When I was ten, my dad decided it was time to move away from the suburbs. He loaded up the contents of our house and drove down State Route 97, right into the middle of the Mohican State Forest. The highway followed the river as it wound through acres and acres of thick green trees and then dropped us right in the middle of all that green, far away from any neighbors. There was not a sidewalk in sight.
Our house was small and old and magical. The siding was made of asbestos and the windows didn’t open or shut without a significant expenditure of energy. Once, one of those windows dropped shut and nearly decapitated the cat, who was basking on the ledge. The cat sprang away, but not before the window caught her by the tail and left her dangling and scratching frantically against the wall. It took my dad a full five seconds to get the window back up, and it took my mom more than a couple swipes with the disinfectant to get the cat urine off the wall. That was the summer Dad decided to replace some windows.
Our little green house perched atop a delightfully steep hill, steep enough that you could try to break your neck by riding your bike down it in the summer, and steep enough to justify complaining whenever you had to haul wood up it in the winter. Three unfortunate hamsters were buried at the bottom, in shallow graves that overlooked the creek.
My dad bought the house from his uncle, who passed on the legend that the original owners had hidden a Stradivarius in one of the walls. He had the bow to prove it. My brothers and I immediately set about determining which walls we were going to knock down first in an attempt to find it. We could be rich! Apparently, my mother cared nothing for worldly treasure, judging by the way she reacted when she caught us with the sledge hammer.
Summer brought tourists and the refurbished blue busses that rumbled past our house, hauling bright yellow kayaks and aluminum canoes back up the river to canoe livery just outside of town. The local businesses put out signs that said “Cold Beer” and “Dry Cigarettes” and boasted about the fact that they had ice. Main Street was bustling and the ice cream shop was never without customers.
Town was only a short drive away, but out in our forest, it seemed like we had the whole world to ourselves. My brothers and I ran barefooted through the woods, exploring every turn in the creek. We turned over rocks looking for crawdads and tried in vain to catch minnows with our bare hands. There were tadpoles to capture and raise in buckets in the basement and arrowheads to search for among the wild blackberry brambles. It was Indian country, and I imagined how the woods must have looked a couple hundred years ago, and who must have walked the paths before me.
Even though we lived just ten minutes from C.E. Budd Elementary School, we were the first ones on the bus every morning. That meant we were also the first ones off the bus in the afternoon, but that was little consolation at 6:30 in the morning, when the sky was still black and the air was at its coldest. Every morning, we shuffled out to the driveway at exactly 6:25 am to wait for the bus. If we weren’t outside when the bus came, the driver wouldn’t stop. Other bus drivers stopped and honked if kids were late. But our driver didn’t even slow down. His glasses were so dark and thick, I didn’t think he could recognize our house unless he saw three children standing out in front of it.
The school bus driver was a large, unshaven man who hunched over his steering wheel like he’d spent his whole life digging graves. I secretly nicknamed him “Warden” because I imagined he had been acquainted with life behind bars. I wondered why background checks weren’t more popular.
We had to endure an hour bus ride through the darkness as the Warden collected children from across the countryside and delivered us to school before the 8 o’clock bell. “One of these days, he’s going to pull over and eat us,” I thought as I looked at his face in the dim morning light. But for some reason, my mom didn’t think she should drive us to school just because my bus driver was very likely a cannibal.
In the murky early morning darkness, the school bus rattled past the Mohican Juvenile Correction Institution, which was just minutes from my house. Even at that time of the day, the yard was all lit up like a baseball field, and razor wire lined the perimeter. I liked to think that the building was full of type writers and overzealous English teachers who liked nothing more than to correct the dangling modifiers and split infinitives in the term papers of the young rouges under their tutelage. But I knew better. As my dad had pointed out, the difference between an “institute” and an “institution” was a sentence.
We had heard stories about the inmates in that place, young men who had committed crimes beyond their years. In the dark of the night, when children are supposed to be sleeping in their bedrooms upstairs, the grownups sometimes talked about the time when two of these teens had escaped, walked through the woods, and held up a neighbor at gunpoint. Little children who are supposed to be asleep have keen ears for words like “escape” and “gunpoint.” From that point on, every creaky old board or squeaky door hinge in our house held the prospect of a sure and sudden death at the hands of a young mercenary.
I had read enough Little House on the Prairie books to know that the thing to do when danger is afoot is to have a trusty watchdog and a gun above the door. But for some reason, my dad did not think it necessary to stand watch at my bedroom door with a shotgun in hand, and we did not own a brindle bulldog. Our only four-footed defenders included a pregnant Cocker Spaniel and a tiger cat who could be wooed to enemy ranks with little more than a potato chip and an empty tuna can.
So I devised a contingency plan.
My bedroom had two long, low closets that ran the length of my bedroom. They were full of boxes of winter coats and Christmas decorations and sentimental stuff that had no purpose but to take up space in my closet. Even a villainous murder wouldn’t want to sort through all those boxes unless he was planning a garage sale. They were the perfect thing to hide a foxhole in the back of the closet. In the amount of time it would have taken me to do my math homework, I created a false front of boxes to conceal my secret hideout. Using a big, empty box, I made a flap for a door and scrawled the words “Completely Uninteresting Stuff” across the front in black Sharpie, just in case. Huddled in the back of my closet with nothing but a flashlight and the fear of discovery to keep me company, I felt very much like Anne Frank.
