We’re on our bellies, slithering commando-style through the underbrush of Graham Park. My son, Wesley, has clipped a Nerf Vortex around his torso with an old belt and double-striped his cheeks with greasepaint. Very Army grunt. I’m packing my own plastic pistol, a bright orange two-barrel that fits snugly in my palm. Our foam bullets have suction cup tips. At a time like this—hot on the haunches of the elusive beast—I should be worried about a left-flank ambush or a Blitzkrieg of claws and rabid teeth, but I’m not. We have a better chance of returning home with ticks in our ears than finding what we’re looking for.
Wesley says, “Get down, Mom. He might see you.”
I can’t resist, I say, “How much lower can I go?”
He snorts, his way of letting me know he’s well aware he drew the short straw in the mother lottery.
Our hunt, not the first and certainly not the last, was spurred by the sighting in these woods of an unidentified wild animal. A month ago, at the eastern edge of the park, where a medical building borders the woods, a group of lab workers on a cigarette break spotted a strange, four-legged creature darting among the holly and fern. One of them, a phlebotomist named Beth, described it as a hairless, nuclear rat, with outsize ears and a long tail. “The teeth were as long as fangs,” she said. “The stuff of nightmares.” When the local newspaper ran the story, Beth decided to lure the animal closer. Sliced hot dogs did the trick and she took a picture with her cell phone. The paper ran that the following day, dubbing the animal the New England Chupacabra. The picture is a blurry close-up—maybe her hand was quaking with fear—and all you see is a pair of hunched shoulders and a gnarl of bared teeth.
Since then, Wesley has bled the public library shelves of every book on the supernatural. He has scoured the Internet for sites on the unexplained. Bigfoot and Loch Ness. The Devil Bird of Sri Lanka and the Monkey-man of New Dehli. Skunk Ape, Mothman, Jackalope. At nine, he has the faith of life-long evangelist. With enough research, with a catalog of habits and habitats of similar creatures, he will be the one to discover the truth about our very own monster.
I try, I try, I try to suppress it, but I can’t. I sneeze.
Wesley stands up, unclips his belt and drops his weapon to the ground.
“Great, Mom, now you’ve ruined it.” His mouth is a vexed pucker. These days, in all my dealings with him, I leave a sour taste.
“I’m sorry, it was out of my control. Your nose says sneeze, you sneeze.”
I stand up, too, un-crimping my achy knees.
It’s late afternoon, around four, I’d say, by the angle of the autumn sun. Columns of light, hazy with ragweed pollen, flick between maple trunks. There’s a hundred acres of woods here. The animal could be anywhere. The real chupacabra—I should say, the original—is half-mammal, half-myth, first reported in Puerto Rico in the 1990s after farmers discovered dozens of sheep dead and drained of blood, puncture wounds in their skin. Since then, sightings have been reported throughout South America and Texas, as far north as Maine. Could one have made a home in our small Massachusetts town in 2013?
“Let’s call it a day,” Wesley says.
We holster our weapons.
* * *
The next morning, we rush out of the house, late for school and work. I squeal to a stop in front of the principal’s office just as the bell rings. Wesley gets out, backpack weighing him down. Two boys, also late, skitter behind him, so close one of them purposefully nips the backs of Wesley’s tennis shoes. I wonder if that’s him, my son’s nemesis, a Riff Lorton type, leader of the Jets in West Side Story. Fourth grade, it turns out, is a leather-clad posse of hoodlums. Packs of candy cigarettes are rolled in their t-shirt sleeves. Greasy curls speckle their foreheads. They have turned their switchblade tactics on my son, taking orders from a boy with a benign, WASPy name: Kevin Allen Butler III. At home we call him simply KB3.
I’ve never seen Kevin, but I know his MO: he trips Wesley in the halls, body-blocks him in the lunch line, flicks his ears during social studies. He says things like your shoes are untied, your zipper’s down, you have ketchup on your shirt, followed by ha, ha made you look.
During recess, he’s the enforcer of tag. Tag, I’ve always thought, is fairly straightforward. Run, chase, tap, you’re it. With Kevin it’s blood-sport. Bruised arms and skinned knees; once a fat lip from an elbow to the mouth.
“Play something else,” I advise.
“There’s nothing else to play,” he says.
“Play with someone else,” I counter.
“There’s no one else to play with,” he counter counters.
Ah, the magnetic appeal of the bully.
