.

I knew teachers had to say that, but seriously—didn’t the Internet know everything by now?

“One more game,” Coach said, holding up an index finger in case we needed a visual. “One more win, and you’ll be perfect. Do you know how many pro teams in history have had perfect seasons?”

“Just the ’72 Dolphins,” I said. The Pats should have, a few years ago, but laid a big egg in the Super Bowl.

“Exactly,” he said, pointing at me with the same index finger. “Who won the Super Bowl the following year?”

I shrugged.

“Exactly again. Nobody cares about that one. It was
just another Super Bowl. There’s only one goal bigger than winning a championship, and that’s to be a champion among champions.” He got a look of bliss on his face. He looked like Cassie when she was getting her ears scratched.

“This school has only had two winning seasons before this one, and you’ve already given them a third,” he said. “I was student-teaching for the last one. You guys weren’t even born yet. That’s how long ago it was. We’ve
won a championship. You guys can give the school its first. But you also have the biggest dream of all, right within your grasp: a perfect season. The town will remember a championship for years to come, but if you have a perfect season, the whole league will remember. The Oxen will remember. The Green Wave will remember. The Minutemen will remember.” He went through all our opponents, telling us they’d each remember our perfect season. “You can do it,” he said. “All you have to do is beat the Oxen again. On your home turf.”

The gravity of the situation hit us. We’d already beaten the Oxen once, on their turf in Blue River. Randy had returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, and that was the only score for either team. The Oxen protested that the one touchdown shouldn’t count because they didn’t have all their defenders on the field. The refs said since they kicked it off, it was their own fault. It didn’t feel like a legitimate win, but it was better than losing.

The Oxen had a really good defense. Better than our defense, I thought. If it wasn’t for that lucky TD, we probably would have lost that game in overtime.

“Do you know what oxen are?” Tom asked, breaking the silence.

“Cattle,” Randy said.

cattle,” Tom corrected him. “We’re playing a bunch of castrated cows, guys.”

The serious mood turned into laughter.

“We can beat a bunch of castrated cows!” Tom said. Some of the guys shouted in agreement, and most of them clapped. Even the eighth graders joined in.

“All right, that’s enough of that,” Coach said. “Let’s practice.”

We broke off into groups and did our drills.

I’m one of four seventh graders on a team that’s mostly eighth graders, the others being Tom and Randy and Will. When Coach picked me and Tom and Will, he said it was because we were “filled out” enough to play. “Filled out” means big and fat.

Randy wasn’t big at all. He was small, but quick and tough. He could run right through defenses and shed tacklers twice his size. He scored most of our touchdowns and was the main reason we were undefeated. Randy was already getting pressured by prep school coaches and thinking about whether he’d go to USC or Texas for college. He even had a nickname picked out: the Dream. “I’m going to change my name to Dream Weaver,” he said one time in the locker room after a big game. “People always talk about living the dream; I’m going to
the dream.” Nobody called him that yet, but sometimes it takes a while for a nickname to stick.

I was the only seventh grader on defense, mostly playing middle linebacker or strong side linebacker. We blitzed practically every down, which some of the other coaches thought was cheating, because we were good at it. “No reason to stop doing it if it works,” Coach would say to other coaches. We were only allowed to blitz with five guys, anyway—four linemen and one linebacker. I was always that blitzing linebacker, so I got a lot of tackles. I’m fast for a fat guy, and I don’t have any fear when it comes to throwing myself at someone and knocking him down.

“Hey, Parrish, I need to talk to you,” Coach said, coming over to me while I beat the stuffing out of a tackling dummy. I knew what it was about.

“Coach, that helmet play was a total accident. It was a clean tackle. He tilted his head.” My helmet had crashed into another kid’s helmet during our last game, knocking both of us a little senseless.

“That’s not how the official saw it,” he reminded me. “They saw it as a fifteen-yard penalty and threw you out of the game.”

“I know,” I said. Just thinking about it got my heart racing. Unsportsmanlike conduct, they called it. It was totally unfair. “He didn’t see what really happened.”

“Just don’t give them anything to see wrong on Thursday, all right?”

“I’ll try,” I told him, but I couldn’t control what the refs thought they saw.

“Trying is for people who expect to fail,” he said.

“Right. I’ll do it. I mean, I won’t do it.”

“You won’t do what?”

“I won’t give them anything to see wrong.”

“Good boy.” He slapped me on the back. “This game is as much about discipline as it is about talent. Now go get that dummy.”

I did, imagining it was that stupid referee from the last game. I didn’t need blind refs ruining everything. I don’t have a nickname picked out, and no prep schools are talking to me, but I have big plans too.

I couldn’t find Brian at the library. He must have gone to Allan’s. I did see an open computer and took it.

“We close in twenty minutes,” a librarian dude told me, tapping his watch. “Just FYI.”

“Okay.” That was plenty of time to look up the honey fungus and whether or not bats migrate like geese. I’d forgotten to ask my teacher about that.

I checked my Facebook messages first. I had a couple of friend requests from kids at school and said okay to them. Dad had written on my wall: “I heard your team is in the championship game! Way to go, big guy! Can’t wait to talk this weekend.” He’d posted that on Friday but hadn’t called over the weekend.

