“Mom! Please tell Alice she can’t come with me on the Boy Scout hike today!” Henry yelled out of his bedroom door down the hall to where he heard his mother banging about in the laundry room.
“But Henry,” Henry’s 9-year-old sister interjected, “Mama said I could come, instead of staying with Grandma and Grandpa, while she cleans the house. Mama says it would be better ‘cause they’re tired from their long trip.” Alice bounced on Henry’s rumpled bed, her words jumping in time with her, as she sank her hands into the pleasant softness of Henry’s mattress with each downward bump.
Saturday morning sunlight sparkled cheerfully off the Calvin and Hobbes and Spiderman comic books that were sprinkled across Henry’s bedroom rug. Henry turned around and faced his bed, snapping, “Alice, stop bouncing on my bed! Mom said no such thing, I’m sure. Besides, it’s a Boy Scout troop; why would they let a girl come, anyway–”
Just then, the children’s mother appeared in the doorway and said, “Actually, Henry, I spoke to Mr. Harrison, and he said that Alice could come. After all, she is 9, and you can keep an eye on her.” Mom strolled into the room with a cheerful smile, a pile of Henry’s clean laundry billowing in her arms.
“Alice, would you please dismount from Henry’s bed? It’s not a pony for you to ride on, and I need to put Henry’s clothes there. Thank you.” Alice obediently plopped off the bed, smirking at her brother while her mother’s back was turned and mouthing I told you so! with triumph.
Mom’s word was law. Henry knew he would certainly get a whipping when Dad came home from work if he argued about Alice accompanying him, but he wasn’t about to stop sulking about it. Frowning, Henry bounced in the front seat beside his mother. He clenched the slick, sun-warmed leather of the armrest to keep from sliding around in his seat, while his bulging, brick-hard backpack banged against his shin. The can of bug spray inside of it swished with every jolt. Henry glared at his backpack and kicked it in annoyance. His flashlight flickered on, making Henry even madder as he snatched it from his backpack’s side pocket and switched it off with a sharp click.
“Is something wrong with your backpack, Henry?” Mom asked.
“No, ma’am,” Henry muttered.
At the sound of life in the front seat, Alice’s head popped up in the backseat with the snap of her closing book. “How soon will we be there?”
“Just five more minutes, and we should be at the trailhead. Oh, and Henry,” Henry’s head jerked up, “I should be back to pick you up at five o’ clock. Mr. Harrison said you’ll be done in three hours at the latest. It’s a long trail, so don’t forget to drink a lot of water. Make sure Alice drinks hers, too, and be sure to keep an eye on her,” Henry’s mother ordered.
The green mini-van turned off the rough highway onto a gravel road that was even bumpier. Gravel rattled in the wheel wells. Alice dove to save her little blue backpack from slipping off the seat beside her.
A minute later, Mom was hugging Henry and Alice good-bye and bouncing away, leaving them with Mr. Harrison and the rest of the Boy Scout troop.
“All right, boys – and Alice,” Mr. Harrison added after a pause. “We’re going to have to walk pretty fast to finish this 8-mile trail by five o’ clock and still have a chance to spot some important plant specimens. Fasten your backpacks and let’s get started!” Following his command with immediate action, the short, lean man hitched his pack higher onto his shoulders and began striding along the trail, a pack of ten or so boys and one little girl huffing to keep pace behind him.
Alice caught the scent of pine trees and old leaves as she trotted along with the group. Oddly, the decomposing leaves – still moist from a rain shower early in the morning – reminded Alice of Henry’s bedroom smell, but a little nicer, she thought. A squirrel chided her from above. This first sign of wildlife brought snakes and spiders slithering and scuttling into Alice’s train of thought, and she tagged a little closer to her big brother.
Henry didn’t even have to look to know where his sister was. He heard her panting right behind him. Scowling, Henry walked faster. Why couldn’t Alice just stay at the back of the group? Did she want to embarrass him in front of his friends? Danny and Fred never brought their baby sisters, or brothers, with them on hiking trips.
Fred’s voice brought Henry out of his thoughts.