“Have you told Mrs. Bennett?” I ask.
“No,” he says, meek-voiced.
Mrs. Bennett, beloved teacher, is the other woman in Wesley’s life. For her, he risks being the teacher’s pet. He stays after school to help put chairs on desks and erase the whiteboard. His hand is always up first—he wants her to know he knows the answer. Once, he told me she smelled like lilacs.
My son is thin. He’s blessed and cursed with long eyelashes. He has his father’s crop of curly dark hair, my curvy lips and what fashion magazines call porcelain skin. These aren’t the only things that make him a target. Instead of Iron Man and X-Men movies, he watches musicals on AMC. While other boys are reading graphic novels about vampires and zombies, he’s devouring biographies of world leaders. Right now he’s on a Churchill bender. That’s why his backpack is so heavy.
Now this boy, whoever he is, a boy in shorts and a polo shirt, has forced Wesley to walk right out of his shoes. My gut drops to the floor of the car. Hand on the door latch, I want to sweep in and rescue him. But I’m afraid any attempt to mediate the collective id of pre-pubescent boys will earn my son an atomic wedgie if he dares to use the bathroom at any point in the day.
I leave him there, on the sidewalk, shoe-horning his heels back in.
* * *
I work at SunSystems, Inc., a solar panel installation company. I’m not all gung-ho about sustainable energy. My job is administrative. I answer the telephone and set appointments; I keep the files organized and the accounts current. My boss, an amiable man who has nicknamed himself Sonny, lets me leave at three every day so I can pick up Wesley from school.
On Friday afternoons, I drop him at his father’s apartment. In jolly pursuit—that’s how they will spend the next two days. They go to the rock climbing gym or to the video arcade. They putt putt, bowl, Frisbee. They eat junk food and stay up until midnight. Wesley sleeps in a sleeping bag in a pup tent in his bedroom. Jake, the permissive parent. It’s the main reason we split and why our son loves his time there.
In the two years since our divorce, we’ve perfected the art of the civil hand-off. We smile, synchronize our schedules and give quick updates: Wesley needs to read chapter five of his science book by Monday; there’s a special karate practice on Saturday at ten.
Sometimes Jake offers me a beer. This is one of those times. I take it.
We lean against the counter, simultaneously sipping our Saranacs. Hair hangs in Jake’s eyes. He has on baggy corduroys, a Twisted Sister concert t-shirt and red clogs. He works in IT and this outfit is standard operating hip dress code. It emphasizes the boyish quality that I loved. Once.
“I hear you’ve been hunting the chupacabra,” he says.
“On all fours,” I say, then regret it. Sexual innuendo is not something I want to engage in.
“I’m surprised he didn’t ask me.”
“I’m a hard sell. He’s trying to convince me or prove I’m wrong or something.” I scratch the poison ivy tattoo that now inflames my forearm.
“Still,” he says. He feels left out.
“You’re a great father, Jake,” I say.
“And you’re a good mom.” He lets a clog hang off the tip of his toes.
It’s easy, this trading of compliments. Easy in this kitchen that is not mine. Or ours.
“Has he ever mentioned this kid from school, Kevin Butler?” I ask.
“Not that I remember,” Jake says.
Again, no surprise. Wesley, like a tom with a field mouse, drops all his chewed-up anxiety at my doorstep.
I drain my beer and go find Wesley. He’s inside the tent, on a heap of pillows, reading an Archie comic. Around him, the detritus of last weekend: half-eaten fish sticks, cold and hard; half-eaten Goldfish in a bowl (he only nips the tails, he doesn’t like to eat the eyes or the smiling mouths); books and magazines; dirty clothes (ah, that’s where his windbreaker is). There’s a laptop on the desk in the corner. A new acquisition. Certainly Jake has installed parental filters.
“Have fun,” I say, bending, kissing the top of his head.
On Sunday he’ll return to me, exhausted and stomach-achy. I’ll give him Pepto-Bismol and put him to bed early.
* * *
If you happen to be in a skiff on the Likoula Swamp, please don’t disturb Mokele-Mbembe. He’s a grump, a living dinosaur who trawls the Congo River Basin and doesn’t like intruders. He’ll sneak up under your boat, tip you, and pummel you to death.
Hiking deep in the rain forests of Java, beware the Ahool, a flying bat with the head of a monkey, the body of a fox and the claws of a grisly. A dive-bomber, he’ll rip your flesh to gossamer.
