Chapter 4 – Hudson School


Hudson School – Chapter 4


Coach’s Campfire
by SK Figler

(©2020, SK Figler)

I can’t breathe. I’m drowning. Something large and alive is pushing me under. One hand over my mouth and nose, another hand pushes down hard on my chest. “Quiet. Settle down,” it whispers. I sink back into my bed, trying to get ready for whatever comes next.

The hand on my face lifts a little. I grab some air. The hand comes back down, mashing my nose and mouth. I taste a little blood. I hear a loud, whispered, “Quiet!” The hand lifts again. I force a slow breath. I smell Kirk. Whatever it is, he smells different, like an old closet. Always, wherever he is.

“What’s happening?” It’s Chaz Rosewall from across the room. There is enough light coming in from the street lamp that I see Kirk turn and point to Chaz and say, “Go back to Sleepyland if you know what’s good for you.” Chaz doesn’t say anything else.

I see the side of Kirk’s big square face. Kirk turns back and takes his other hand off my chest. “Get dressed. You’re coming with me. Only you.”

“Why should I?”

“‘Cause I say so.” Now he’s leaning over me, a fist on my neck. “A bunch of guys are going with Coach Shapiro. A secret night time trip into the woods. You better be able to handle yourself.” Then he’s gone, thumping down the stairs.

I don’t trust Kirk and I don’t understand what’s going on, but Coach Shapiro fought in Germany and I don’t want to miss whatever is happening. I hear loud whispers at the bottom of the stairs, kids too excited to really stay quiet. I get dressed in twelve seconds flat and grab my Yankees ballcap from the wall hook. When I get to the bottom of the stairs, no one is there. The door down the hall to the playground on the back side of the building is closing. I run past the dead classrooms and skid to a stop at the door just as it clicks shut. I open and close it softly and jump the three stairs to the dirt.

Someone had broken the light bulb that hangs from the toolshed where Scruggs lives with Mabel, the cook. The devil moon, that’s what Mother calls it, is hanging just above the trees, just enough to show things in silhouette. Past the swings and the slide the playing field looks like a lake in the dim light. Dew, I guess. Eight or so flashlights bob and weave in a line across the field toward the woods.

I didn’t bring a flashlight. Kirk didn’t tell me to, but I should have known. I can see the outlines of the swings and the round-about, but I trip on a low board of a horseshoe pit that I forgot about. I’m on my chest in the dirt. The iron pole sticks up between my right arm and my face. I scramble up in time to see the last flashlight go into the woods. I spit out dirt and wipe my face with a sleeve and spit again. I’ll just swallow what’s left.

I need to think what’s out there, what I’ve seen in the weeks Henry and I have been at Hudson School. After the horseshoe pit there’s a small drop-off to the ballfield. After that there’s a partly fallen-down cedar fence, then sort of a road into the woods guarded by a wire gate. It’s a few yards past third base, way past the end of the high wood and wire backstop. Once I’m in the woods, I’ll probably see something from the flashlights and catch up to them.

I make it down the hill and onto the ballfield. A funny thought comes: I’m running the wrong way, from home plate to third base, but this isn’t a game, not a baseball game, anyway. But now the moon is below the tops of the trees. I should know where the fence gate is. A good Indian scout or soldier would know. I walk slowly away from the grass and feel for the top rail of the fence. I find it. I run my hand along the fence, feeling for the gate. My hand hits something sharp. I yank it back and hear something crack. I grab my hand. It’s wet. I feel a long sliver of wood sticking out. I grab it to yank it out, but remember reading somewhere that you’re supposed to leave it in until you see a doctor. Maybe that was in a movie. Then I remember Pinky Reichwold’s mom, our Cub Scout den mother, saying you’re supposed to pull it out and suck the blood. My hand feels like it’s on fire, but I leave the sliver in.