“I also saw that I was tagged in a new photo. I found it on Randy’s page—the one of me holding Brian upside down, pretending I was about to ram his head into the ground. The comments were full of OMGs and LOLs. Randy didn’t bother to explain we’d been fooling around. I started to write a comment but didn’t post it. It might just make things worse.

I’d wasted too much time and only had a few seconds to scan the honey fungus article on Wikipedia. The main thing I learned was that the fungus was like an apple tree, and the mushrooms were the apples. The tree part was underground. So we hadn’t scattered the spores. It was one big fungus, reaching out for us belowground. I pictured it creeping toward us beneath the earth, stretching its giant fingers, getting ready to reach up and grab—

“Five minutes,” the library guy said. “I need to ask you to shut down.”

“Fine.” I shut down the computer. I had to go take care of Cassie anyway.

It was dark by the time I got there, but over by the pen I could see a few figures in the shadows. When I got two or three steps closer, I saw that it was my teammates: Tom, Will, and Randy “the Dream” Weaver.

“Hey!” I shouted, waving, wondering what they were doing there. They turned and looked at me, and I got a sense that something besides pig poop stank about the whole scene.

Then I saw what was going on: Tom had Babe and was waving it around in front of the pig. She grunted and tried to paw her way through the fence but couldn’t. He started pounding on the bucket like a kettledrum and singing. Cassie ran back and forth along the fence, making little whimpering noises.

I dropped my backpack and tossed my equipment bag to the side.

“Come on, Tom,” I told him, trying to keep my voice even. “Give her back the pail.”

“What’s the big deal?”

“She … It’s like her baby,” I explained. I felt my fists clenching but forced my hands open and tried to smile. “She thinks of it like a baby. It’s kind of silly, but she gets really upset when people take the bucket away from her.” But he must have known that, I realized. Why else would he do it?

“It’s not a baby, Eric.” He showed it to me. “See?”

“Yeah, but it’s still hers.” I grabbed at it, but he pulled it away and tossed it to Randy.

Will laughed. “Keep-away from Eric!” he yelled.

I took a step toward Randy, but Will got in the way, bowing his arms, getting into his guard position. His footing has never been that good, and I knew the mud wouldn’t give him good traction. I get by better offensive linemen all the time. I gave him a well-placed shove and he slipped and fell.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“Shut up, Will. What do you think?” I stepped over him and made another move at Randy. This time Tom came in to block.

“You don’t have to be a jerk about this,” he said. “It’s a bucket, Eric.”

“It’s like her baby,” I told him. “She’s had at least sixty piglets, Tom. Sixty babies, and every one was taken away from her. They’re all bacon now. Every last one of them. So if she thinks the bucket is her baby, who are you guys to take it away from her?”

“It’s a bucket,” he said slowly, like he was trying to calm down a three-year-old.

I shoved him aside, and Randy took off running. I gave chase, Tom lumbering behind me and Will behind him. Michelle has a lot of land, so Randy had plenty of room to juke and deke and sprint and do shimmies and all the show-offy stuff he did when he was running against lousy defenses. I got winded right away, and I knew I’d never catch up. But I also knew that the little hill Randy was headed for was the compost heap. I knew that he’d want to be the king of that castle. A guy like Randy can’t resist the chance to be king of something.

It was a bad, bad decision. One second he was ten yards ahead of me, and the next second he was knee-deep in pig poop. I caught him with my left arm, hauling him to the ground. The bucket slipped out of his hand and bounced away.

“Fumble!” I shouted, nearly hysterical with a sense of victory. I grabbed it and ran back to the pen, blowing right past Will and Tom. I gave the bucket to Cassie, who grunted with relief and carried it back to the far side of her pen. She started sniffing at it, making sure it was okay.

“The ball is recovered by Parrish and taken ALL! THE! WAY!” I shouted, doing a victory dance and punching at the air. I finally looked back at Tom and Will, who had struck-dumb expressions on their faces and were staring at Randy, who was rolling on the ground and crying, his leg bent the wrong way at the knee.

I ran home through the woods and into the alien blue-green light of our backyard. The mushrooms had splayed out across the lawn and were now in full glow.

I banged in through the family room. Brian was on the Wii.

“Is Mom home?”

“No. She’s still at work.” He paused the game and looked at me. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” I sank into a chair. “I thought you went to Allan’s.”

“He didn’t want me to come over.”

“Really?” That didn’t sound like Allan.

“You weren’t here and Mom wasn’t here, but that’s not my fault. How come you’re all out of breath?”

“Nobody said it was your fault, and I ran home because it was so late.”

I couldn’t calm down. My heart was beating at double speed, and I was hot and sweaty. I expected police cars to come screeching down the street after me. I’d assaulted a kid and left the scene of the crime. The first part was an
accident, and I only left because Tom had screamed at me to leave—and he’d had his phone out to call 911—but the cops might see things differently.

“You stink,” said Brian.

“You’re one to talk.” Brian had worked himself up into a sweat playing his game, and he wasn’t a world champion bather to begin with.

The telephone rang. That was it. They were coming for me.

“You answer,” I told Brian.

“What’s going on?” he asked again. The phone kept ringing. “Are you in trouble?”

“Just answer it.”

He did. “Hello? Okay. It’s for you.” He handed me the phone.

“Thanks. You’re a big help.” I took the phone.

BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
7.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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