Last night, I watched Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a humorous, coming-of-age film based on a book of the same name, written by Judy Blume. It was about a group of four female friends in the sixth grade and all of the angst associated with puberty.
As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about the first novel I wrote – There’s a Tick In My Underwear! – a factual coming-of-age story based on excerpts from my diary when I was 12.
Even though my entire book is filled with craziness, everyone who’s read it mentions chapter nine as being their favorite. I’ve even had people suggest I write an entire book based on just that chapter. But I honestly have no idea why.
So I thought I would share chapter nine with you and let you be the judges.
To give you a little background info first, so the chapter will make sense…I grew up in the big city of Manchester, so I was a true city-slicker. Then my parents decided to buy a camp on a river in the middle of the woods about 20 miles away, so we could “enjoy” country living and get away from the city whenever we wanted. They made it sound exciting – a river to swim in (and catch fresh fish for dinner), wild berries everywhere to pick and eat, friendly deer and rabbits, etc.
But the place turned out to be a huge letdown – no electricity, no running water, and the river was full of big eels and hungry leeches. But the worst part was the outhouse – located down a path through the dense woods. It was scary enough to induce a permanent case of constipation.
My book is based on the two weeks my parents and I, and my good friend Janet, who also was my neighbor in the city, spent at the camp. Janet and I, who were seventh graders, did a lot of exploring and eventually found the local swimming hole, about two miles from the camp, where we met a few of the local kids – including Scott and Conrad. Janet developed a mad crush on Scott, and Conrad developed a mad crush on me. This led to Conrad being clingier than one of the leeches in the river. So I spent the entire two weeks unsuccessfully trying to find ways to avoid him.
Chapter nine begins during breakfast early one morning at the camp…
* * *
“Going to be another hot one today,” Mom said. “Are you going to go swimming?”
“That would be nice,” Mom said. “Believe me, I’d be in there myself, cooling off. But not with that eel or water snake still in there!” Her own words made her shudder.
She started talking about something else, but I stopped listening. That was because I was thinking about something that had happened during the night – something so disturbing, so hideously shocking, I still was having trouble believing it really had occurred.
I’d had a dream about Conrad…and he was naked.
In the dream, which was more like a nightmare, Conrad and I were alone in the camp. When I walked out of the kitchen and into the front room, I caught him putting on his bathing trunks. He froze when he saw me and just stood there, his trunks around his ankles. I’d never seen a naked male before, other than when I’d watched my aunt change my baby cousin’s diaper, so in my dream, Conrad had a baby’s weenie. And it was really, really white compared to the rest of his deeply tanned skin. If I lived to be 100, I knew I’d never be able to get that image out of my mind. And how, I wondered, would I ever be able to face Conrad again after a dream like that?
“I guess I’ll go pick some more blueberries,” I heard Mom saying. I stopped thinking about my nightmare long enough to look at her as she continued, “I still want to make some blueberry muffins with fresh, wild blueberries before the birds eat them all. Have you noticed all of the purple bird-droppings around here? That means the birds are eating the blueberries!”
“Did someone mention blueberry muffins?” Janet’s hoarse voice came from behind me. Before anyone could answer, she added, “I’m really thirsty. Sleeping way up near the ceiling in that top bunk sure gets hot!” She poured herself a glass of orange juice and took a seat at the table.
“You know what I want to do today?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Walk by Scott’s house a half-dozen times?”
She shook her head. “I saw part of an old wooden fence lying on the ground behind the outhouse. I think we should bring it up here and use it to build a raft with. Then we can float down the river on it, like Huckleberry Finn did!”
First of all, I wondered what she’d been doing behind the outhouse. I mean, it wasn’t exactly a place where anyone would go on purpose. Maybe she’d finally fallen through the hole and had to crawl out through the back of the place.
I did think her idea about the raft wasn’t a bad one, though. On a raft, we could explore the river without having to worry about the leeches or eels. And if we saw an interesting place along the shore, we could pull over and check it out.
Janet and I gulped down our cereal and got dressed in our swimsuits and shorts. We then headed down to the outhouse and, after we both used it, went behind it and dragged the six-foot section of wooden fence up to the camp. In the storage shed, we found a hammer, nails, rope, some wrinkled-up sheets of plastic, an old air mattress and a zillion spiders. I came out of there feeling itchy all over.
“We can patch the holes in the air mattress with Band-Aids from the first-aid kit in the kitchen,” Janet said, “then blow it up and use it to help float the raft.”
