We had been at it all morning and had filled two buckets as proof of our industry. We also proudly sported the scratches and the stains.
“I don’t think we’ve missed a single berry in the entire neighborhood,” Micaela said. “The big ones fight back.” She showed me her scratched arms. “And I got nailed through my jeans, can you believe it?”
The bumper crop was worth a little pain. “There’s no way we can eat them all if we don’t do something with them,” I said. “Grandma could show us how to make jam. I saw glass jars in the cellar.” I washed my hands in the cold spring. It was the perfect place to cool off during these hot summer days – a couple of steps to sit on, trees above our heads, and thick bushes all around.
“Do you think we could sell them?” Micaela said. “You know, like the farmers with these fruit stands by the side of the road.”
“We’d have to pack them,” I said. “Buy trays or something.” It would be complicated, but I liked the idea of making some badly needed pocket money. “What if we made pies?”
We pondered the logistics for a while. My grandmother had a book with clippings from magazines, there had to be a blackberry recipe in there somewhere; we could get a loan from Grandma or Micaela’s mother for the supplies, then mix and bake, and go ring bells. It was Saturday, people were home. It could be done. Micaela grabbed a handful of berries, washed them in the spring and popped them in her mouth.
“To test them,” she said.
“They’re super sweet. We can save on the sugar,” I said.
Micaela froze with a berry halfway to her mouth. “I have an idea,” she said. “It’s easy and it won’t cost us anything. Lemonade.” She laughed. “Berryade!”
All we needed were a few utensils from Grandma’s kitchen. She was delighted to see me engaged in something that looked like a domestic activity.
“Cooking?” she said, her voice full of hope.
“Making juice,” I said and ran out before she could ask more questions.
Pressing the berries was more work than we expected. We would have been better off going back to Grandma and dumping everything in a blender, but we were stubborn. We wanted something we had produced ourselves, without any grownup help. It was both silly and laudable. Eventually we managed to produce a gallon of the stuff. After multiple rounds of filtering, the juice was still cloudy. The color was a pale purple, not unpleasant but far from the deep dark blue we were hoping for and our stained fingers promised. The taste was okay even if sugar would have vastly improved it and it was refreshing thanks to the cold spring water. We could have simply bottled the water and skipped the berry crushing but Micaela was excited by our accomplishment and I kept the snarky thought to myself.
“What do we do with it?” Micaela said.
“Nobody will pay for this,” I said. “We’ll have to drink it ourselves.”
That was unacceptable to Micaela. “All the work and we get nothing for it? Let’s go to the camp and trade.”
The camp? We were not welcome at the camp. Girls were not welcome. The camp was where the boys hung out. They had built a maze of passages and tree houses deep in the woods with materials scrounged from garages and workshops. Every summer they added to it. They talked about the camp in hushed tones and clammed shut as soon as an uninitiated was in earshot. Visits were by invitation only and the camp owners were very good at chasing away unwanted callers. We knew the boys who were part of this select club; we were in school together, and we went to movies and birthday parties together. We saw them everywhere but at the camp. I didn’t resent the exclusion, we all needed our space, places where we could share secrets without anybody meddling. I often wished I had a cabin, an attic or a cave that I could protect from anybody but a select few. Micaela didn’t agree with me. She wanted to crash the boys’ party and what better excuse than a barter meeting.
“What do you want to trade for?” I said. “A molten snack bar or a warm soda? They have nothing in there that we could possibly want.” I wasn’t in the market for a crappy handmade bow or dog-eared comic books, not to mention magazines pilfered from an older brother’s stash. I had an older brother, I was familiar with that kind of literature.
Trading was only a pretext, of course. “I want to see the place,” Micaela said. “I want to see what they’re doing in there.” She was all giddy with excitement.
“Bad idea,” I said. “Abysmally bad idea.”
“You’re scared,” she said. “Stay here if you’re too chicken; I’m going.”
I considered letting her go alone but I couldn’t face breaking up with my best friend because of a stupid argument. The holidays had just started. There were other kids in our group but nobody I liked hanging out with as much as Micaela. The idea of spending weeks either on my own or with a cast of minor replacements was appalling. I didn’t know yet that love and friendship were fundamentally selfish – I was still a few years away from that revelation – but feelings are no less true for lacking a label.
“Okay, I’ll go but we don’t sneak up on them and we don’t try to hide.” If we’d had a white flag of truce to wave or a trumpet to blow, it would have been even better.
It didn’t look like fun to Micaela but she must have decided that having me by her side was worth a small concession. It was mid-afternoon when we got underway. Our families didn’t expect us back until dinner time and the sun was still high in the sky.
