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Authors: Kurtis Scaletta

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BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
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“This is Eric Parrish,” I said.

“Eric? I need you to make dinner again.” It was Mom.

“We, uh … There’s kind of something you need to know, Mom.”

“What?”

“I broke a kid’s leg, Mom.”

“At football practice?”

“No, it was after practice. It was in a fight. Mom, I think I’m in a lot of trouble.” I saw Brian’s eyes get big and round.

“Eric, this will have to wait until I get home. Just make dinner for you and Brian and don’t get into any
more
trouble, all right?”

“Sure, but I think the police might come.”

“Then call me back when they do.”

“Mom, you better come home. This is kind of a big deal.” If the police did come, I wanted somebody to be here besides me and Brian.

“So is this, Eric. This one is life or death, understand?”

I imagined some girl lying on the ground, turning white as other girls panicked. But what could Mom do? She wasn’t a paramedic. Then I remembered the missing girl.

“Understood,” I said.

“If the police come, don’t say anything. You have the right to remain silent, remember that.”

“Yeah, I know.” Did she think I’d never seen a cop show?

“Make dinner for you and Brian. I’ll be home soon. Sorry, this is just … this is really serious, too. We have to find Amanda.” She hung up.

The police didn’t come screeching into the driveway. I made a frozen pizza. Brian played his video game. I was missing
Monday Night Football
but didn’t care. I didn’t even know who was playing.

The phone rang again. Brian’s Gninja was searching the field for coins so he could advance to the next level, so I answered.

“This is Eric Parrish,” I said.

“Eric.” This time it was Will. His voice was low, kind of breathy. “Randy’s hurt pretty bad,” he said.

“He … I was just trying to get the … I thought we were just …” Every sentence died. I didn’t want to say anything that would make it sound like it was my fault. It wasn’t. Maybe it wasn’t their fault, either, but it sure wasn’t mine.

“I just thought you’d want to know,” he said.

“I didn’t,” I said.

He clicked off the line. Maybe what I’d said came out wrong. I didn’t mean that I didn’t want to hear how Randy was doing. I meant that I didn’t want to hear that he was hurt pretty bad. I thought about calling back to explain, but the phone rang again.

“This is Eric Parrish,” I said. Every time the phone rang, I thought it would be the police and I had to sound official.

It was Mom again.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

I did, walking to the kitchen so Brian couldn’t hear. I told her everything. Even the part about Cassie’s piglets getting taken away from her and made into bacon, because you needed to know that to know why it was a big deal to get her bucket back.

“Eric, we’ve talked about this before. Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you can—”

“But they started it this time.”

“It doesn’t matter who started it,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t think you can apologize your way out of this one,” she said.

By morning it looked like our house had vomited up fungus, spewing it from the back door across the porch, down the steps, and into the yard, spattering into the neighbors’ yards. It looked a lot like I felt, actually.

The mushrooms were even thicker in the woods, climbing the tree trunks and crawling along the branches. There was a peculiar silence in the woods. It was late in the season for bugs, and maybe the squirrels were hibernating and the birds had all gone south for the winter, but it was as quiet as a cold winter day with newly fallen snow. It was lifeless. Which was also how I felt.

When I got to Michelle’s, I saw the papers from my notebook scattered across the field. Did Tom and Will do that while waiting for the ambulance or after Randy was rushed off to the hospital? I ran around and gathered them up. They were easy to see in the dim light, the perfect rectangles of white standing out against the dark grass. The only one I couldn’t find was the one with my notes from the library.

I found my textbooks in Cassie’s food trough, but fortunately she hadn’t eaten them, even though she hadn’t been fed last night. I took them out and tried to shake off the spatters of swill, then fed and watered Cassie. When I reached out to pet her, she snorted and backed up, her eyes wide open. She’d never done that before.

I got work gloves and a shovel out of the shed and cleaned the corner where Cassie does her business. When I rolled the wagon across the field, I noticed something black against the brown, barely visible except for a glimmer of smudged yellow. I knew what it was even before I lifted it off the pile and shook it out. It was my football jersey. The rest of my uniform and pads were also thrown onto the heap.
I started to pick them out, but by the time I found the left cleat, which was buried especially deep, I figured it wasn’t worth it. I threw the whole stinking mess in a garbage can by the shed and went to school.

That morning at school was rough. I had the feeling everyone was looking at me and whispering about me, which they probably were. If it had been two other kids at the school who got in a fight and one of them busted the other guy’s leg, I’d talk about it. I hid behind books and pretended to take furious notes in every class so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. Randy and I were in all the same classes, but he wasn’t in any of them that morning.

I usually sat with the team at lunch, but that didn’t seem like a good idea anymore. I carried my tray past tables full of kids staring at me, nobody sliding over or saying, “Hey, Eric, right here.” Well, that was my own fault for not having friends outside the team.

I ended up at a table of sixth graders, and they didn’t strike me as the cooler sixth graders. They looked back at me in shock. A popular football player like me was not supposed to sit with them. I realized that Allan from down the street was there. I’d never even noticed him in the halls. I didn’t know he was in sixth grade. I thought he was in fifth grade, tops.

“Hey,” I told him. He looked down at his food and didn’t say anything back.

As bad as the morning was, the afternoon was ten times worse.

The science teacher asked me if I’d researched the mushrooms for my oral report, and I told her I had but I’d lost the notes. I didn’t say why, but everyone was looking at me like they knew it was connected to everything else, and they were right. I also didn’t have the sample to pass around, because even though mushrooms were all over my life like—well, like a fungus—they weren’t my number one problem anymore, and I’d forgotten to harvest some new ones.

Then there was a surprise school assembly instead of last period. Everybody was muttering and whispering to each other, wondering what it was about. I myself thought it might have to do with the missing girl from Alden Academy—it’s the kind of thing that kids start rumors about. There was a computer hooked up to a projector on a cart, so whatever it was, it was going to involve multimedia.

