Chapter 8 – Hudson School
(© 2020 SK Figler)
Somebody messed up my bed. The hospital corners aren’t pulled tight. The blanket isn’t stretched, and there’s a big lump under it in the middle. I learned how to make a bed at Tall Timbers, where Mother put me and Henry every summer. At inspection every morning after breakfast, Uncle George who isn’t really my uncle and was a first sergeant in Italy, tossed a quarter over each bed. If it didn’t bounce and flip over, he would yank out the sheets and blanket and you had to make it again “right and tight.” For every bed that got ripped, the whole bunk got a demerit which counted against your team in Color War the last week of camp. Color War was supposed to be fun, but it was more fun for the counselors than us kids.
But this is Hudson School where we have to live with the guys nine months instead of just eight weeks. So who messed with my bed? Chaz Rosewall is on his back reading a Captain Marvel comic, one knee up, the other leg crossed over it. He’s holding the comic book straight up over his head like he always does. If Chaz messed up my bed, he’d be sneaking looks at me.
Billy Tysander is at his desk, scrunched over with one arm wrapped around a piece of paper, writing a letter. Probably to his mother, because he doesn’t have brothers or sisters, and his father was killed when the Gerries blew up his ship. Besides, Billy wouldn’t mess with my bed. He isn’t that kind of guy.
Frank Forrester is on his bed facing the wall, reading Boy’s Life. His head is resting on a fist. His arm and head look like a golf ball on a tee. The Boy’s Life is against the wall. If he’s really reading, his eyes would have to go up and down like Chinese people read. His arm starts to tilt and his head slips off his fist. Now he’s snoring into the pages.
Maybe it’s a rat. Or, maybe it’s a tarantula. I saw a tarantula in a movie, big and slow and hairy. It bit the neck of the bad guy who owned it, and he died screaming and rolling around on the floor. I hear “sssss” and the lump under my blanket moves. I shiver, even though it’s a warm day and the sun is still up and the dinner bell hasn’t rung yet.
I don’t like to get scared of things, and I don’t like to wait and worry, because that’s all you do when you wait. I slide over to my footlocker, which should be called my headlocker, but it’s not worth arguing with Mr. Livesey about it. The thing in my bed moves again, up and down. I kneel by my trunk and open the brass latches slowly at the same time so they won’t squeak. They squeak anyway. The thing moves about two inches toward my pillow. I tilt up the trunk lid. My baseball bat is right on top. Father got it for me at the Polo Grounds last year. The Giants beat the Phillies, 5-3. He said Henry was too young to go, but lots of little kids were there. I almost mentioned it to Father, but I’ve learned better.
I watch the lump and feel around in the trunk. I touch the Hillerich & Bradsby label burned into the middle of the bat. The thing moves toward my pillow. It looks like a stick now instead of a lump. I stand and let the trunk lid slam. The thing stops moving. I grab the bat handle like Mel Ott and smack hard in the middle of the stretched out thing. Again and again. Everybody is awake and looking at me. Maybe I yelled.
The thing is shaking under the blanket at both ends. I raise the bat again in one hand and yank back the sheet and blanket. I’m ready to hit it again. It’s a black snake, with a little spade head and a yellow stripe down its back. It’s shaking and moving its head and bleeding in a couple of places. It’s long black forked tongue feels the air and goes in and out again. It looks at me.
My roomies are up now. Behind me Billy is crying. Chaz says, “Woweee!” Frank says, “Let me hit it.”
“Who put it there?” I say. Nobody answers. “Who put it there?”
“It’s still moving,” says Frank. “Let me finish it off.”
“It coulda killed you,” says Chaz.
“It’s not poisonous,” I say. “The head’s too small. Who put it there?”
Nobody answers. I step away and grab the bat like Mel Ott again and look at them.
“I didn’t see anything,” says Chaz.
“Me neither,” says Frank.
“Me either,” says Billy, “except Kirk was on our floor.”
“Are they still at phys ed?”
“Sixth grade is at the stables learning how to shovel horse apples,” says Frank.
“Are you gonna touch it?” says Billy.
I flip the bat so I’m holding the fat business end and dig the knob under the snake and lift. It slides off and plops into its blood. It’s about two feet long and still shaking, but not on the back end anymore. It’s a garter snake or a garden snake or something. Maybe Kirk couldn’t find a rattlesnake, or he was too scared to bring one.
I try to find the snake’s middle with the bat knob and lift it again. The back end hangs like a rope. It starts to slip off, but the snake wraps its front end around the bat handle like it’s trying to help.
I climb the stairs. The snake is still partly wrapped, looking at me. I’ve never been up on the sixth graders’ floor, but guys’ names are printed on a white card tacked to the doors, just like on our floor. I find the room with Kirk’s name, but I don’t know which bed is his. I look for the one with messy hospital corners, but they’re all messy.
Through the open window I hear the sixth graders laughing and yelling. They’re on the other side of Quaker Ridge Road waiting for Miss Davis to lead them across. She’s tall and skinny with a sharp nose and she’s hugging herself like usual.
I look at the footlockers. One has that goofy Cleveland Indians sticker. Another has big initials in gold, JBG. The third has a sticker that says Saudi Arabia. Kirk’s father works for the U.S. government there. I rip open the bed and drop the snake in the middle. I don’t know what he’ll do when he finds it, so I bop it on the head and kill it. Then I slide it up under Kirk’s pillow.
I hear the sixth graders running across the parking lot on our side of the road. Miss Davis yells at them to stop outside and get orderly before they go inside instead of acting like a bunch of wild animals. I make Kirk’s bed, messy so he won’t notice. I jump down the stairs to my floor as the outside door opens. I don’t know what’ll come next, but something will.