Vree [fiction]

Changes, Part 4

Verawenda “Vree” Renee Erickson, 13

Vree

Upon her creation in the 1970s, Verawenda Erickson was the same age as my other teen characters. She was an only child, nicknamed Vree, and lived with her parents down the road from Dave and Amy. Years later, when I decided to write about Vree again, I made Dave and Amy her triplet siblings and had them move into their grandparents’ home after lightning killed their father. It was fun giving her a pair of siblings to act with and react to, but I didn’t like that they were the same age. So, after revisiting my manuscripts last year, I changed her age to 13 and made her the youngest sibling of a 17-year-old brother and a 15-year-old sister. As the youngest member of the group of teens on Myers Ridge, she is more like an outsider who wants to be part of the older group.

She is Dave and Amy’s cousin—their mothers are sisters. Her nickname Vree comes from her initials VRE. Her first name is a combination of Vera and Wenda—her mom’s paternal grandmother was Vera Lewis and maternal grandmother was Wenda Walsh. Her middle name Renee is her maternal grandmother’s middle name.

*

Night of the Hellhounds (A short story featuring Vree)

*** One of my better known stories, changed to feature Vree as a main character. ***

Vree Erickson needed to get out of the house.

It was unseasonably cool that July Friday night when she walked up the road from her house on Myers Ridge. She stopped at her Aunt Michelle and Uncle Parker’s wide driveway. Her cousin Dave had told her that he and Amy would be at their tents behind the house. She aimed her flashlight at the front lawn and followed the beam to the narrow strip of yard left of the house. A breeze blew past her ponytail and prickled the back of her neck. She shivered and steadied herself with her right hand against the house’s brick siding as she made her way past the three dark dining room windows, then finally past her aunt’s soft-lit kitchen window. Her aunt and uncle were likely in the family room at the back of the house, watching TV.

Something moved in the evergreen shrubbery on her left. The sound quickened her pace to the firelight in the backyard. She came to a circle of seven lawn chairs around a square fire pit. Dave sat in a chair in front of his dome tent and cooked two hot dogs speared to a long roasting fork. His twin sister Amy had her own tent behind her. She sat cross-legged in a chair across the fire from Dave, whispering and giggling with Kenny Douglas next to her. Vree’s heart pattered while her gaze caressed Kenny’s brown bushy hair looking golden in the firelight. She tucked her flashlight under an armpit, rolled up her sweatshirt sleeves, and warmed her hands over the fire.

“Hey,” Dave said. “Take a look at the old Myers place and tell me what you see.” He pointed with his fork.

A thicket of property almost a hundred yards away was to Vree’s right and at the bottom of a hill. No moonlight broke the cloud cover then, so she squinted to see the abandoned Victorian home inside a thicket of trees.

“I just saw some ghosts,” Dave said. “Dogs. Three of them as plain as day. They were there until a moment ago.”

Amy groaned. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She looked at Kenny. “Tell him there’s no such thing.”

“Never mind,” Dave said. Then, “Why shouldn’t I believe in ghosts?” he asked. “All our ancient civilizations had them in their art and writing. Just like dragons and vampires and other strange creatures. Each culture portrayed them, including the Aztecs. How could so many different cultures have the same beliefs?”

“Don’t tell me you believe that dumb urban legend about Ben Myers and his hunting dogs freezing to death inside the house,” Amy said.

“Anything’s possible.”

“On a hot summer day?” Amy patted the arm of a chair next to her and told Vree to sit. Vree did, putting her flashlight on the ground and smelling hot dogs, wood smoke, and Amy’s citrus perfume. But her attention was on Kenny’s blue and gold athlete’s jacket that made him look more like a senior high student than a boy heading to tenth grade next month. Not many junior varsity students earned jackets at Ridgewood High. And Kenny’s made him look all the more handsome.

He smiled and nodded at Vree but remained silent while Amy scolded Dave.

“After they disappeared, the police concluded that Ben and Kate Myers died in a plane crash during a trip to the Caribbean.”

“Which isn’t official,” Dave said. “Myers and his wife always flew using pseudonyms, and no bodies or substantial wreckage were ever found, which means there’s no confirmation that they died at sea.”

Amy groaned again. “It makes more sense than believing that he and his dogs froze to death, or that Kate jumped to her death at the bottom of Widow’s Ravine.”

Vree looked again at the old, long ago abandoned property. The house did have a spooky history, after all, though no one she knew claimed to have seen anything out of the ordinary there. Until now.

But every community had an old house that people said was haunted. This was theirs.

The large Victorian house had belonged to a once-famous Broadway playwright named Benjamin Myers who became even more popular writing blockbuster screenplays for Hollywood before he and his wife mysteriously disappeared seventy years ago.

Vree glanced at where a trickling stream separated the back portion of the two properties and ran a half-mile behind them to the cliffs of Myers Ridge. There, the stream fell into a steep-sided gorge called Widow’s Ravine, where, according to the legend, Kate Myers jumped to her death after she found her husband and his dogs frozen.

