|Brian D. Moore|
Ben sat up in the maple tree for his stepsister's entire softball game. It was a huge old tree that grew just at the edge of the woods, and it gave him a great view of the field. He could have sat in the stands, but he didn't want her to see him. She didn't seem to like him much. Sure, she called him Benjamin very sweetly when other people were around, but otherwise it was Nerd Boy and a door slam. Sometimes she called him Davy Crockett, which he would have liked if she didn't say it so snotty.
Ben called her Knobby Knees, but not to her face. To her face, he called her Patricia—which she hated—or Patty if she wasn't being mean. From the day his mom married Patty's dad, his mom had been bugging him to call her Sis. "She is your sister now Ben," she kept saying. Sis didn't work for Ben. It sounded like something out of an old black-and-white TV show, plus it kind of got stuck against his teeth when he tried to say it. "Give it some time," his mom said. Ben didn't think time would help.
Knobby Knees played shortstop for the Astros. She was good, really good, but the Astros were still losing by one run. It was last bats—now or never—and Knobby Knees was up next. She stood in the on-deck circle, swinging along with each pitch to the batter at the plate. Fast pitch softball looked so weird. The pitcher threw the ball underhand, but not in a slow arc that barely makes it to the plate like parents do for little kids. Her arm twirled in a blur and the ball shot out like from a cannon. Three of these rocket balls and the batter struck out. Ben felt bad for her, knowing that he probably would have cracked under the pressure too. But Knobby Knees wouldn't, she never did.
The winning run is at the plate with the tying run on first. The play-by-play ran in Ben's head thanks to Rick, Patty's dad—Ben's step-dad. Rick was a yelling-at-the-TV and jumping-off-the-couch kind of sports freak. All season long, baseball games blared from the TV or from the radio. Other than that, Rick was okay, although he talked kind of funny—going on to Ben's mom about "giving Ben his space" and "waiting for Ben to come to him." Ben loved to spy on them talking in the living room. It was good practice at moving silently—slipping across the kitchen floor without making it squeak, breathing slow and even with his mouth wide open—plus he never knew what he might hear.
Knobby Knees stepped into the batter's box. She windmilled the bat with her left hand, pointed it at the pitcher, and then to left field. Show off. Knobby Knees was a sucker for the first pitch and she stepped into it, unleashing her bat with an aluminum twang that drove the ball deep—over the pitcher, over the short stop, and over the left-fielder until finally landing, bouncing, and rolling past Ben's tree. A sure homer! Knobby Knees sprinted around the bases, leaning in as she rounded each. Ben wondered how she could run so fast with such stick-thin legs. Did her gigantic knees hold coiled springs? Or was it her huge feet? Gunboats, Rick once called them. Only once, because she locked herself in the bathroom after he said it.
Rounding third, Knobby Knees snuck a look to where the left-fielder was just picking up the ball. As she jumped on home plate with both feet, her teammates surrounded her and the slap of their high-fives carried all the way to the tree. Ben frowned, he could only remember getting high-fived once, and that was in third grade, two years before, when he'd won the Pine Wood Derby. Knobby Knees moves to town and within a month, she was getting high-fived all over the place. Plus, after living here his whole life, all of a sudden kids were calling him Patty's little brother. He couldn't believe it—Patty's little brother!
Ben scrambled down from the tree, and snuck through the woods along the left-field line until he was opposite home plate. He crawled the last few feet and stretched out under a raspberry bush where he had a clear view of the Astros huddled around Knobby Knees. He could tell which one of the crowd of pony-tailed girls she was by her long pants. While the other girls all wore white shorts under their team shirts, Knobby Knees wore boy's baseball pants—the kind held down by a loop around the bottom of each foot. She claimed it was so she could slide, but he knew she really wore them to hide those knees. No way would she put those monster knobs on display.
The Astros yucked it up over her game-winner for what seemed forever. Weren't they used to it? Finally, they wound down and wandered toward the parking lot with a couple of parents to drive them home.
Knobby Knees watched them go, then stuffed her equipment into her bat bag. She slung the bag over her shoulder and turned towards the woods, towards Ben and the path that came out three houses down from his—theirs. Ben slithered backwards, branches slipping around him with a whisper. Knobby Knees walked past the raspberry bush and started down the path. She stopped a few steps into the woods, right where the fast-setting sun had its last reach. The game had run late, leaving her with a dark walk home. She turned back towards the field, her winner's grin replaced by a frown. Looks like old Knobby Knees doesn't like the woods at night, Ben thought. Ben hadn't at first either, but soon he grew to love how invisible he felt when the woods emptied of kids and the night bugs started singing. At night, he owned the woods.