I step through the fence gap and stop to think again. I see dim, black shapes but no flashlights. What does the road look like in daytime? I’ve seen it a few times when we played softball or kickball, waiting for my turn at the plate. Once I went over to the gate to look into the woods. It’s straight for awhile, two ruts with a raised weedy hump between them. A car or truck must go in there, maybe to dump stuff. Two steps beyond the gate, I side-walk right and left until I find the outside rises and the middle hump. That’s what I’ll walk on so I don’t bang into trees or limbs. My arms are out front, which is stupid, because nothing would be in the middle of a road, but I keep them there because they have to go somewhere. It’s easy for awhile. Until I trip in a hole. My hands go out to catch me. . .when the ground pushes the splinter deeper into my hand, I scream.

I roll to my back and yank it out. I expect blood to spurt, but it just seeps. I suck on the spot, the soft place between my thumb and pointer finger. It’s tangy and gritty. I spit. I roll to my knees and good hand and push up. I wobble with nothing to see and the ground tilting up on both sides. I take tiny steps to find balance on the middle ridge. My face turns hot over the scream. Did any of them hear it? Did it sound like a kid or an owl? The woods are quiet.

I walk slowly, small steps, along the ridge. Is this the right direction or am I going back out? I have to make a choice and decide to trust myself. I keep going, feeling with my feet. If it’s the wrong way, I’ll keep going back to Boys House, because why am I out here, anyway? Because Kirk told me to? I should have stopped when they left without me. I should have stopped when I realized I’d need a flashlight, which I should have known at the start. And why would Kirk want a fifth grader to come along? Just because they were older didn’t make them any better. Except that Coach Shapiro was leading them. If Kirk could be believed.

I keep walking straight, staying on the middle ridge until it seems to disappear and I’m in one of the ruts. I need to think. I get down and crawl, turning my hurt hand thumb up, and feel with the other. The road seems to turn left and I’m about to follow it, when I hear “Shut up, asshole,” from the right. That was all I heard, so it was louder than whatever made him say it.

I feel along the ground to the right. There seems to be a small path. My hand touches a wet, warm spot. I smell it. Piss. I wipe it on the ground in pine needles, leaves, and dirt, then wipe it on my pants leg. I can’t keep crawling with my hurt hand turned on edge. I get up and feel around. I can touch the tips of branches on either side. I inch forward, trying to sense things with my face. A few silvery rays of moonlight shoot through the trees ahead. The trees are thinning out, letting me see the path and take bigger steps.

My hurt hand feels like a hammer is pounding on it. I pinch hard high on that arm. I heard somewhere that if you hurt in two places, it cuts down on the worst hurt. It’s not true, another lie. I wonder why Kirk woke me to come along, then left me behind. I’ll find out. If I ask him in front of anyone else, he’ll probably say something like, “Eat shit, little fifth grade booger.” I’ll ask him when we’re alone, but I won’t ask like I’m whining. I’ll ask him with a rock in my pocket, or maybe a knife from the dinner table.

I see some flickers of yellow light high in the trees. They’re moving, ahead and to the right. I slow so I won’t miss the turn. They’re quiet, so Coach Shapiro must have given the order for silence. Somewhere I stopped wanting to catch up and join them. Now I’m hunting them. I need to keep a distance, but I don’t want to lose them on another turn-off. I hear a man, Coach, say something, a few words. Then some kids, then Coach says, “I told you to sit and shut up.  I see through a clearing in the trees that they’re in a circle, along with Coach. All of them are sixth graders, and there is Kirk, sitting in the circle and grinning.  “Now, all lights off,” Coach says.

Before their flashlights snap off, I see a match flare, then something bigger flames blue and yellow, then that tumbles through the air and lands in the middle on a tepee of what looks like limbs and twigs, and a couple of logs. For a second nothing happens, then there is a big “whump” and the clearing lights up like daytime.

Mr. Shapiro lit the fire with gasoline, the stupidest thing you can do in scouting history. I was kicked out of Scouts after only three months for refusing to earn a merit badge, and even I know that.

1 thought on “Chapter 4 – Hudson School

  1. Hi Steve — I apologize for breaking down in tears when you read this chapter at writers group. The tension is that high. Thank you for your gentle foretelling; I appreciated it so much.

    In the last bit, about lighting the fire, I think “in scouting history” is misplaced somehow — misplaced modifier? Maybe that bit of info belongs in the final line instead.

    I love your writing. So clear and intense.

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