A stick snapped behind Amy’s tent and caused Vree to turn. A tall woman stepped around the tent and approached the fire, which glinted fiery hues from her long black hair, bronze face, and long, sweeping black dress tied off at the waist. A white lace collar hung around her neck and pearl buttons sparkled in a row between her breasts. She looked at the four teenagers with mesmerizing and penetrating eyes—blacker than either her hair or dress, or the rubies set in the gold rings that she wore on eight fingers and two thumbs.

“Who are you?” Dave asked, almost shouting. Lowering his voice, he added, “This is private property.”

“This parcel of land is owned by Margaret Myers,” the woman replied as she held her hands over the fire.

“That’s my great-grandmother,” Kenny said. “But she doesn’t own this property anymore. My friends’ parents do.”

The woman looked at him and lingered with a puzzled, yet bewitching gaze. “You wear Mergelda’s curse,” she said.

“Huh?” Kenny scowled at Dave.

“What are you talking about, lady?” Dave asked. “Who’s Mergelda?”

“Mergelda Dekownik,” the woman said to him. Then, “May I rest a moment?” she asked. “The journey here has tired me.”

Dave gestured an open palm to the chair in front of her. She pulled the chair away and sat on the ground with a grace that made her seem to glide to the grass. There, she tucked her legs delicately beside herself and covered her bare feet beneath her dress. Her gaze shifted back to Kenny, then to Vree, and then to Dave.

“I am Kaethe Ramona Ademia Consuela Savakis,” she said. “But you can call me Ademia. That’s what my papa called me.” She looked back at Kenny. Then her charcoal eyes narrowed and the corners of her mouth lifted for a moment as she smiled at Vree. “You are the prevision I saw in my dreams,” she said. “You must be with him when the curse begins to effloresce. Stay with him and protect him always.”

Vree frowned and drew her knees under her chin. She hugged her legs and asked, “Are you talking to me?”

“I am.” Ademia turned and looked at Dave. “And why do you mistake me for—” she leaned closer “—a gypsy … no … a witch?”

Dave stiffened and said, “I don’t.”

“I suppose I do look like a gypsy. My mama was Brazilian, my papa Greek. But I’m neither gypsy nor witch, although—”

She paused and looked thoughtful. Then she glanced in the direction of the old mansion and said rather sadly, “I must go now.”

She stood as easily and gracefully as she had sat.

“Heed the white bird,” she said to Vree before turning and heading toward the Myers property.

The four watched her stroll down the hill and past the old Myers property until the night made her invisible. Then Dave stood and jabbed the air with a finger. “That was her. That was Kate Myers.”

Amy groaned. “The woman may have been crazy, but she was no ghost.”

“Do the math,” Dave said, sitting. “Kate Myers. Kaethe Ramona Ademia blah-blah-blah Savakis. She said her father was Greek. Ben Myers married a Greek woman. It all adds up.”

“That was no ghost,” Amy said.

“I agree,” Kenny said. “She looked pretty solid to me.” He stood and held up his illuminated cellphone. “Sorry, guys. I gotta head home.” He said goodbye and mounted his blue bicycle that lay behind his chair. A headlight came on as he pedaled to the side of the house, opposite of where Vree had come.

Amy stood and said she was making popcorn. Vree checked her phone. It was 11:52. “Dave and Amy say hi,” she texted to her mom. “Be home soon.” She grimaced from the cold when she put her phone back in the front of her bra.

“So, what do you think that woman meant when she said to heed the white bird?” she asked. “And that bit about ‘be with him when the curse begins’ and to ‘protect him always.’ What the heck?”

Dave pointed his roasting fork at the old Myers property and said, “Look.” His voice rose as he said, “See it? It’s a ghost. And I’ll bet you it’s Ben Myers’s ghost.”

Vree squinted. A faint glowing apparition of a man in a white shirt and dark pants walked outside the thicket at the Myers property. It wavered and disappeared.

“Tell me you saw that,” Dave said. “He was there. Just like the dogs I saw earlier.” As if cued by his words, dogs barked from the house. “Legend says that when Myers’s dogs died, their spirits came back as hellhounds to guard the house from trespassers.”

A pack of dogs charged from the darkness and lined at the bottom of the hill. All but one glowed with an aura of green light. The dogs snarled and bared their teeth at them. And their eyes glowed red.

Vree hurried to stand behind Dave’s chair. There were five white hounds with black and brown patches on the left, four rough-coated terriers on the right, and a brown Rottweiler that stood in the middle and slobbered white foam from its mouth. It glowed red and growled deep and guttural. And the red ember of fire in its eyes caused Vree to pull at Dave.

“Let’s go inside the house,” she said. Then she said it again, louder, as the other dogs joined in growling at them. As the growls rose in both pitch and volume, Dave agreed with Vree’s suggestion. He tugged Vree’s grasp away from his left forearm and took her by the hand. Vree started to follow him when three of the dogs vanished, including the Rottweiler.

Horrible howls from below the hill filled the air. The remaining dogs charged the hillside, coming at them.

“Run,” Dave said.