“Wow, Henry! Your mother must really trust you if she’s letting you take Alice along with you. I don’t think my mom would ever let Jane come with me,” Fred commented, bestowing a friendly jab on Henry’s arm.
“I don’t have a younger sister, so I wouldn’t know, but I think Fred’s right. It does sound like your mom trusts you,” Danny joined the conversation on Henry’s other side.
Stunned by this admiration, Henry struggled to find an answer.
“Well, uh, I guess she trusts me.”
The boys’ conversation was interrupted as Mr. Harrison halted. He pointed, like a witness accusing a criminal of a foul deed, at a vine on the side of the path.
“Do you see that, young men? Can anyone tell me what that plant is?” His head turned, and he surveyed the group through his scholarly-looking spectacles.
A tall boy with spiky yellow hair promptly broke out, “It’s poison ivy, sir! ‘Leaves of three, let it be!’”
“Correct, John,” Mr. Harrison approved with a smile. “Now, while we’re on the subject of dangers in the wild, can anyone tell me the rhyme about the coral snake. It could be vital to your survival in the wilderness, because the coral snake is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world and happens to live right here in Louisiana.”
Silence descended for a moment, and then Henry quoted, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack.”
“Quite right, Henry. Good job boys; now move on. I’m hoping to reach the Pine Woods stream before long. It crosses the path, and there should be some interesting wildlife in the area,” Mr. Harrison turned on his heel and advanced, his words floating back to the boys and Alice, who were now in motion again.
Henry stared ahead, pretending he hadn’t heard Alice. He even quickened his pace a little, hoping she would become discouraged and leave him alone.
“Henry, we won’t see any of those snakes Mr. Harrison mentioned, will we? You’ll keep them away, won’t you?” Alice’s tone was worried.
“No, I doubt if we’ll see any. Besides, Mr. Harrison will be sure to look after you, so you won’t need me, Alice,” Henry replied.
Gradually, a rushing sound grew in volume from the direction in which the trail was winding. Then, a turn in the path revealed a little stream burbling beneath a wooden bridge which sprung smoothly across.
Mr. Harrison braked to a stop and faced the boys to announce, “We’ll be taking a ten-minute break here. You can explore along the stream if you like, but don’t wander off. For those of you who are interested, I’ll point out some of the unique plants and animals that live around a stream like this.” The yellow-haired boy joined Mr. Harrison as well as Danny and Fred. Henry followed his friends, and Alice shadowed him.
As he stood listening to the drone of Mr. Harrison’s voice, Henry’s thoughts wandered. He wistfully imagined how much more would he enjoy this trip if Alice would stop plaguing him.
After about a minute, Danny tapped Fred and Henry on the shoulder, and they wandered away from the group to talk.
“What do you say to walking upstream a ways?” Danny asked.
“Sounds fine to me,” they agreed, and began strolling upstream, in the opposite direction from where the other boys had disappeared.
Henry stuffed his hands into his pockets and pursed his lips as he whistled quietly, following his two friends. For a moment, Henry forgot his shadow; however, a rustle and crunch in the leaves behind him soon reminded him of Alice’s presence.
Addressing the air in front of him, Henry spoke, “Alice, why don’t you stick with Mr. Harrison. We’re going to explore, and I don’t want to have to worry about you.”
“But Mama said for you to look after me, not Mr. Harrison.”
Henry tried a new tactic.
“Alice, I’m the one in charge right now. Go back to Mr. Harrison. We’ll be back before the 10 minutes are up, anyway.”
Henry heard footsteps receding behind him down the stream bank. Then there was silence. Henry walked a little faster, trying to suppress the guilt that he felt at sending Alice away so rudely. It’s safer for her, anyway, he argued in his head, joining his friends again. The boys began to talk, and Henry started to forget all about Alice.
Suddenly, a shrill noise pierced the hot sylvan air. There was the sound of running feet crashing off into the woods from somewhere downstream. For one moment, Henry’s brain didn’t register what the noise was, and then the next moment he remembered it. The house spiders, roaches, and millipedes knew that noise like it was their closest friend. The amusement park rides that turned your stomach inside out knew that sound. And so did Henry.
To be continued…