Don’t get caught on the foggy streets of London late at night, you might fall prey to Spring-heeled Jack. As his name implies, he’ll leap into your path. Once you’re cornered, he’ll stun you with his fiery breath and strangle you with his deformed hands.
I learn all this going through the websites Wesley has bookmarked. Every culture, it seems, has a legendary monster up to no good. Why do we invent these unknowable, unfathomable creatures? Why does Wesley love them so?
I asked him once, “How can you believe in something you can’t see?”
“You can’t see air,” he said.
“That old saw,” I said.
“It’s a science, Mom. Cryptozoology,” he says, replacing the abstract with a discipline full of objectivity and rigor. “Besides, you can’t see the sun’s rays.”
He thinks I should be more passionate about my job and if he spots a chink in the conversation, he shims it with a solar power reference.
“True, but you can capture them nonetheless.”
“Yeah, that’s my point,” he says. “Just like we’ll capture the chupacabra.”
I walked smack-dab into that one.
* * *
Reports from the mean streets—that is, Richard P. Newsom Elementary School—trickle in. On Monday, Kevin steals Wesley’s bag of popcorn and eats it, exclaiming through kernel-infused teeth how yummy it is. When my son tells the lunchroom monitor, Kevin says it was his all along, he brought it to school.
On Tuesday, Kevin takes Wesley’s popcorn, opens the bag and pours it over my son’s head. That will teach you to be a tattle-tale.
On Wednesday, Kevin says, of Wesley’s denim, stone-washed shorts from Target, “Nice gay shorts.”
On Thursday when Wesley joins his classmates at the lunch table, Kevin stands up and gives what I interpret, from the description, to be a Nazi salute, and says, “Heil Hitler.”
On Friday Wesley is no longer Hitler. That designation has been reassigned to the new boy in school. Wesley is now Hitler’s cranky wife. He’s been demoted. I wonder if Kevin understands the historical context of his comments, this new direction his teasing has taken. My son is all too well-read in this area.
When I pick him up today, another Monday, Wesley gets in the car and tells me Kevin called him Lady Gaga.
“He followed me around the playground saying ‘Gaga, gaga, gaga.’”
“Doesn’t that make him sound like a baby?” I ask, looking in the review mirror at the shirt he chose to wear today, a red and yellow tie-dye, the colors swirling into pinks and oranges. Why doesn’t he just draw a bull’s eye on his back?
“Yeah, but no one cares. They think it’s funny.”
“Everyone. The whole gang.” By that he means Riff Lorton’s disciples, Baby John and A-Rab and Snowboy, the blind-followers in his favorite musical.
After this conversation, I do two things.
One: I call Mrs. Bennett and ask for a face-to-face. She tells that mid-term parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon—Don’t you remember? You and Wesley’s father have an appointment week from Thursday. So let’s all talk then.
Two: I go to the library and check out all the books on bullying. My stack rivals Wesley’s. On top of his is Living Unicorns and Latter-day Dragons. On top of mine is: Bullying for Dummies.
Most of the books say to invite the enemy inside. Disarm him with kindness. I make the call to invite Kevin over. On the phone, Meredith Butler is friendly, perky even. She betrays nothing, gives no indication her son has ever mentioned Wesley.
When they arrive, I see that, yes, Kevin is the boy I saw at school. He’s an all-American sandy-headed, blue-eyed boy. Meredith is perfectly made-up.
“Please, come in,” I say, the wicked witch to Hansel and Gretel.
We stand in the kitchen. Scarred butcher-block table, mismatched chairs, pinking-shear hemmed curtains—they stare at us. Two years ago I took the scissors to an old pair of curtains so they would fit in the window. They’re serrated and thread-y. I’ve been meaning to get out the needle and thread ever since. Meredith’s curtains, I’m sure, are all the proper length.
Wesley comes around the corner.
“Hey,” Kevin says.
“Hey,” Wesley says.
“Why don’t you two go down to the basement,” I say.
It’s a haven of Lego, Nerf guns, Mad magazine and chemistry sets. They trundle off, a forced march.
Meredith hands me a bag of bagels. For lunch, she says. “Kevin’s a picky eater.”
We’re in after-work casual. She in yoga pants, me in sweats. I compare her tennis shoes with mine. Adidas vs. Puma. I pounce.
“Kevin seems to be very knowledgeable about European history,” I say.
“He gets that from his father,” she says.