Vree followed at his heels as they raced toward the house.

In a puff of green smoke, a hound appeared in front of them, blocking the way.

Dave skidded to a stop and stared wildly at the green glowing dog. Then he bolted to his left and vanished into the field and darkness there. The hound chased after him, joined by a terrier that appeared at the hound’s side.

In a puff of red smoke, the Rottweiler appeared in front of Vree.

She turned her back and pleaded with the dog not to hurt her.

“Look at me,” the Rottweiler said, its voice deep and guttural.

Vree did, avoiding staring at its demonic eyes.

“You see Blood. You hear Blood.”

Vree trembled and said, “Please, don’t hurt me.”

The dog said nothing for a moment. Then it turned, almost flying across the ground as it too vanished in the dark after Dave.

Vree jumped and almost screamed when an unfamiliar voice cried out above her, “They’re heading toward Widow’s Ravine. You have to help him before they kill him.”

A white crow sat atop the roof above the backdoor. Had it really talked to her? She almost fell to her knees from the fright coursing through her body.

“Go, girl. Hurry.”

“But—” The remaining dogs milled around the campfire and watched her. She had left her flashlight on the ground by her chair. “I can’t see in the dark.”

“Hurry,” the crow said. “You’re not insane. Trust me. Now go, before the boy dies.” The crow spread its wings and vanished.

Vree shook her hands as though she had burned her fingers on something hot, looked at the door, and then hurried after Dave as the remaining dogs—ghosts—hellhounds—whatever they were—started after her.

She plowed blindly into brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed her, scratched her hands, and scarred her clothes and shoes.

The hellhounds closed their distance behind her quickly. Her drumming heart climbed into her throat when she realized she could not outrun them for long. Still, she pushed on for Dave’s sake. Her inhales and exhales sounded like whimpers and moans.

She stumbled and almost fell before the way lit up, as though the moonlight had broken through the clouds. Although she was on a well-traveled deer trail, she had to dodge uneven and dangerous terrain as she followed the sound of the Rottweiler ahead of her.

She cried Dave’s name when she entered a clearing atop a steep cliff of Myers Ridge. He was there, at the edge but safe for the moment, doubled over and breathing hard. The hellhounds that had followed him had their heads lowered and their rear ends in the air like wolves that had just pinned their prey.

Vree hurried and kicked at the Rottweiler’s backside, hoping to punt it over the cliff. Instead, her foot went through the dog and she landed on her backside.

Quick to get up, she hurried to Dave’s side as the rest of the pack caught up and formed a line, boxing her and Dave at the edge of the cliff. The hellhounds glared with red eyes and growled with slobbering mouths. One of the hellhounds howled and Vree lashed out at it, this time with words.

“Leave us alone, you lousy piece of—”

The Rottweiler growled and leaped at her. Its forepaws struck her chest and sent her backwards, her arms flailing, her feet stumbling over the steep precipice of Widows Ravine.

She plummeted on her back one hundred feet through cold air to the colder waters of Myers Creek. When she entered the T of the tributary and creek, her aching throat released a yelp of surprise as the water enveloped her like an icy blast.

She sank into darkness until her backside struck the rocky creek bottom. She rested there a moment, dazed, unable to move. A thousand drums beat inside her skull and made thinking almost impossible. Then by instinct, she pushed off and struggled toward a sliver of moonlight barely rippling on the water’s surface far above her. Her lungs ached to release the little breath she held. She fought an intense, overwhelming urge to breathe.

She was halfway to the surface when she knew she could hold her breath no longer.

Shimmering outstretched hands broke through the water’s surface and came for her. The nearest hand bore five black ruby rings, blistering from the gold of each ring. It grabbed the front of her sweatshirt and pulled her from the depths of Myers Creek.

Her lungs sucked in air and bits of water. She coughed and sputtered while her rescuer managed to pull her to shore. There, lying on her stomach, she vomited creek water on the bank of Myers Creek until she caught her breath.

“Your friend David is safe,” Ademia said, helping her to stand.

“He’s … my … cousin.”

“All the same, I stopped the dogs from attacking him. But I was too late to keep you from falling.”

Still weak and exhausted, Vree fell to her knees.

“Who are you?” She shivered wet and cold at Ademia’s bare feet, and looked at her, puzzled. The woman was as dry as when she had sat at the fire earlier.

“I am someone cursed,” she said. “Now I ask the same of you, young lady. Who are you?”

Vree paused and wondered what she meant. And while she wondered, she said, “Dave says … you’re Kate Myers.” She forced the words through a clenched mouth that trembled from the cold that burned at her bones. “He’s right. You’re a ghost.”

“Call me Ademia.”

“And … it’s true. Your husband … and his dogs … froze to death.”

Ademia was quiet while she studied Vree with darkened eyes below a troubled scowl.

Finally, “I am what’s left of Mergelda’s wrath. My husband suffered a hunting accident that killed her father. It was she who called forth an ancient, evil power from Myers Ridge. A power that froze to death my husband and cruelly cast me to my grave among these waters. A power that devastated most magic from these lands. A power that curses us still.”