Principal Dahl coughed into the microphone, causing a squeal of static over the PA. Ms. Brookings, the guidance counselor, stood next to him, looking grim. Now I knew it was serious. The last time they had a surprise assembly with Ms. Brookings, she told us a girl named Gail Hendrickson had leukemia.

“Okay,” Principal Dahl said after he got the microphone figured out. “We’re meeting today to talk about an incident that took place … It was not on school grounds but involved several students here, so …” He isn’t great at finishing his sentences. “To help facilitate this conversation, we’re …” He looked back at Ms. Brookings, saw she was there, and handed her the microphone.

“Thank YOU, Mr. DAHL,” said Ms. Brookings. She
has a way of overemphasizing certain words. She’s also big on exaggerated facial expressions. In the last assembly, she talked about “GRIEVING” and made a sad face like she was talking to preschoolers who wouldn’t know what that was.

“I wonder,” she said now, making a stagey puzzled look, one outstretched finger to her lips. “I WONDER if someone can TELL me … what is a BULLY?” I felt a silent groan course through the auditorium. That’s what we were having an emergency assembly for, to talk about bullying? We thought we’d left all that behind us when we got out of grade school.

“Well?” Ms. Brookings shrugged dramatically, shaking her head. “Does anybody KNOW what a BULLY is?”

A girl in front finally raised her hand.

“YES?” The counselor hustled over to hand her the microphone.

“It’s somebody who beats up on smaller kids?”

“Okay, okay, yes. A bully is someone who ‘beats up’ on people ‘smaller’ than themselves.” Ms. Brookings used her fingers for quote marks. “That’s good. But what else might a bully do?” She browbeat the kids in the front row until they mentioned name-calling or playing mean tricks or posting junk on someone’s Facebook wall. I remembered the picture Randy tagged me in. Did that count? I didn’t know.

After all that, she went over to the cart and clicked a button. A cartoon came up with animals who wore baggy jeans and flip-flops and said “Yo, homey” at one another. We’d seen the exact same movie in second grade. I wasn’t pro-bully or anything, but the whole thing was dumb. It’s
not like mean kids don’t know they’re being mean and will be better after watching a cartoon.

While the cartoon was playing, I saw Randy coming in on crutches. He sat right in front, and the guidance counselor knelt down and whispered to him, nodding with exaggerated empathy when he whispered back.

I got a sick feeling in my stomach, realizing what was going on. The incident that Principal Dahl was talking about—the one that happened off school grounds—was what happened with me and Randy. But they thought Randy was the victim and I was the bully. I could see why they might think that. I mean, Randy is smaller than me, and I did break his leg, but that wasn’t the whole story. I almost jumped up to explain myself, but nobody had actually singled me out, so I stayed quiet.

I decided to skip football practice. I really wasn’t in the mood to talk to my teammates. And besides that, I was probably going to get kicked off the team for wiping out our biggest star a few days before the championship. Brian wasn’t at the library, so I went straight to Michelle’s.

Cassie was sprawled out on a pile of hay, dozing peacefully, last night’s trauma apparently forgotten. She still had food and water from this morning, but I topped off both, then brushed her down on the side I could get at. I didn’t need to shovel again so soon, so I swept up some of the dropped goop beneath her trough and carried it to the compost heap.

There were a few dozen mushroom caps dotting the heap. They were the biggest I’d seen yet, and they gave off a blue-green shimmer even in the sunlight. Manure must be a mushroom paradise. I flung the new stuff on the heap and headed back to the sty, putting the wagon and the brush away. Everything seemed to be okay. Wait, where was Babe?

I panicked for a second until I saw it in the corner of the sty. There was something else there, just over the fence—a
white garbage bag stuffed full of something. It couldn’t have been there this morning. I would have seen it.

It must be food for Cassie, I thought. Even though the restaurant always leaves their scraps around front, not in the sty. I went closer and saw “PIG BOY” written on the side with a bright blue Sharpie. Did somebody from the team leave it there?

I opened it, expecting something awful, and saw black polyester and a flash of yellow. I reached in and pulled out my jersey. It was my whole uniform, washed and folded. There was my number, 97, bright and yellow. The pads were there and everything.

Had Michelle come home, found it in the garbage, and cleaned it for me? I banged on the door, but there was no answer.

I took the shortcut home through the woods, which were still spooky quiet. I realized that the fungus had probably scared all the animals away, just like the cloud of bats I’d seen soaring away two nights ago. The squirrels and rabbits must have gone deeper into the woods to get away, and the birds probably went south. Or maybe the animals weren’t scared of the fungus itself. Maybe they knew the woods were dying.

The Wikipedia article said the honey fungus mostly feeds on dead wood, but these trees were alive, at least for now. The branches were drooping and eventually might turn black and fall down like the trees Brian and I had seen the other day. What if the fungus ate its way through trees
until it killed the entire forest? I imagined the mushrooms creeping all the way to Baxter State Park, making their way down the Appalachians, and moving west across prairies and deserts and mountains until the entire continent was nothing but fungus. That first frost was way past due and couldn’t get here soon enough.

Our next-door neighbor Mr. Davis was in the backyard with a snow shovel, trying to scoop up the mushrooms and toss them back into the woods, but it wasn’t going very well. He had to really put his shoulder into it and kick at the back of the shovel to help the blade cut through the roots.

On the other side, Ms. Fisher’s Jack Russell terrier was yipping and yapping at the mushrooms, running up and down along the chain-link fence. He finally let loose with a yellow stream at one of the denser patches. Go for it, Sparky, I thought. If those mushrooms were as electric as they looked, his name would suddenly be perfect.

BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
10.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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