We agree on a pick up time and I see her out. I stand at the top of the basement stairs and listen. I hear the rattle of building bricks. Nerf shots are fired. Then, nothing. The greeting in the kitchen turns out to be the extent of their conversation for nearly fifteen minutes.
Finally, Kevin can fake it no more. They rumble.
He says, “This is so boring. Don’t you have a Wii?”
“It’s at my Dad’s.”
“You probably only have gay games anyway.”
I call down, “Snack time.”
Wesley looks shell-shocked. I have led him right into the dark and deserted back alley.
Kevin ogles the supply of snacks.
“Got any popcorn?” he asks.
“No,” I say, even though the Smartfood bag, opened and chip-clipped, is right there on the counter. I grab the pretzels and offer him one.
“No, thank you,” he said, using his Sunday manners.
“Did your mother teach you that?”
“Pardon?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say, chomping a pretzel rod.
He’s snaggletoothed. Next year his mouth will be full of orthodontia. Those braces are going to pinch. His clothes smell of off-brand detergent. Too perfume-y. Meredith Butler is a tightwad.
I open the fridge and offer a juice box. He takes it and heads back to the basement. Wesley shoots me a look that says, “Never again,” and follows him down.
* * *
On Monday, Jake picks Wesley up from school and takes him to karate. Just as I’m putting dinner on the table, Wesley comes through the door, still in his blue gi. He drops his backpack and clarinet case. In the language of the SAT analogy question, this is what I have to say about that: a boy playing clarinet in the school band is to a bully as a wiggly worm on a hook is to a largemouth bass.
Over spaghetti and meatballs (there are no Goldfish in my meal plans), I learn that my bully-friending plan has backfired. Being at our house has given Kevin new ammunition. He told everyone that Wesley has a Rupert Grint READ poster on his closet door. It’s not cool anymore to like Harry Potter. In fact, according to Kevin, it’s gay. He announced Lego is thing of the past and anyone who likes them is gay. Nerf is gay. Chemistry is gay.
Wesley twirls the pasta on his fork. He’s slumped, cheek in hand. To cheer him, I offer the only presidential anecdote I know. Our 38th president, Gerald Ford, was quite a looker in his day. As a male model, he appeared in an illustration on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1942.
“Cosmo,” I say. “Such fluff.”
Wesley doesn’t even crack a smile.
After I drill him on the multiplication table, after he has brushed his teeth and gone to bed, I pour a glass of chardonnay and sit down at the computer. I’m tickled to discover a bevy of Nessie’s American relatives. There’s her cousin Bessie, a forty-foot, snake-like creature who has been making her presence known to the nautical traffic on Lake Erie since 1793. Uncle Chessie is a flippered sea serpent who frolics in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He’s been adopted by environmental advocacy groups in Maryland and a caricature of him, a smiling fellow bobbing on the surface of the bay, appears in educational pamphlets and coloring books. Tahoe Tessie lives, you guessed it, in Lake Tahoe. Spinster aunt, she’s as wide as a barrel, as black as onyx, and at eighty feet is the longest of the three.
Just as I’m logging off, I hear Wesley screaming. I rush in to find him sitting up, eyes open, sobbing and mumbling. I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Night terrors. He hasn’t had one of these episodes in a year. I thought he had outgrown them. I know the drill. Hold him, rub his back, tell him everything is all right. Once he stops crying, he says, eyes closed, “Go away.” I don’t take it personally. He won’t remember any of this in the morning.
I curl next to him. Ursa Mater, half-feral, half-fearful. I want to Man of Steel him against the real and imagined creatures. I want to riot shield him against everyone who will step on his heels or tease him. I want to armor car him against his DNA, this muck of chemicals that make him who he is: kind, smart, creative, anxious and nerdy.
I can’t. I can’t.
Most of all I want to Kevlar him against me, his smart-ass mother who doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Parenting, it’s a mangled mess, as thorny and hairy as the fur of Bigfoot, as cagey as the Loch Ness monster, diving below the surface just as I think I’ve got a grasp on it.
* * *
The next morning at breakfast, I propose a new KB3 strategy. I call it the Whatever Solution. No matter what Kevin does or says, no matter how many times Kevin elbows him or pushes him or, no matter—Wesley is to shrug, say, “Whatever,” and walk away.
“I think Kissinger used that with China,” he says.
“I’ve heard that,” I say.
He’s on board.