Dave cried out Vree’s name from atop the ridge. Vree trembled too much to holler back. Ademia placed her hands atop Vree’s head and filled her mind and body with warmth.

“Answer your friend and cousin,” she said; “you’re safe now.”

“Thank you,” Vree said to her. Then she called out and told Dave that she was okay. Dave told her to go to the bridge on Russell Road and to wait for him.

“I owe you my life,” she said to Ademia.

The rubies of Ademia’s rings glowed, turning from dark to bright white light. She held her hands to her face.

“I am with you always,” she said, touching Vree’s forehead before the light from her rings engulfed her and she vanished.

The light engulfed Vree but didn’t blind her. She stumbled upright. Ice water fell from her clothes but she was not cold. She examined her waterlogged phone and hoped the white rice at home could bring it back to life. The phone powered on with a text from her mom: Be home soon. Your dad and I are ready for bed.

As she headed toward Russell Road, the light around her faded but didn’t vanish. Her clothes were dry. So was her hair.

“I am with you always,” Ademia had said. Vree wondered about her rescuer and the ancient power Mergelda had called from Myers Ridge—“A power that curses us still.”

When Vree reached the road, the light vanished. The way home lay in darkness but she knew the way. And she knew the way led her on a journey to something important in her life. Something life changing and dangerous.

She swallowed, took a deep breath, and started up the hill.

*–*–*

Amy [fiction]

Changes, Part 3

Another change (and more to come) to strengthen my characters.

Amy Elizabeth Conrad, 15

Amy

As a teenage male in the 1970s, the hardest part of writing was understanding my female characters. I had plenty of girl cousins to study, but I grew up in a household of six males and one female, which was my mom. Other than her, I had no one of the opposite sex to study at home. I had books like Little Women and Nancy Drew to refer to, but they were dated. It wasn’t until I married and had daughters did I get to observe females up close. And for the most part, they weren’t as different from males than I thought they were. Unlike my mom and my cousins, as well as the March sisters and Nancy Drew, my wife enjoyed roughing it outdoors and watching football. And my daughters played sports and were as competitive as my son and I. The female gender personifications from the pre-1980 literature I had read and the movies and TV shows I’d watched were unrealistic. It was then that Amy Conrad and the other female characters I wrote about came alive.

She strives to excel at music for self-expression; music means everything to her. When she’s down, she recharges by swimming. Free time is spent “jamming” with her band ARC, or “hanging” with friends.

She is gentle, compassionate, kind and charming too. Generally an easygoing person—most of the time, she is slow to anger, but she has a ferocious temper once it is roused.

Strangely (but typical in brother-sister relationships), twin brother Dave—he’s younger by almost ten minutes—seldom resents her. In fact, he “defends her honor” more ferociously than his own. Any potential boyfriends are in for a hard time.

Sometimes, Amy is funnier, more gregarious, and more talented than Dave is, making her stand out and seem like “the favorite child” to their parents. Often, she is sweetness and light to everyone else, but the Devil to Dave.

Dave, who is the musically untalented child, resents the admiration Amy receives, and views it as favoritism. And Amy views Dave’s accolades in football, baseball and other sports as favoritism. Cue sibling rivalry, and lots of it.

*

Beyond the Music (A short story featuring Amy)

Amy Conrad hefted her black acoustic guitar over a shoulder and started down the knoll of her backyard, pushing through a tangle of waist-high weeds and into timberland surrounding Myers Mansion. The old Victorian house sat vacant and ignored behind its rusty gates, invisible to anyone passing by on Ridge Road’s country blacktop. It was the perfect place for Amy to be alone and work on her music.

The overcast daylight barely penetrated the thicket that swallowed her from view. Inside, ivy ran wild everywhere, choking life from the trees and gripping the house’s exterior walls in a death hold.

Amy made her way across a rear porch of spongy boards and through a doorway that no longer held a door. She lit several scented candles inside the largest room downstairs—a musty sitting room with run-down walls of yellowed and peeling wallpaper. She swept a straw broom across the warped and rotted floor and pushed empty beer cans and cigarette butts into a pile near a window of mold encrusted red drapes. Someone had lost a ten-dollar bill there. It was probably Craig Dunn or one of his brainless toadies who sometimes used the place on Saturday nights to get drunk and high at and have sex with underage sluts.

The police had raided the place many times over the past five years. Here was proof that Dunn and his toadies weren’t going to stop. She pocketed the bill and continued sweeping.

Once the broom was propped again in the corner, she took up her guitar and sat on a wood ottoman—the only piece of intact furniture. She flipped away a strand of her long blonde hair and whispered lyrics while she lightly fingered the steel strings and turned their quiesced sounds into song.