The woods started at the end of Caleb Dunn’s field. They covered the entire hill side, up to the top of the old sand quarry. I had never seen anybody working at the quarry. The place was long abandoned and a favorite of kids despite – or maybe due to – parents’ warnings that it was dangerous and prone to landslides. The quarry was fenced in but that had never stopped any of us. We opened the gate and crossed Dunn’s field safely away from the black bull and brown cows gathered by the water reservoir. Dunn didn’t mind people walking through as long as they closed the gates and didn’t bother the cattle. Beyond the field, the trail snaked through the woods, followed the top of the quarry and ended in Mansfield Township, eight miles to the west.
We knew approximately where the boys had built their camp; it was off the trail about midway to the quarry. The narrow track would have been hard to find earlier in the season, but after a few weeks of kids trampling through, you didn’t have to be an eagle-eyed scout to spot traces of frequent passage. Micaela walked in front, I followed with the jug of blackberry juice, feeling stupid and angry for having given in to her so easily.
We reached the first tree house without seeing anybody. If there were sentries they must have fallen asleep at their post.
“Maybe there’s nobody around,” Micaela said.
It was tempting to turn right back, but I wasn’t going to give Micaela another opportunity to call me a coward, and now that I was there I was curious.
“Robbie Timmons!” I yelled. “You there?”
Micaela grabbed my shoulder. She might not be afraid but she would have preferred a quieter approach. Weirdly I wasn’t worried anymore. Besides, Robbie was a good friend; he sat behind me in class and his jokes had got me in trouble more than a couple of times. I never snitched on him; I figured he owed me a few favors.
It wasn’t Robbie who answered. A small frightened voice came from what looked like a pile of leafy branches at the foot of a tree. “He ain’t here. There’s nobody.”
“Is that you, Dougie?” I said. Micaela had moved behind me. She was happy to leave the negotiating to me.
No answer. “Douglas Walton?” Silence. “Why don’t you get out of there? We brought cool drinks.” An offer seemed in order but all I got for my diplomatic efforts was a muffled sob.
“Annie, what’s wrong with him?” Micaela whispered.
Dougie was a shy eight-year-old who didn’t belong all alone in the woods. He didn’t belong with the older boys either. If Robbie Timmons had been around I would have given him a piece of my mind. What was he thinking leaving this kid out here? I handed the jug of berryade to Micaela. If Dougie wasn’t coming to me, I would go to him.
As soon as I peeked between the branches I understood why Dougie didn’t come out and why he was sobbing. The kid was tied to a wooden post in the middle of the crudely built lean-to. He was sitting on the dirt floor and from the smell it was obvious he had peed his pants. I squeezed between the branches, tearing my shirt on spiky brambles, and kneeled next to Dougie to work on the ropes.
“You can’t,” he whined. “I’m a prisoner.”
Sure, kiddo. “It’s a prisoner’s duty to escape,” I said. “Like on the TV shows. You’ll get a medal for bravery.” He looked at me with such an expression of gratitude I felt myself tearing up. Robbie Timmons, I thought, I’ll have your hide.
I wanted to brush the dirt of him – what had they done to him, drag him through the mud? – but he pushed me away and started taking off his clothes. T-shirt, shorts and underpants were off before I could make a move. He stood naked and shaking; all he had on were his red Keds.
“What the… Dougie?” Then I saw the wilted twigs of poison ivy sticking to his clothes. The morons had stuffed leaves in his shirt and pants. Red welts and rashes covered Dougie’s entire body, from his neck to his knees.
“What’s going on in there?” Micaela said.
“We have to take Dougie home,” I said. “He’s hurt.”
I took off my shirt and put it on Dougie, carefully. He was shivering in pain. “Don’t scratch,” I said. “It’ll be worse if you scratch.” How it could possibly be worse, I didn’t know. “Micaela? Help me clear an opening.”
She went at it gingerly because of the brambles. I was worried Dougie might pass out, he looked frightfully pale. I shook out his clothes and tied them up in a bundle. If word got out that Dougie had run away naked, the shame would be worse and last longer than the rashes.
Micaela stopped complaining about her bleeding hands when she saw Dougie’s knees. They were sticking out of my shirt and they were angry red. Luckily for Dougie, I was very tall for a fourteen-year old; I’d seen the rest of his body and it was pure horror.
“What happened to him?” Micaela said.
“Poison ivy.” I held up the jug of berryade for Dougie to drink. The juice must have had medicinal properties because it revived him.
As soon as the track was wide enough we carried Dougie between the two of us. We got out of the woods in record time. The kid told us his story along the way.
He had spotted the boys when they crossed Dunn’s field and had followed them. He had heard about the camp and guessed that was where they were going. He thought he had not been seen but they jumped him on the track. At the camp they said he had to be punished, that he had done a terrible crime. Dougie wasn’t frightened, he knew they were bullshitting him. He had thought they were putting leaves and grass in his clothes to hide him better.
“Like soldiers,” he said, “for camoffage.”