We pass an uneventful week. I don’t ask; Wesley doesn’t tell. There seems to be a truce between him and Kevin. He returns from Jake’s on Sunday night with news of live footage of the chupacabra. To me, this signals he’s spent the whole weekend in front of the computer. To him, this is manna.
He jumps into the office chair and fires up the laptop. He’s bouncy, can’t stay still.
“You’re not going to believe it,” he says. “I mean, you are. When you see this you’re finally going to believe.”
He kicks off against the desk and twirls, as if on a mini carnival ride, singing, “Finally, finally, finally.”
A man named Donald Cramer took and uploaded the cell phone video. He’s the one who came up with the idea of using a bread-crumb-like trail of hamburger meat to entice the animal further out of the woods. In the last twenty-four hours the video has gone viral.
“They’re calling it Cramer Cam,” Wesley says. He plucks the pneumatic lever on the chair and down goes the seat.
“Any relation of Zapruder?” I ask.
He doesn’t know the reference, but he knows I’m making fun.
I reference something he knows. “How about the Patterson-Gimlin? Is it as good as that?”
“Better,” he says. He goads the lever again and up pops the seat. He doesn’t even weigh enough to keep it grounded.
In the world of beast hunters, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin are kings. That grainy 16mm home movie we’ve all seen of Bigfoot tramping along the Bluff Creek in Northern California in 1967—they took it. Every time we watch it, the one-minute, hand-held joggle leaves me seasick.
Wesley logs into YouTube and pushes play. “Pull up a seat, ladies and gentleman,” he says. “You’re about to witness a creature few have seen and none have identified.”
I do, I pull up a chair. I witness.
After a short Lexus commercial, the main attraction appears, at first an out-of-focus shot of a wily spicebush. A quick pan left and we have full-frame focus on a huge canine mix, possibly shepherd and mastiff, stooped over a hunk of meat. His tail is remarkably long, with a bit of fuzz at the end, like a lion’s. He even swings it lazily as he eyes Donald Cramer, intrigued but suspicious. His ears are disproportionately large and misshapen. One is a floppy, furry scrap, while the other, the left one, has been bitten or torn into a stiff and hairless point.
“He’s colossal,” Wesley says. His tone and pronunciation is one of awe and exaggeration. Co-LOS-sal.
Zoom in. He has a raging case of mange. Is that an engorged tick on his ear? Zoom out. Cramer must have stepped closer, because the animal deepens his crouch and bears his teeth, those nightmarish fangs. My guess, he’s a stray who’s been living in the woods all summer, surviving on squirrels and rabbits. This meal might just be the easiest one he’s procured in months.
“It’s a dog,” I say. “With some kind of skin condition.”
“That’s it,” Wesley says, slamming shut the laptop. “You’re off the team.”
He stomps to his room. So polite he is, or so afraid of the anger he just displayed, that he closes the door the way he always does, with a gentle click.
No more trail hunting for me.
Instead of going to check on him, I decide to let him cool off.
* * *
I’m late for the parent-teacher conference. As I scuttle down the hallway, I’ve got Bernstein and Sondheim stuck in my head. I can’t remember all the words, but it goes something like this: We’re gonna rock the night, we’re gonna have a ball tonight. My fingers involuntarily snap to the tune.
Jake is already in the classroom, sitting in the wee chair at the wee table. Next to him is Mrs. Bennett, an open file folder in front of her. She wears a lace-collared dress. Her brown hair is in a scrunchied ponytail. I see why Wesley likes her. She’s uncomplicated.
I slip into the chair, bumping my kneecap.
“Ouch,” I say. “How can you sit in these all day?”
She gestures like a spokesmodel to her big girl desk with matching padded big girl chair.
“Oh,” I say.
Mrs. Bennett seems to have forgotten my phone call and takes us methodically through the latest assessment. Wesley is reading at the 8th grade level. He’s excelling in math, even able to complete some basic high school algebra. Jake nods and smiles. Proud papa bear. She shows us Wesley’s critical response to the Gordon Korman book they’ve been reading in class. We read it silently to ourselves, both hands holding a corner of the paper. Wesley has confided in me he thinks Gordon Korman is lame. He suggested they read Churchill: Soldier, Statesman, Artist instead, but I see Mrs. Bennett stuck to her lesson plan
She asks if we have any questions.
I rub my knee and ask, “How do you think he’s doing, you know, socially?”