For almost ten minutes, she concentrated on chords and words before she set the guitar aside and went to the cobwebby bookcase with ancient, mold-encrusted books. She dared not touch the books as she got on her hands and knees and fetched her portable DVD player from underneath the bookcase. With a press of the PLAY button, the player started up. Her favorite movie, Go, Johnny Go! still in the machine, came on, so she returned to the ottoman and watched the dim flickering of social differences play to the scores of many dead composers. Soon, she drifted on the music, playing it loud to keep her mind from settling on her usual isle of loneliness, put there because no one her age, it seemed, shared her interest in 1950s and ’60s jump blues, rock-n-roll, and hopped-up country.

Sure, she had a brother, cousins, and friends who talked about and got excited over the rapping remakes of some of those old songs, but no one wanted to listen to the raw energy of the original recordings. And for that reason, she existed alone on Myers Ridge in the rural small-town of twenty-first century Ridgewood, Pennsylvania.

Well, not truly alone. Myers Mansion—named after the long ago playwright who had built it one summer ninety years ago—had managed to keep some of its ghosts. Others had come from town and places nearby, attracted to the old mansion’s size and neglect. They watched and conversed from the shadows of the house, though Amy did not see or hear them. She did not believe in ghosts. Only music.

At the same time, Craig Dunn drove his black Triumph motorcycle across the weeds of what he believed was the driveway of Myers Mansion. He pushed his heavy body from the bike and fought gravity to maintain his balance. Day had become night inside the thicket of trees, and he managed to hold onto the six-pack of Budweiser as he stumbled over roots and branches toward the house. He managed a firm grasp of the beer when he squeezed through the gate’s doorway where a fallen heavy limb kept the door from opening far. But when he headed along the footpath through brambles on the left side of the house, he dropped his favorite beverage three times.

The leaves above him hissed from the treetops swaying in the breeze, as if disapproving his decision to come here.

“I’ll do what I damn well please,” he told them. And although the leaves kept hissing, he felt better for telling them off.

A raindrop smacked him on top of the head. He looked up as the sky jarred him with a deafening boom of thunder. Icy rain crashed through the tree branches and slammed against his face. He held onto his beer and managed to stay upright, staggering backward several steps as though an invisible wrestler tried bringing him to his knees.

He tucked his beer under his jean jacket as faded and worn as his jean shirt and pants and brown leather boots. By the time he reached the same door that Amy had entered, he stepped into a hole in the floor but managed to keep his boot from going all the way through it. With an awkward skip, he stayed upright and cursed the rain and house.

He started toward the kitchen where he had stashed his marijuana three nights ago, then turned around and followed the tinny sound of guitar music to the old living room. He stopped as he entered.

“Um … Hi.” He brought an arm to his brow. Her eyes were like cloudless summer skies, so bright in the candlelight that he was glad he wasn’t colorblind like his old man. “Um … I didn’t know you would be here during the daytime.”

She reached out to him, her arms open and inviting like invisible pulleys attached to his heart. He dropped his beer and hurried to her, pressing his body against hers, feeling her strength and hating how soft and weak he’d become.

She moved her head to look at him. He kissed her hard on the lips, not letting her see the lust pushing away the fear in his eyes.

His breath was heavy and ragged around her mouth; his battered hands explored every inch of her. Her heat drove him to the edge. A swing of her hips pushed him over it.

He fell like before, wrapped in the clutches of what she was. Her fire would become ice now. She would want him to stay with her forever.

He untangled his arms and legs from hers and ran from her and the house’

Inside, Amy awoke from her nap when Craig brought his motorcycle’s engine to a roaring start. As he accelerated into the rain and onto the country road, she lifted her head from the ottoman, looked around from where she sat on the floor, and wondered where the six-pack of beer had come from.

She did not see the ghost girl who stood over the beer, watching the door and waiting for her lover to return.

*–*–*

Kenny [fiction]

Changes, Part 2

Lenny Stevens has a new name and personality.

Kenneth “Kenny” Jeffrey Douglas, 15

Kenny

He, as Lenny Stevens, is the second person I created. He buddied with Dave Evans (now, Dave Conrad) in high school until I wrote him as an adult for a short story called “Dragon Slayer.” He went through some name changes before I settled for Leo Nash, a tall and lanky schoolteacher at Ridgewood High. I changed his name back to Lenny Stevens when I rewrote the story for The Green Crystal Stories, an episodic book about Vree Erickson. Now, I have changed his name to Kenny Douglas for no other reason than I grew tired of his name.

*

Looking For Gold (A short story featuring Kenny)

On a July Saturday, Dave Conrad rode his green 10-speed Schwinn Super Sport bicycle ahead of Kenny Douglas’s blue one as he led the way to a place where he believed they could find gold. They both wore white T-shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes, and Dave wore his blue high school baseball cap. Kenny caught glimpses of the white letters FE letters on the cap every time Dave turned to see if Kenny was still behind him.

They headed north on Ridge Road, uphill and down, and then uphill and steep for almost a half-mile. The one o’clock sun was hot on Kenny’s back and shoulders while he pumped his bicycle’s pedals to keep up. Near the top, Dave crossed the road, dismounted his bike, and carried it over a large ditch and into a hayfield. Kenny followed along a path that looked like a deer trail, walking his bike behind Dave until they came to some woods. They left their bikes there after Dave removed coiled rope from his bike, and went the rest of the way on foot, into the cool shade and a swampy outcropping to the edge of a rocky cliff. Twenty feet below, water trickled from the hillside, fell and splattered on rock, and fell again to Myers Creek far below.