We spent the next two hours building our raft. We used the fence for the base, nailed a bunch of sticks and branches across the top of it and then nailed the plastic over the top of that. We patched the air mattress and took turns blowing it up. When it was so full of air, one more puff would have turned it into the Hindenburg, we tied it to the underside of the raft. Janet found two big tree limbs that we de-branched to use as poles to push the raft down the river.
“Looks good,” Janet said. She stood with her hands on her hips and admired our handiwork.
I wiped my dirt-covered hands on my denim shorts. “But will it float?”
“Only one way to find out,” she said. “Let’s get some stuff together and prepare for our maiden voyage.”
We shoved some fruit into a waxed-paper bread wrapper, then filled a jar with drinking water and headed for the river. We each grabbed a section of the pull-rope we’d attached to the front of the raft and started to drag it down the hill. But after only a few feet, the bottom of the raft snagged on a twig and it nearly tore a hole in the air mattress, so we decided to carry the raft the rest of the way. I picked up the front of it and Janet grabbed the back, and together, we made our way toward the water. The raft felt as if it weighed a ton. I thought about the hernias my dad always complained about getting whenever he lifted something heavy. I wasn’t sure what a hernia was, but I was pretty sure I was about to find out.
Finally, the USS Jan-Sal made it into the water.
“It floats!” Janet squealed.
“Don’t get excited yet,” I said. “My fat rear-end isn’t on it.”
My mother, wearing a brown-and-orange flowered housedress and carrying a plastic container, apparently for the yet-to-be-picked blueberries, came out of the camp. I looked up when I heard the screen door slam.
“Bye, Mom!” I called out. “Janet and I are going to explore the river now!”
Mom walked over to study our means of transportation. Her expression clearly displayed her concern. “Are you sure that thing is safe? I don’t want you two to drown!”
“I don’t think you have much to worry about,” I said. “The water’s not even up to our waists.”
“Well, you be careful!” Mom said. “And don’t go getting lost!”
As much as Janet and I didn’t want to, we had to stand up to our thighs in the water so we could climb onto the raft. I could have sworn that every slimy creature ever created was slithering up my legs as I waited for Janet to climb on board.
“I’m on!” Janet called out to me. “Quick! Get on!”
I slid on my stomach onto the raft. As I did, I felt the branches under the plastic poking into my ribs and nearly impaling my spleen. I curled into a fetal position, just waiting to sink into the murky depths of the river…and be attacked by a gang of bloodthirsty leeches. Nothing happened.
“Here!” Janet handed one of the makeshift poles to me. “Sit up and help me shove the raft away from the shore and out into the current.”
I obeyed and took the pole from her. Together, we pushed the raft out to the middle of the river, which was only a few feet from the edge. Within seconds, we were floating with the current. I had no clue where we were going or where we’d end up, but it didn’t matter to me as long as we were far away from Conrad and any reminders of my nightmarish dream about his teeny white weenie.
We laid the poles on the raft and then sat stiffly, afraid to move, as we floated downstream. The current moved at a lazy pace, giving us time to scan our surroundings. The woods lining the river were thick and dark, and I noticed the banks were getting steeper as we went along. I began to feel as if we were in a tunnel. The river also got wider, and from what I could tell, deeper. I grabbed the pole and tried to touch the bottom with it. I couldn’t.
“The water’s over our heads now!” I said, my voice rising. “The banks are too high for us to dock the raft and the water’s too deep for us to wade in. We’re stuck going wherever the river takes us! My father said it empties into the ocean! We’re going to end up being shark bait!”
Janet didn’t seem at all fazed by my words. “This is only one part of the river,” she said. “We’re bound to come to a part where the banks are level with the water and it’s shallow again. Besides that, the ocean is probably still 40 miles from here. We’re not going to drift that far!”
“We will if we can’t get out of the water!” I said. “And have you noticed that the current seems to be getting a little faster?”
“Yeah, I did,” Janet said. “Wouldn’t it be scary if we came to a waterfall?”
I hadn’t even considered the possibility of waterfalls in the crummy old river, but now that Janet had put the idea into my head, visions of the raft plunging over the likes of Niagara Falls and shattering into a million splinters at the bottom, filled my head.
“We should be coming to some houses soon,” Janet said. “The river crosses Harmon Road at the tar road. We’ve been over that bridge in the car and on foot, so I know it’s up ahead somewhere!”