After a series of quality assurance tests, my brothers and I found that we could get from our beds to the foxhole in 8.5 seconds, less if David and I didn’t wake up Michael. We put our sleeping bags in the fort (it was called a fort when there was no fear of imminent death), along with a stack of Ranger Rick magazines and a box of candy we had squirreled away. The candy was Contingency Plan #2. In the event that the evil-doer broke through our false wall, we’d distract him with Sweet Tarts before bonking him on the head with the hammer my dad was convinced he’d lost at work.
All in all, it was a foolproof plan.
Except for one thing: the school bus stop. For five, eternal minutes each morning, we were unprotected, sent out into the darkness and into the hands of Fate. My mother thought ten and eleven year-olds were perfectly capable of standing outside by the road without getting themselves or their younger brother murdered, and she positively refused to stand in the doorway with a kitchen knife, just in case. I was pretty sure she had already gone back to bed before we were even on the bus.
So every morning, at exactly 6:25 am, we had to step outside of the Safety Zone. There was no Contingency Plan after 6:25 am.
One morning, the three of us were huddled together by the side of the road, wondering if this was the morning the Warden was going to cut out our gizzards.
Suddenly, a twig broke. Then another. Someone was walking in the woods! “What was that?” I asked as the underbrush crackled.
“I dunno!” Michael answered.
The heavy footsteps came closer and closer. The sound of snapping branches filled my ears. I wished I had hidden my diary. I would have, I thought, if I had known that this was going to be my last day on earth.
“Someone get Mom!” David whispered fiercely.
Sheer terror gripped me and I wanted to run, but my feet were frozen to the free-throw line on our makeshift basketball court. I couldn’t move.
Then, suddenly, a chipmunk sprang out of the darkness. We leaped into the air. “Stay away from us!” I yelled before I realized that I was talking to a varmint. The chipmunk gave us a condescending glace before scampering away into the shadows. We breathed a sigh of relief and even laughed a little at our foolishness.
“A chipmunk? Seriously?” I asked.
“I knew it was a chipmunk,” David responded.
Then Michael’s little voice spoke out of the darkness. “Who do you think he’s running from?”
David and I looked at each other. He had a point.
Just then, we heard a high, quivering wail. The chipmunk skittered deeper into the woods. Another cry broke through the darkness. Someone was coming through the trees, straight for us. He was breathless and made odd moaning sounds as he walked.
“It sounds like someone has been injured!”
“Maybe someone tried to escape from the prison. I bet they shot him!”
“Or stabbed him!”
Another branch snapped and the eerie wail sounded again. “Maybe he’s headed for the creek so the hounds won’t be able to follow his scent!” I didn’t even know if the police still used hounds, but I’d seen it on TV.
“What are we gonna do?!”
There wasn’t time to do anything. My only hope was that David had watched enough G.I. Joe episodes to know that it was his duty to save the women first.
“Gllgllgllgllo,” came the sound of the escaped prisoner in the woods, gurgling on his own blood.
“Ahhhhhhhh!” came the sound of our own fear betraying us. Mom is going to feel really guilty that my last breakfast was cold cereal, I thought to myself.
We stood transfixed, mesmerized by the reality of our coming demise. Just then, a beam of light glinted off the power line. “The bus!”
Never had I been so happy to hear the bus. “Drive! Drive!” we screamed.
A shadowy figure rustled through the oak branches. “Gllgllglllgo!” it babbled before jumping onto the road, right into the blinding high-beams. The bus screeched to a stop. I could smell the tires burning.
“Run for it!” David yelled.
We dashed across the road, my backpack strangling me as I ran. Someone breathed in my ear. “NoooooOOOOO!” I tripped up the steps, hitting my shin on the second step, and collapsed face-first into the front seat, grateful for the smell of Lysol and vinyl to assure me that I was still alive.
The Warden looked up from under his baseball cap and caught my eye in the rearview. He waited until he was certain I wasn’t having a heart attack. “Did you see the wild turkeys?” he drawled.
“What?” I gasped, shocked both by the fact that the Warden could talk and that he could observe anything from behind his two-inch thick glasses.
“You almost ran right over them,” he nodded toward the road.
I sat up and looked out the window just in time to see two wild turkeys descending into the shadows behind our house. I looked at David and he looked at me. We both laughed a little. Turkeys. It was nothing more than a couple of wild turkeys.
Michael leaned over the seat back and whispered, “Yah, but who do you think they were running from?”
We looked at each other again, eyes wide. He had a point.
The next morning, the newspapers were strangely silent about breach of security at the Mohican Juvenile Correction Institution. You’d think an escaped prisoner would have made the front page.
We told our parents all about the incident and how we very nearly died. Dad almost choked on his coffee, and Mom had to leave the room because she said she had something in her eye. This was not exactly the reaction we expected. Clearly it was time to begin work on Contingency Plan #3.
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