“If there’s gold,” Dave said, “this’ll be a good place to look.”

Kenny helped Dave with the rope, tying his end to a young hornbeam tree that Dave had called an ironwood. Dave harnessed his end to his legs and shoulders. Then, when both boys were certain the knots were good, Kenny helped lower him to where water trickled from the side of Myers Ridge. Dave dug around at the wet ground, pulled up rocks, examined them closely, and tossed them away. After ten minutes, the process became boring to watch, so Kenny returned to the hornbeam tree to make sure his knot held strong.

Past the tree where the ground turned swampy and muddy, a red squirrel inspected the inedible raw leaves of a small patch of skunk cabbage, likely looking for the plants’ hard, pea-sized seeds to carry back to its nest. That’s when Dave called Kenny back.

He hoisted a grinning Dave who proudly displayed a three-inch chunk of bright yellow rock. It was cold and heavy when Kenny held it.

“Do you think it’s real?” he asked.

“My dad’s tester at home will tell us for sure,” Dave said before he blew into his bright red hands. His eyes were wide as he looked at the gold, then down at the cliff and back at the gold. “Should’ve brought gloves,” he said before taking the rock away from Kenny.

“What are you gonna do with it?” Kenny asked.

“Melt it and maybe make a bracelet for my mom. I’ve been reading up on how to make jewelry.”

Dave pocketed the rock, then took off the rope harness and helped Kenny into it. Kenny kept his feet against the cliff wall while Dave lowered him to the trickling streams of falling water. The water’s icy bite kept Kenny from digging long. Within minutes, he held his cold, red hands to his mouth.

“Pull me up,” he called out. Then, “Wait.”

He reached into the farthest stream on his right and extracted a long, conical piece of green crystal rock from the soft erosion. It was as long as his forearm and shaped like an icicle. He held it by the thick end and brushed away sediment from its smooth, glassy surface, rubbing his hand over the polished object and enjoying the warmth where it tapered to a point. He waved it like an orchestra conductor’s baton at the air next to him.

“Whatever it is, it’s manmade,” he said when Dave pulled him up.

“How do you think it got down there?” Dave asked, taking it by the narrow end and swinging it like a baseball bat.

“It must be old to have passed through the ground.”

“Tomorrow,” Dave said, looking determined, “I’m going down there and look for more gold.”

Kenny frowned. “Wouldn’t it be better to look in Myers Creek? The gold’s high density will have caused most of it to sink to lower ground.”

“The creek is pretty deep. We’d need a way to stay at the bottom and dig. We could rent some tanks at Myers Lake, but I’m really low on cash right now.”

“Maybe we could inspect some of the sinkholes around here.”

Dave’s eyes widened again, but not in a good way. “Are you crazy? Some of those holes are infested with rattlesnakes.”

“I’m not saying we go inside. I’m saying that the ground around the hole may reveal more gold. After all,” Kenny puffed his chest while he displayed his retained knowledge from science class, “virtually all the gold discovered so far is considered to have been deposited by meteorites which contained it. And since gold was found inside Myers Ridge, don’t you think there’d be more of it showing where the ground has broken away?”

“Well, I’m staying away from sinkholes. You never know when the ground’s gonna collapse.”

Kenny agreed.

Dave gave back the long stone, then undid his end of the rope and began wrapping it around his left elbow and shoulder. Kenny untied the other end from the hornbeam tree.

Later, back on their bikes and on the road, they rode toward Dave’s house, picking up speed past a couple of dairy farms, some cow and horse pastures, and an abandoned barn in a field of teasels, wild grasses and ragweed. A vehicle had indented the grasses there. Dave stopped.

“My Spidey sense is tingling,” he said when Kenny pulled up alongside him. Kenny chuckled at the comic book reference, and then stopped short when the long stone he held vibrated.

He dropped the stone and rubbed his hands together.

“That was so weird,” he said. But Dave’s attention was still on the barn.

There, a blue sedan at the barn backed up and turned around.

“Hit the deck,” Dave said. “Don’t let these guys see us.”

The boys jumped off their bikes, threw them into the field, and then dived for cover among daisy fleabane and a large clump of purple and yellow New England Astor. Kenny pressed close to the ground and hoped the handlebar of his bike would go unnoticed by whoever was inside that car.

The driver stopped the car for nearly a minute when it reached Ridge Road. Dave and Kenny were ten yards away and a horsefly had found the back of Kenny’s sweaty neck. He clenched his jaw as it bit into his skin and sucked his blood. He waited no more than thirty seconds after the car pulled away to slap at the fly and rub at the welt it left there.

“Where are you going?” he asked when Dave scrambled up and headed toward the barn.

“This doesn’t feel right,” Dave said. “Come on. And hurry.”

Kenny returned to the road and fetched the long stone. It looked lighter in color and no longer vibrated. He caught up to Dave at the boarded up double doors of the barn.