“Bridge? We have to go underneath a bridge? How do we know what’s living under there?”
“You mean like trolls?” Janet chuckled.
“No, like bats and giant spiders and rats that will leap onto our heads when we disturb them!”
“Will you stop worrying and just relax and enjoy our adventure?” Janet said. “You’ve been acting jumpy all morning! What’s wrong with you anyway?”
She’d be jumpy, too, I thought, if she’d seen what I’d seen in my sleep the night before.
“Well…if you must know,” I said, “I had a dream about Conrad last night and he was…” The word stuck in my throat.
“He was what?” Janet turned around to look at me.
I hung my head so I wouldn’t have to look her in the eye. “He was…”
“He was what?” Janet repeated. “Dead? Angry? Murdering someone?”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “Naked.”
The silence that followed caused me to open my eyes. The first thing I saw was Janet – with both hands over her mouth. She looked like one of those “speak no evil” monkey statues I’d seen in gift shops. She slowly dropped her hands and whispered, “Are you serious? How did he look?”
“Very tan…with a teeny white weenie,” I said.
Janet laughed so hard, I was scared she was going to fall off the raft and drown.
“It’s not funny!” I said. “It’s disgusting – a nightmare!”
“Well, you’re the one who dreamt it! So it came from nobody’s brain but yours! I think it means you really want to see him naked!”
“I would rather jump into this river right now and be swept away by the current than ever see Conrad naked!”
“I think I’ll tell him about your dream,” Janet said, giggling. “I’ll bet he’d really love to hear all about it!”
“You breathe even one word of it and I’ll never speak to you again! Conrad’s already too eager to please. If you told him I was picturing him without his clothes on, he might think it’s what I want and do a striptease for me!”
“Eeeeyewww!” Janet and I said in unison.
Laughing, I looked past Janet and at the river ahead. My smile faded. “Waterfall!” I shouted.
Janet turned around to face straight ahead. “Grab your pole! Maybe we can turn around!”
Poles not long enough to touch the bottom of the river, we discovered, were about as useful as two toothpicks. I was pretty sure we were doomed. And even if we somehow managed to survive the trip over the waterfall, I was positive we’d end up treading water until we drowned. Our bloated bodies would be found out in the middle of the ocean somewhere – that’s if sharks didn’t eat us first.
We could hear the sound of the waterfall as the now-strong current pulled us toward it. Janet and I grasped the edges of the raft and braced ourselves for a wild ride. I closed my eyes and held my breath.
The waterfall turned out to be a lot smaller than I’d thought it was. Going over it felt kind of like going down the small kiddies’ slide at the playground, but without the hard landing (usually flat on my back with my legs in the air) on the ground at the bottom. The waterfall emptied into a wide, calm area that looked like a big round pool. I could see white beach-sand on the bottom. And the bank, also covered with sand, gently sloped into the water.
“I think this is someone’s private swimming hole,” I said to Janet. “Let’s try to get the raft up onto the shore here.”
“But we’ve only been rafting for 15 minutes!” she said. “What kind of adventure is that? We could never do anything like this in the city! Besides that, do you want to go back to the camp and spend the day with Conrad?”
I felt the color rush to my face.
“How are we supposed to get this raft back to the camp anyway?” Janet continued. “We can’t go back upstream, not against the current and up over the waterfall. And we can’t carry it all the way back on foot.”
“We’re going to have to leave it wherever we dock it,” I said. “And then we’ll have to walk back to the camp. So we shouldn’t go 100 miles or anything like that. I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk that far!”
“Well, we can go at least another mile before we ditch it,” she said. “We worked too hard building this raft to leave it to rot after only a mile or two. Let’s at least get some good use out of it first.”
“I wonder if there are leeches in this swimming hole?” I said. The place looked cool and inviting, and the beach sand on the bottom made the water look much less dark and murky than the water back at the camp.
“It’s still the same river,” Janet said, “so it probably has leeches here, too.” She paused before adding, with a chuckle, “Maybe these leeches are more high-class, though. This is like the Hollywood area of the river for leeches!”
“What do they do, wear tuxedoes and use silverware when they feast on our blood?” I joked. “Still, I wouldn’t mind coming here to swim.” I eyed the thick woods surrounding the area. “I wonder how we’d get here on dry land from the camp?”
