THE STRANGE CLEARING
There are just enough woods behind our house to get lost in, and Mom doesn’t let Brian go out there by himself. He’s nine and I’m thirteen. Until last year she didn’t want me in the woods by myself either. Now I’m qualified to be his guide.
Brian goes out by himself sometimes anyway, but that morning she heard him sliding open the back door.
“Take Eric!” she shouted.
I was in the kitchen, reaching for the Cheerios.
“Can you go with him?” she asked, now that she’d already volunteered me.
“I guess so.” I shook the box and heard the few remaining O’s rattling on the bottom.
“Spend the day with him if you can,” she said. “He gets lonely.” She grabbed the coffeepot, letting liquid drip and fizzle on the hot plate. She was going to work, even though it was Saturday.
“Come on!” Brian shouted.
“Fine!” I shouted back, setting the box down.
Two minutes later I was out on a bug hunt.
It was still dark, and the morning fog made me feel even stiffer and sorer than I did when I woke up. It was warm for October, but the dampness sank into my bones. Some of the lesser aches and pains had faded, but the rest were now more distinct--a shoulder that felt not quite put back into place, and a dull throbbing in my head from an accidental helmet-on-helmet blow. On top of all that, my stomach was growling.
“Why can’t you just find bugs in the backyard?” I grumbled.
“I like to look in different places,” Brian said. “It’s like what Dad says about fishing. You can’t overfish in one spot.”
The path we were on was one of the better ones, snaking its way south to Boise Township. Birds were skipping around in the branches, trilling and chirping. Michelle can tell you which one is which, but I don’t care--I just like the sound of them all going at once. As we came around a curve, a squirrel screeched at us and scrambled off over a rock. I was hungry, tired, and sore, but it was kind of nice being in the woods in the morning.
“Let’s look under there,” said Brian, pointing at the boulder.
It was about three feet across and two feet wide--bigger than I wanted to deal with--and nestled pretty deep in the mud.
“Does it have to be that one?”
“Why, can’t you lift it?”
“Of course I can. I was just . . . Never mind.”
I’d brought a garden shovel with me, knowing it might come in handy. I scraped the mud away from the sides of the stone, then got my fingers under it and gave it a big heave, wrenching the same shoulder that was already throbbing from a rough open-field tackle on Thursday.
The stone was easier to roll over than I’d thought it would be. Two or three grubs were there, waving their disgusting little appendages. I looked away and gagged.
“Stag beetles!” Brian grabbed them up with his bare hand and dropped them into the jar he was carrying. He’d gotten good at identifying bugs, even larval ones like the chubby, shrimplike things that were nothing like the pincer bugs they would turn into--or would have turned into, if they hadn’t been somebody’s breakfast.
“That’s enough, right?” I asked.
Brian nodded, but before we headed back to the trail, he stopped.
“What’s over there?” He pointed past some trees.
“What?” I looked but couldn’t see anything special. Brian didn’t explain. He bounded over the boulder and disappeared behind some bushes.
“Come here!” he hollered. “You got to see this!”
I took a moment to memorize the scene: the big rock I’d just rolled over, the tree right next to it, and the bushes behind it. I didn’t think we’d get lost, but it didn’t hurt to have a marker or two. Once I had the scene committed to memory, I plunged into the woods after Bri.
I stepped out on a quaking, jumbled layer of rust-red dead boughs. All the trees were down in a ragged circle about ten yards wide. The smell of rotting vegetation was overpowering, even to me--and I’m used to the smells of compost heaps and locker rooms. It looked like a spaceship had landed and crushed everything in its path.
Even spookier was a faint bluish-green light shining up through the branches.
“What’s that?” Brian asked.
“I don’t know.” I crouched and peered through the branches. There was a bubbling puddle of neon ooze underneath the fallen branches. Maybe the spaceship had left some alien goo behind to infest our planet and turn us all into pod people.
“I’m going to see.” He dropped to his knees, set the jar down, and shoved one of the dead branches aside. He tossed one in my direction, sending up a cloud of white dust.
“Be careful,” I told him. Even if it wasn’t alien ooze, what if it was toxic waste?
He threw a second branch my way, then laughed while I tried to wave away another dust cloud. But he wasn’t laughin at me.
“Look!” He pointed.
There was a cluster of mushrooms, and every one of them was lit up like a little blue Christmas tree. Was something spilled on them, or did they just glow like that naturally? I knelt to get a better look.
“Sometimes they turn into monsters,” said Brian.
“Like in Gninjas,” he said. That was a video game he was obsessed with, about gnome ninjas saving the Garden World. “The mushrooms light up, then they turn red. When they turn red you have to smash them before they blow up and turn into monsters.”
“Come on, Brian. That’s make-believe.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s just what they look like.”
Even if they didn’t turn into monsters, there was something wrong with them.
“Give me your jar,” I told him.
“I’m going to take a few mushrooms. I need to show them to someone.”
“I don’t know yet.”
Brian let the bug larvae slide into his hand, stuffed them in his pocket, and gave me the jar.
I knelt down to scoop up a few of the mushrooms with the shovel. I wanted to get some soil, too, so the mushrooms would live for a bit longer. I dug a circle around a few mushrooms, planted the shovel, and levered up the sod. The hardest part was breaking the roots. They were no thicker than threads but tough as steel. They seemed to tug back as I tried to saw through them with the edge of the blade. I worked up a sweat doing it, finally got a shovelful of the mushrooms, put them sideways into the jar, and screwed on the top. I was careful not to touch any in case they were dangerous.
“Are you going to keep those in the house?” Brian asked.
“I guess so, yeah.”
“What if they do turn into monsters?”
“They’ll be trapped in the jar.”
“Oh, yeah.” He laughed at the idea.
I was glad to get out of the strange clearing. We found the big rock I’d just rolled over. From that angle it looked like a toppled tombstone, and the damp ground where it used to lie looked like a grave. It put me on edge a little, which is why I nearly jumped out of my skin when a figure leaped out from behind the rock and let loose with a scream that sounded like a dinosaur getting electrocuted. I saw that once on one of Brian’s cartoons, so I knew exactly what it sounded like.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Tanglewood Terror by Kurtis Scaletta. Copyright © 2011 by Kurtis Scaletta. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.