“What can I say, he’s easy-going. Friendly.”
“But does he have any friends?” I’m careful here. I don’t want to affix a label that will follow him up the teacher pipeline: outsider, or worse, loner.
“Yes, he seems to. I see him playing tag with the other boys.”
I say, “Have you noticed anything between him and Kevin? Any teasing?” The word bullying seems accusatory, implying that she’s failed to be a proper guardian—keeping my son safe for six and a half hours a day, one hundred and eighty days a year.
“What do you mean?” she asks. Her forehead is a ruffle of concern.
I give her misdemeanors instead of felonies. I don’t mention Hitler. I’m not gunning for the gulag.
“Wesley hasn’t spoken to me about this,” she says. Now he’s failed by not speaking up, by being a victim.
Bullying, I want to tell her—but doesn’t she already know this?—is methane: colorless, odorless, undetected by the human eye, but highly combustible. It happens below the radar, outside of earshot, far away from the prying eyes of the lunchroom and playground monitors.
“We’ll put a stop to this,” she says, ruffle turning into pleats, deep and ferocious.
Her pony-tail wags in a bully-busting way as she walks to her desk and shuffles some folders. I see a set of impressive biceps under her rayon sleeves.
When I stand to leave, I’m a bit dizzy in love with Mrs. Bennett myself.
* * *
I mea culpa my way back on the team. I do this with sincerity. I do this because if I continue with the wisecracks and grunts of doubt, he’ll give up on me. Then where will we be? Circling each other with the skeptical eyeballing of generations who don’t see eye-to-eye?
I tell him about the British explorer Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston and his tenacious search for the okapi in the Congo, a story I found online while googling “mythical creatures.”
For years, Europeans in Africa had heard rumors of a strange beast living in the Ituri rainforest. They called it the African unicorn. Unusual for its coloring, the okapi was reported to have a body as red as fire and legs with the horizontal strips of a zebra, thought then to be its closest relative. Few had seen it and certainly not a white man. Was this animal a myth or was it real? Sir Johnston made it his life’s work to find out. He dreamed of discovering a new species and making a name for himself in the scientific circles of the Western World.
He arrived in the Congo in 1901 and, while colonizing central Africa, he set about organizing expeditions. With locals as guides, he trekked through dense ficus and umbrella trees, following the circuitous tracks of his prize. Alas, Sir Johnston never found an okapi. They are—we know this now—a shy animal with a keen sense of smell.
Wesley puts up a hand to stop me. His fingers are bony and delicate, the nails ragged—he bites them when he’s nervous and he’s so often nervous.
“I get it,” he says.
Then he narrows it down to this, no, he marrows it down, reducing everything I just said to the essential juice, to the stuff that really matters—he says, “So, what you’re saying is that Johnston never saw an okapi with his own eyes, but still he believed.”
* * *
We plan our next hunt, this time at night. Chances are, Wesley says, he’s nocturnal. He only came out before because of the food. We leave the house at dusk and walk to the entrance of Graham Park that’s closest to our house. We carry the biggest gun in the Nerf armory, the Uzi. We carry flashlights and a camouflage netting Jake bought, so eager he is to be a part of our task force. I don’t think the flashlights are a good idea. Light scares most animals. But, reformed sinner, I keep it zipped.
The trails are a roundabout of offshoots, twisting first east, then west. Sometimes we come to an abrupt dead end. There, we’re forced to retrace our steps.
I’ve heard nothing about Kevin for nearly two weeks. They, the so-called experts, the amorphous voices of the parental ether—why do I keep listening to them?—say to take a walk with your child, ask him questions, listen to the answers. This seems like a good time.
“How are things with Kevin?” I ask.
“Better,” he says.
A brook runs through the middle of the park. We head toward it. A watering hole. Perfect. All beings need water. I accidentally step off the path and into a patch of skunk cabbage. The mud is squishy and it smells, well, skunky.
We set up camp, spreading out the netting, unhitching our weapons to load them.
I allow myself one harmless quip.
“I’m confused,” I say, tweaking a spongy bullet. “Are we supposed to kill this thing or just stun him?”
Wesley, wisely, ignores me.
The sun sinks further behind the canopy. We still have about twenty minutes of daylight.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him,” he says.
I’m not in the least worried. Never has he wavered in his conviction.
After a brief silence—even the crows above us have stopped their cah-cahing—I ask, returning to our previous subject, “Better how?”