Janet shrugged. “I don’t know, but I don’t think I’m about to go exploring any more woods to find out. Our adventure to find Little Paradise was scary enough. And after all we went through, thinking we made such a great discovery, we could have been arrested for trespassing. This beach probably is on private property, too. I mean, someone had to put all of this sand here. I don’t think it just fell out of the sky!”
The raft drifted through the pool and back into a narrow part of the river with high banks on each side, giving me that stuck-in-a-tunnel feeling again. When I looked to see what was up ahead, the bridge came into view.
“It’s the bridge!” I said, groaning. “I knew we should have docked on the beach back there. I really, really don’t want to go underneath the bridge!”
“Oh, don’t be such a big chicken!” Janet said. “It’s not every day you get to see a bridge from underneath it!”
“I don’t want to see a bridge from underneath it!” I wouldn’t have minded so much if it had been a big, high bridge, but this one was low and just wide enough for one car to cross it at a time. I was pretty sure I’d have to duck my head when we went under it.
The underside of the bridge, as it turned out, was dark, rusty and loaded with giant spider webs. Even worse, the river under the bridge was shallow and full of rocks, many of which were sticking up out of the water. The raft bounced around like a pinball as it hit one rock after the other. On the other side of the bridge was a set of small rapids that emptied into a wide section of the river that curved away from the road and back into the woods.
I didn’t know about Janet, but I was getting pretty tired of our Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn or whatever the heck it was, adventure. For one thing, my legs were beginning to cramp from keeping them tucked up on the raft. I wanted to sit spread-eagle, but I didn’t dare let even a toe dangle in the water.
The current carried us into a wide area surrounded by thick trees with tangled branches that hung over the water and blocked out the sun. The water was calm – too calm, I thought – and inky black. The whole area made me feel as if we’d drifted onto a movie set. I’d seen plenty of horror movies with similar scenes, where everything always was really calm before some hideous creature jumped up out of the water and shredded innocent people into confetti.
My heartbeat quickened and my throat suddenly felt as if I’d been gargling with dust. Not only was the pool dark, calm and quiet, the odor that rose from it reminded me of the odor of my aunt’s septic tank that was constantly backing up and spilling across her driveway. Whenever we went to visit her, Dad always parked out on the road and we walked across the lawn, just to avoid the driveway.
“I-I think something died in here,” Janet said, her blue eyes wide as they made a sweep of our surroundings. The black, stagnant water didn’t even have so much as a ripple in it. With no current to move us along, we just sat there, surrounded by stinkiness.
“How are we going to get out of here with nothing to paddle with?” I asked. My shaky voice betrayed my determination not to let Janet know I was very close to bursting into tears.
“I wish I knew,” she said. “I’d swim for the bank, but it’s too high to climb up.”
“You’d actually swim in this cesspool? Are you crazy? This water probably would eat off our skin, just like battery acid!”
Janet turned around to look directly at me. “Would you rather still be sitting here on this raft in the pitch dark tonight when all of the bugs and creatures come out? Or would you rather swim for it now in the daylight?”
“Neither!” I no longer could hold back the tears. “I wish I was back at the camp…with Conrad!”
My own words shocked me. I was convinced the fear of dying must have made me temporarily lose what little sanity I had left.
“Stop crying!” Janet said. “You’re going to make me cry, too! We have to think of some way to get out of this dumb river!”
A slight breeze came from our right. I prayed it would move the raft a few feet, but all it did was lift the aroma from the water directly to our noses.
“I bet this is where everyone’s sewer pipes empty,” Janet said. I barely could understand her because her hand was cupped over her nose and mouth. “I’d sure hate to touch bottom! Can you just imagine what’s lying in the mud down there?”
I didn’t want to imagine anything. I studied our surroundings and tried to see beyond the wall of trees. There were no houses, no signs of life. If people were draining their sewage into this part of the river, they must have had pipes about a mile long.
The breeze grew stronger and so did the odor. But the raft moved a few feet toward the left bank. I’d never seen a real tornado before, but at that moment, I was praying that one like in The Wizard of Oz would magically appear and lift us and our crummy raft out of the water and drop us on dry land.
“I suppose we could always use our hands to paddle with,” Janet said.
Not only did the thought of thrusting my hands into cesspool water make me want to upchuck, I was afraid I’d probably have to lie on my stomach on the raft to do it. And that meant my nose would be even closer to the foul smell.
Janet and I turned to stare at each other.
