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The Scenic Route

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Children

The full moon is rising and the fire is burning down. Even the marshmallow sticks are being consumed. Stories have flown across the flames, ridden smoke from one side of the circle to the other, passed from hand to hand with bear teeth, wasp paper, wild mint leaves and the talking stick. 

The stories have been about things wild and unknown, bears and bogeymen and eight errant boy scouts who were never, ever, seen again. Each who tells the story has their very own version. 

“Someone found eight graves,” one says, “but when they opened them up, they were empty.”

“The scout master was here, but he wouldn’t say a thing.” 

“They burned that whole forest down to see if they could find the bodies.”

“Did you know them?” the children ask. The more vague the answer, the better they like it. They want to find those disappeared boy scouts ... but not tonight. 

The children have been attentive, restless, entertained, amused, quiet, raucous. Some sit on haunches like monkeys ready to leap straight up. Others become little yogis, assuming an effortless full-lotus that makes one member of the circle wince with envy. 

They are so similar, and so marvelously different. The grouch. The caretaker. The fisherman. The soldier. The joyful. The genius. The anachrophobe. The boxer. The runner. And now, they await the game.

In the dark under the trees, their tents are a colony of internally illuminated mushrooms. Inside the mushrooms, the children wait, flashlights in hand, bears and missing boy scouts in mind, too much sugar surging through their young veins. Poised on nylon thresholds, they await the cry, “Game’s on!” from one of four counselors trying to orchestrate chaos without giving way to mayhem.

Out in the meadow, the counselors build up the fire. Under the trees, the noise level rises.

The mushrooms grow among dark, randomly-placed, oddly-shaped columns that hold up a rough ceiling, as of a huge cave. In the dark, nobody sees, but one of the columns moves.

Along the south side of the colony, a triad mushroom grows in a single, three-domed clump, a haven of pre-pubescent maleness vibrating in anticipation of being set free in the dark to run wildly out of the cave into the summer night and dance around the fire and under the moon.

Then, in the dark, behind the three-domed mushroom, a big hind foot comes down on a bone-dry, cast off fir branch, the pop of breaking wood snaps into a hole in the noise and three magic words that have been standing hair up on children for generations are uttered: “What was that?”

The light level in the mushroom increases exponentially, as every torch is lit and every eye is opened. The sound level drops to somewhere around dead still as every ear is tuned like a radio dish awaiting some noise from off the planet. 

“I didn’t hear nothin’,” someone finally says, but an implied disclaimer hangs in the air.

I hope I didn’t hear nothin’, is what this boy is thinking, but I think I did.

In the dark, something goes, “Urrrunh!” For just a moment, the tents get even stiller, and then, the three-domed mushroom goes crazy as this bastion of boyness makes a corporate decision: Shall we disobey the counselors and run for it or die where we are? 

Out in the dark, some big creature stomps the ground beside the tent and cacophony is temporarily suspended as one collective breath is taken so deeply that the gossamer walls of the domes seem to flex inward. Someone’s dad’s old Timex is the loudest thing in the tents for 8.2 seconds. Then one boy, frightened into courage, scrambles to the back flap of his dome, zips it open, and sticks his head and flashlight out. The beam waves wildly in the night. 

“Get away!” he yells, and the entire contents of the tents join him, “Get away, get away,” in a litany of dispellment, a chorus of course correction for whatever is out there making that noise and scaring the bejeezus out of their innocent little souls. 

The beams from the torches of several suddenly-brave youngsters weave through the night and the beast moves out of light’s way, becomes one of the columns again, enjoys the light show.

A small voice intones, with some small certainty, “Ain’t nothin’ out there.”

Nothing out here but us beasts, thinks the beast, and resists the temptation to go “Urrrunh!” one more time. 

“Game’s on!” comes the cry, and the triad mushroom empties in the direction of the fire in a stampede of tennis shoes. All of the last minute is forgotten in the rush to play. Well, almost all. One young man hangs back, stops and turns his light into the trees behind the tents.

“Anybody out there?” he asks, in a near whisper, as if he doesn’t want an answer.

“Urrrunh!” answers the beast.

That is one fast boy, thinks the beast, smiling. Much faster than those eight boy scouts. 

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

children, camping, ourdoors

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