“Don’t get mad,” he says and lowers his Nerf. “But I socked him in the stomach.”
Surprised by this clear tactical shift, I say, in my best supportive-but-inquisitive voice, “You did?” Inflection on did as opposed to you.
“Yep,” he says. “Here’s what happened. I waited for him by the basketball court. That’s where we sometimes take a break during tag. Usually there’s no playground monitor over there.”
I can see he’s thought this through.
“So what happened?”
“I was hiding and when he came by, I stepped out from behind the tree and, bam, I gutted him.”
Gutted, that sounds like a Jake word. It’s possible he has coached Wesley, urging him to stick up for himself, to use some of the karate moves he knows so well.
I high-five him. It’s the best I can do: a kind of congratulations without revealing that I don’t believe him and without, if I did believe him, condoning violence.
There’s movement by the creek, leaves kicked up. A shuffling, a snuffling.
“Did you hear that?” he says and points to a small clearing fifty feet away. “It’s coming from over there.”
We crouch behind a clump of sassafras, on high-alert, weapons poised. It’s darker now, difficult to see, but there’s definitely an animal there, foraging. I can make out a hump of hindquarter, bigger than a raccoon, but not as big as a deer.
“I think I see something,” I say.
He sees it too. “That’s it. I’m sure of it. We’ve found him, Mom.”
He breaks rank long enough to offer me another high-five, only this time it’s with both hands. It’s a ten. Immediately, he’s back to his low crouch. I had expected him to be ecstatic, to do a victory jig, send up a hoot and a holler. But he’s quiet, studying the animal as the light grows dimmer and softens all contours, all edges. He’s a scientist, as resolute as Sir Henry Johnston, as committed as the others, the true believers, those who never give up and, if lucky, one day walk into a forest or skirt the edge of a lake and the unseen—behold the marvel, the marvelous—is right there, right in front of them.
I never had a chance to finish my story about the okapi. I didn’t tell him that although Sir Johnston never saw an okapi, he was given two skulls and complete skin by the Wambutti pygmies. With this evidence, sent to the Zoological Society of London, the animal was correctly identified as a relative of the giraffe. Its scientific name is okapia johnstoni.
“He’s such a cry baby,” Wesley says.
We’re back to Kevin.
His whole story sounds like a fantasy. It could be a dry run. Maybe tomorrow he’ll go to school and at recess, back behind the basketball court, away from the alert eyes of administrators, corner Kevin. Maybe he’ll ball up his fist, pull back his elbow—Get your hips into it, son—haul off and slug him.
Kevin, scaredy-cat rat-fink, will cry all the way to principal’s office. Principal Donetti will call me at work.
“Good afternoon, SunSystems. How may I help with your solar needs?” I answer.
“Come and take home your bruiser home,” she says. “One week suspension.”
I storm into school, bursting through the door of Mrs. Donetti’s office. She’s a stout woman with limp brown hair and glasses. No match for Ursa Mater.
Kevin sits in a chair, clutching his stomach, still bawling. My son is beside him, stoic, straight-spined. He doesn’t even look at me. He’ll take his punishment with the air of the righteous.
I come to his defense, reeling off my list of grievances, all the reasons Kevin Butler had it coming. I mention Hitler and Lady Gaga in the same sentence and it sounds ominous. I give dates and locations. I, in effect, finger him.
Mrs. Donetti comes out from behind her desk and perches in front of Kevin. He’s really going at it. Snot runs down his upper lip.
“Is this true?” she asks.
He nods, condemned.
“Well, this is highly unprecedented,” she says as she reverses her decision. The beastly punishment slides off my son and attaches its claws to Kevin. He will do time, the one week suspension. Vindication is ours.
Only when we get out into the hallway does Wesley break into a smile. A justified smirk.
“Told ya,” he says.
This is how it will happen. I see it. I believe. We link arms and exit the school, the same way we link arms now, as we gather our gear—plastic Uzis, flashlights, camouflage—and leave the woods. We are Team Chupacabra, triumphant.
Tina Egnoski is a fiction writer and a poet. Her work has been published in a number of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Folio, Hawaii Pacific Review and Louisville Review. She earned an MFA from Emerson College and has received literature fellowships from the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and the Colorado Council on Arts and Humanities. She’s the author of Perishables, a fiction chapbook, and the novella In the Time of the Feast of Flowers. A native of Florida, she currently lives in New England.