“No one does this unless they have something to hide,” Dave said.

They pulled the boards away and entered a musty smelling barn that changed quickly to cool dampness and became darker the farther in they went. They passed an old manure cart covered with burlap. The stone seemed to pull at Kenny’s hand toward the cart. A thought came to him that he should look inside it. Then, as though he had read Kenny’s mind, Dave returned to it and pulled away the empty burlap sacks.

A young girl was inside, bound, gagged, and very frightened. When she was out of the cart and her restraints and convinced that Dave and Kenny weren’t going to harm her, she let Dave carry her to his bike where she rode on the handlebars to his house.

She was 7-year-old Laurie Burnett, last seen at a soccer game at the city park, kidnapped from Dr. and Mrs. Timothy Burnett. Her parents had received a ransom note earlier that week asking for $250,000 in exchange for the girl’s safe return.

Three days later, the police caught the criminals after Laurie identified them as associates at her father’s medical office.

Dave and Kenny became town heroes and received a thousand dollars each from Dr. Burnett. Dave melted his gold and made his mom a pendant shaped in the initial of her first name. And Kenny put the long stone on top of his tall bedroom dresser with his collection of other stones and old coins, forgetting about it until the day lightning almost killed Dave’s uncle and cousin.

*–*–*

Taken By Surprise, by Polly Smrcka [guest post]

(From Hatch Hollow Tomboy. Used by permission.)

Life on the stony, rolling acres of the family farm was never dull. There were always new and interesting, sometimes frightening, experiences to add to the daily humdrum of endless work. Never were two days alike.

One particular day from early childhood never dims in my memory with the passage of many years since its happening. Let me tell you about it.

It was my turn to help Martin drive the cows home from the pasture for the evening milking. It was one chore that I always enjoyed. It seemed more like play than work. There were all sorts of things to explore on the way to the farthest corner of the pasture where we usually found the cows.

The family dog, Peggy, was our daily companion. The mere presence of the shaggy, sable collie made us feel safe even in the darkest part of the woods that we had to cross to find the cattle. I was also her duty to heel any ornery cow into line with the rest of the herd. It was a duty that Peggy performed instinctively and well.

Although my extravagant imagination often convinced me that there were all kinds of scary things hiding behind every grassy hummock or perching on branches in the shadows of the hemlock thicket that we had to pass along the cowpath, waiting to jump out and scare the wits out of us, I was sure that Peggy would not let anything hurt us.

Dad always reminded us to “be sure you take Peggy along. She will protect you on the way.” Secure in this knowledge, Martin and I took our time to get to the back forty where the cows lay content, chewing their cuds. We took time to check out every bird nest along the way. We stopped at every rabbit hole and dropped in small stones to see if a bunny might scamper out of another hole a few feet away. We poked sharp sticks into every anthill and watched the ants race crazily in all directions, bumping into one another and backing off and heading in another direction.

“Let’s pick some wildflowers for Mom,” I suggested to Martin. “There aren’t any flowers in the garden yet, that Mom will let us pick, so we can pick some here in the pasture. The cows won’t care.”

“Aw, Polly,” scoffed Martin, “You’re such a silly kid. You know that Mom doesn’t like wild buttercups. They make her sneeze too much. C’mon, let’s git the cows home before someone comes lookin’ fer us.”

Martin was right. Mom never let us bring buttercups into the house. But there was still time to stop and pick a handful of ripe, juicy blackberries from a clump of tall brambles near the cowpath. A tomboy’s tummy always had room for a few succulent berries.

The old butternut tree on the bank of the small creek near the back of the pasture was always a favorite place to explore. There were three or four large holes in the trunk. Bushytailed squirrels lived in the biggest hole up in the crotch were several limbs branched toward the blue sky. Martin was a good tree climber and he never missed a chance to check the comings and goings of the squirrel family.

Girls in our family were not allowed to climb trees. My mother lived by strict European ideas. Those ideas held that no decent girl or woman would be caught dead climbing a tree. Think of the shame of it! Some man or boy might come along and see an inch or two beyond your long skirts. How would you ever manage to live down such a scandalous sight? Never mind that feminine legs were fully encased in heavy cotton stockings that usually sagged and bunched around your ankles.

It didn’t seem fair that only boys could do things that were the most fun. But there was no use in trying to change my mother’s views on the way her daughters ought to behave. So I had to be satisfied with poking into the holes closer to the ground. A redheaded woodpecker lived in one and I saw a skunk come out of the hole that went down under the roots of the butternut tree. I could never work up enough courage to poke a stick into the place where the stinky animal lived.

Martin often tried to goad me into disturbing the skunk. “I dare ya t’ even drop a little bitty rock inta his hole,” he taunted wickedly, “jes’ t’ see what the ol’ skunk’il do.”

“If ya wanna know so bad what he’ll do, smarty,” I retorted, “why’n’cha try it yerself. I’m not gonna do it an’ git myself all stunk up!”