When he started burning and itching, he tried to loosen the ropes, but the more he struggled, the more it hurt.
“They didn’t plan to leave you there overnight, I hope,” Micaela said.
“They said they would decide what to do with me when they came back,” Dougie said.
“Was Robbie among them?” I said. He could forget telling me jokes and sitting next to me at the movies for the rest of his life if he’d had any part in this.
“I think they were going to meet him at the quarry because I heard Ollie say they should take me to him, because he’s the chief, sort of, y’know? The others told him to shut up.”
“Who are the others?” I said.
“Bugs, Sonny and Carl.”
The dumb-dumb boys. They weren’t truly mean, just stupid. Usually. And Ollie Wrigley didn’t count. He was the kind of kid everybody ignored.
“You think you could have taken on Bugs?” Micaela said.
“While you whack the other three? Sure.”
Micaela didn’t say another word the rest of the way. It had finally dawned on her that we might have ended tied up to a post too.
I had decided to take Dougie to Grandma for first aid because I was afraid the boy’s parents would go ballistic.
“Mom will want to know what happened to me,” Dougie said. He was a smart kid. He was thinking ahead. “And where I left my clothes.”
I showed him the bundle and he smiled, relieved. “I’ll wash them,” I said. “The poison is still on them.”
Micaela didn’t come in with us. She said she had errands to run. I knew she would keep quiet about the incident. There was nothing to brag about. Grandma was efficient, as always. She used her entire supply of rubbing alcohol on Dougie and got him in the shower while I washed his clothes. Dougie told her he had fallen in a tangle of vines, not realizing it was poison ivy until it started smarting and the rash spread everywhere. He must be allergic or something. Dougie was one hell of a brave kid. I knew Grandma didn’t believe a word he said but she pretended she did.
While Grandma walked Dougie home, I went to Robbie’s house. He wasn’t back yet and that was fine. I was too angry to have a sensible conversation with him. I left a message.
Meet me at the spring tomorrow at 2. Come alone.
I was at the rendezvous half an hour early, not out of mistrust, but because I liked to watch Robbie walk. He always seemed to move slowly but it was misleading. It was because his movements were so economical. Most kids our age were awkward and uncoordinated, legs and arms flying in all directions. Robbie in contrast mastered slow motion and you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Well, I couldn’t.
I saw him at the top of the hill. He waved at me, not hurrying his step one bit. That would have been uncool.
“A written message, Annie?” he said. “What’s the phone for?”
“I didn’t want to talk to you yesterday, and certainly not on the phone. And what I have to say shouldn’t be recorded on an answering machine.”
“Wow, heavy.” He pushed his floppy hair out of his eyes and smiled. “I like the mystery date. Sunday afternoon, by the fountain, woohoo.”
“It’s not what you think,” I said, stupidly. “It’s business.”
He looked confused. “Business? What business?”
“You run a gang,” I said.
He laughed. “If that’s a gang, we’re a lousy one. We don’t have enough cash between ourselves to buy a couple of burgers.”
“I didn’t say you ran it well. Your troops are going rogue when you’re not around to keep an eye on them.”
“What did they do to upset you?”
Cute but not what I was looking for. I didn’t need him to leap to my rescue. “It’s not personal, Robbie.”
We sat on the steps, our feet in the cold spring to keep our heads cool. I told him the whole story, from the making of the berryade to Grandma taking Dougie home, including the boy’s cover story. There would be no official consequences for Bugs & Co’s misdeeds. What was he going to do about it?
Robbie contemplated the burden of leadership for a while. “I could expel them,” he said.
He put his hands under the water pipe and ran his fingers through his hair. It made him look older suddenly and my heart ached. For him. For me. For some reason.
He shook his head. “No, I shouldn’t kick them out. What other stupid things would they do if I turn them loose?” He looked at me. “You think the idiots can learn?”
I wasn’t sure about Bugs; I thought he was a lost cause. “Maybe,” I said, “if properly motivated.”
He laughed. We both knew that justice would sting.
A barbed wire fence surrounds the spring today and a notice says that the water is unfit for consumption. Maybe it wasn’t safe in the old days either and we had developed immunity, who knows. Blackberries still peek between the leaves and I hope kids still pluck them to make mystery drinks. Micaela and I parted company before the summer was over. I made new friends and read lots of books. Robbie was a constant companion until we both went to college far away and in different directions. We recently reconnected on Facebook. He’s divorced and so am I. He sent me an email a few days ago. I haven’t responded yet. I wish we still scribbled notes.
Meet me at the spring. Come alone.
I wonder if he still moves in slo-mo.
About the Author
M.E. Proctor worked as a communication professional and a freelance journalist. After forays into SF, she’s currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in the U.S., Canada and Europe. She lives in Livingston, Texas. Her author’s page is at: amazon.com/author/meproctor