“Is that a snake?” I whispered, not daring to move. I calculated that if the snake’s size matched the volume of its hissing, it probably was big enough to swallow the entire raft…and us.
Janet barely moved her lips as she answered, “It’s worse than a snake. I think we have a leak in the air mattress. One of those rocks under the bridge probably tore it.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Are you saying we’re going to sink?”
“Maybe not,” Janet said. “Maybe we don’t need the air mattress. Maybe the raft will float by itself. After all, wood floats.”
“That’s a lot of maybes! I can already feel the raft getting lower!”
“Stop being so panicky! You’re just imagining things. The raft isn’t sinking!”
I pointed to the right side of the raft, where the water was beginning to come up over the edge. “If we’re not sinking, then the tide is rising.”
Janet slid away from the edge of the raft, a move that caused it to tilt to the left. “We have no choice!” she said. “We’re going to have to swim for it!”
“Nooooo!” The tears practically squirted out of my eyes. “I can’t! I-I won’t!”
“We’re going to end up in the water either way,” Janet said. “So are you going to jump in now and swim or are you going to sit on the raft and go down with it?”
“I’m not good at swimming!” I paused to swallow a sob. “I can only do the dog-paddle! Conrad taught me how to swim underwater, but there’s no way in Hades I’m going to put my face in there!”
Janet was busy studying the banks that surrounded us. “Over there!” she said, pointing to an area on the left about thirty-five feet ahead. “There’s a small clearing and the bank isn’t very high. It’s our only hope!”
The clearing looked so far away, I felt as if I’d have to swim the equivalent of the English Channel. That, I thought, trembling, was if I could swim that far. Paddling around the local swimming hole with Conrad guiding my every move was a lot different than swimming for my life. I had visions of myself jumping off the raft and sinking right down to the bottom where I’d be sucked into a quicksand-like pile of poop, never to be seen again.
Before I could say anything, I heard a splash. My head snapped in the direction of the sound and I saw Janet swimming toward the shore.
“Janet! Wait!” I called out. “Don’t leave me!”
She didn’t stop swimming, but lifted her head out of the water and shouted, “Hurry up! The raft is going to sink any minute!”
I froze. My body didn’t want to move, no matter how much I commanded it to. I couldn’t blame it. Taking a dip in the equivalent of my aunt’s septic tank wasn’t exactly a great incentive.
I sat unmoving on the raft until the water rose up over my thighs. When I felt something slimy touch my bare leg, I stopped thinking about the smelly water or what was on the bottom. I stretched out my arms and hit the water, dog-paddling for my life.
By the time I reached the clearing where Janet already was standing, I was gasping for breath. Janet wrapped her right arm around a small tree and extended her left arm toward me. I reached up and grasped her hand and she yanked me onto the shore. I thought that for a thin girl, she sure was strong, especially when it came to lifting someone who wasn’t exactly a featherweight. I collapsed into some weeds and tried to spit the disgusting taste of the water out of my mouth. It reminded me of the sauerkraut juice my dad once had dared me to take a sip of…only worse.
As I lay there, gasping and groaning, I could have sworn I heard Janet laughing. I lifted my head just high enough to see her face. Sure enough, she practically was busting a gut.
“What on earth is so funny?” I asked.
“This whole adventure!” she said. “I mean, it was so cool! We went down a strange river on a piece of fence and an air mattress, then over a waterfall, under a bridge and into some creepy lagoon where we had to swim for our lives! Wait’ll we tell the kids back home about this one!”
Unlike Janet, I didn’t think anything about our little expedition was humorous. “We stink! We smell like the public restrooms downtown.”
“Well, if you want Conrad to keep his distance from you, just don’t wash up when we get back!” she said.
“You know how fussy my mom is about cleanliness! She’ll probably make us sleep out in the outhouse tonight!”
“At least the outhouse will smell better than us for a change!” Janet said, laughing.
# # #
|THE 2 MIGHTY EXPLORERS (I, WITH MY HAND |
ON MY HIP, WAS 12 AND JANET WAS 13), TAKEN ON OUR
FIRST DAY AT THE CAMP, BEFORE WE KNEW THE RIVER
WAS FULL OF LEECHES!
Sally Breslin is a native New Englander and an award-winning syndicated humor columnist who has written regularly for newspapers and magazines all of her adult life. She is the author of several novels in a variety of genres, from humor and romance to science-fiction. Contact her at: email@example.com