Martin knew when his tomboy sister had bested him. He guessed that we’d better be getting the cows home. He walked away from the butternut tree and I followed after I made sure that Peggy trotted ahead of us.

I couldn’t swat fast enough to kill all the pesky deer flies that were out to get their dinner from my bare arms and legs. Martin at least had long sleeves on his blue chambray shirt and he wore long denim overalls to cover his legs. The flies did not bother him too much. But I was soon scratching at least a dozen places.

When we came to a shrubby place at the edge of the bog we walked into a cloud of midges and we knew that a thunderstorm was brewing not too far away. Otherwise the midges would have stayed in the shady bog instead of crawling into our eyes and hair and driving us wild.

By and by the herd came into view. There was a brand new calf trying out its wobbly legs while it looked for the right end of its mother to have its first meal. The cow, a large black and white Holstein, stood patiently while her baby searched and butted her belly. She kept nudging the calf in the right direction but it didn’t seem to understand.

Martin laughed and pointed to the bumbling calf. “Lookit that dumb calf. You’d think it couldn’t help but see where to go to suck for milk. That ol’ cow’s bag is as big as a washtub.”

“Well, how do you expect a new calf to know that? It was just born a little while ago,” I scolded my brother. “You didn’t know how to eat as soon as you were born, either.”

Peggy knew her job, and she lost no time in rounding up the cows and moving them toward home. Martin and I quickly counted heads to be sure that none stayed behind. Martin said we had one too many. I counted again. Sure enough. One cow too many. Where did it come from?

What we didn’t know was that a neighbor’s young bull had jumped over the fence into our pasture for an amorous interlude with one of our bossies.

I will never know why that angry bull chose to chase me instead of my brother. Maybe he simply hated towheaded tomboys, but he showed this one how quickly she could climb a tree.

It was a good thing that the gnarled wild apple tree was close by or I might not be here to tell this tale. I cannot tell how I climbed the tree. But climb I did, faster than you could say Aunt Fannie’s bustle. And there I stayed, precariously perched in the highest branches, my heart pounding a mile a minute. It was a close call.

I guess the bull realized that he could not reach me. But do you think he would admit defeat and go away so I could come down from the treetop? Not on your life! He stayed under the tree and snorted and pawed the dirt and made rumbling noises that sounded like distant thunder. I hoped that he really felt frustrated. Served him right! Maybe he would break off one of those long, sharp horns, too, if he kept on butting the apple tree.

Martin thought my predicament was the most hilarious thing that had happened on the farm all summer. “Ho, ho, ho, Polly,” he laughed, rolling on the ground and clutching his belly with his arms. “Ya better be careful so ya don’t fall outta the tree! It’s gonna be a long, long night up there cuz ya don’t know how ta climb back down.”

I held tightly to the sturdy branch and watched Martin and Peggy drive the cows home. It was the most forlorn feeling I had ever known. I shivered violently in the summer heat and turned my attention back to the ugly bull.

Martin may have looked forward to the prospect of his tomboy sister spending the night up a tree. But it was not to be. As soon as Dad saw that Martin was coming alone with the cows and Peggy, he wanted to know where Martin left me. What could Martin do? He had to tell.

Dad soon came to my rescue. Peggy came with him. The bull left before they came. Dad coaxed me to come down. I sat fast until Dad reassured me that he fixed the broken fence that the bull tore up when he jumped over into our pasture. Dad even pointed at the diminishing form of the bull in the distance in his own pasture, heading for his own barn.

I knew that fright made me climb the apple tree. Now it was fright that kept me from climbing down. But Dad was patient and slowly guided my trembling hands and feet until I felt the solid ground under me and Dad’s strong arms around me.

It was a long, long time until I got over the surprise in the pasture. Martin drove the cows home alone for the rest of the summer.

Copyright © 2000, Polly Smrcka


About Polly

polPolly Smrcka is the author of Hatch Hollow Tomboy and The Way It Was, and wrote the column “Farm Grandma” in the Sunday edition of the Erie (PA) Times-News.

It was the beef boycott of the 1970s that started Polly’s writing career. “Suddenly beef prices at the grocery stores went sky-high,” she recalls. “Everybody blamed the farmers. As a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife, I knew the farmers were not getting all that money. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Erie newspaper about it. The managing editor, Larie Pintea, liked my writing style and asked me to write more about my life growing up. I didn’t think I could do it. I graduated from an eight grade one-room school in seven years, but never considered myself a writer! What could I write about?

“Larie said, ‘Polly, write about your life. Your memory tank will never run dry,’ he said. And it never has. As the newspaper columns about life on the farm in the 1920s and 30s began to pile up, I did think of putting them in a book. But I didn’t do anything about it until someone suggested I contact the Erie County Historical Society. They agreed to publish Hatch Hollow Tomboy in 1999.” Its companion The Way It Was soon followed.

Polly’s books can be purchased by mail from the Erie County Historical Society, 417 State Street, Erie, PA 16501, phone (814) 454-1813, or at The Erie Book Store, or any Barnes & Noble, Borders, and WaldenBooks stores.