Knobby Knees turned back to the path, leaned forward, then started in a rush—branches scratching against her bat bag, feet scuffing the dirt. Ben moved quietly on a course parallel to the path, stepping carefully through the brambles and over fallen branches. He couldn't see Knobby Knees through the tree trunks and bushes, but he didn't need to; he could tell where she was by her sounds. She stopped, then started again, then stopped. Ben kept moving, a shadow passing through the forest. Was she scared, he wondered—of the silence, or of the dark? He thought about breaking the silence with some noise, but that might scare her too. So he kept moving, listening hard for her and in his head telling her to keep going. Soon it would be real night and the woods would be as black as a cave.
A few steps farther on, he thought he heard her again, but the sounds came from ahead of him. He stopped to listen and decided that she couldn't have got past him, so the sounds must be coming from a backyard that bordered the woods. But he was still pretty far from the houses. And the sound was closer, and was like a hiss. Whispering. Boys whispering. Ben stood still and focused. He took another step. Another. Then he heard them clear.
"Is she coming? Huh? Do you see her?"
"Not yet and shhh—wait for my signal."
Every kid in town knew those voices—Bill Scranton and Lucas Weaver! The meanest eighth graders that ever lived. What were they doing in the woods? Then Ben heard Knobby Knees again, coming in a rush, branches whipping against her legs, a grunt when she tripped on a root.
"Here she comes," hissed Scranton.
Scranton was waiting for Knobby Knees? Why? For what?
"RAAAHH!" Scranton yelled.
"Ahhh!" Knobby Knees wailed. "Who is that? Crockett?"
What? Ben was stunned. Why would she think it was him?
"WROWRRR!" Scranton and Weaver roared together.
Trees rustling, branches snapping.
"Davy Crockett? Is that you?" Knobby Knees voice was almost calm. "Who's with you? … Ben? … Ben?"
"HA! HA! HA!" Their voices were pushed so low and deep that the air shook.
She can't think that's me, Ben thought.
"Help!" Knobby Knees yelped. "Help me!"
"There-is-NO-one-to-help-you!" Scranton boomed. "You-are-at-OUR-mercy."
Ben's mind spun and his hands clenched into fists. What should he DO? Run for help? The houses were still too far away. What could he do? He had to DO something! But what? What could he do to eighth graders nearly twice his size? THINK! THINK! The dark was the answer. Ben knew the woods and knew the dark and they didn't—Ben was sure of it. They just couldn't.
Ben ducked under the lowest branches and dashed through the woods, targeting the sounds, planning as he went. When he got near Scranton's noise, Ben spotted the glow of a yellow T-shirt crouched beside the trail. Ben aimed for the glow and scuffed his feet the last few steps. Scranton ducked his head and twisted toward the sound. Ben bellowed and plowed into Scranton, knocking him spinning into the bushes, and then melted back into the near blackness.
"What happened?" Weaver said. "Scranton?"
"Shut up!" Scranton said from the ground where he struggled against the confining branches.
Weaver dropped his voice to a hiss. "Scranton? What is it? What happened?"
Ben targeted Weaver.
"Who's out there?" Knobby Knees asked. "What was that?"
Ben curved around to catch Weaver from behind. As he crossed the path, Ben saw Knobby Knees huddled in the dirt, hugging her knees to her chest. Ben's ears burned and he gritted his teeth. A few steps on he saw Weaver squatting behind a sapling that he gripped in both hands. Ben gave a Hyena-like scream and charged, knocking Weaver spinning into a bramble that snared his clothes and scratched his arms. Ben slipped away.
"Oouuu! What was that? Who's out there? What do you want?" Weaver whined, thrashing against the branches that gripped him.
Ben circled around and shook the trees as he sped back and forth in an arc between the boys and the houses. Hoo, ha, hoo, he called in his most practiced owl imitation—the one his sister was so tired of hearing.
"Davy Crockett!" she said.
"Scranton! Scranton! I'm getting out of here!"
"Me too. Let's go! Let's go!"
Ben kept on shaking the trees as the boys stumbled away through the forest, crashing through deadfalls, their clothes tearing on brambles.
Ben stepped onto the path and walked backwards down it; hoo, ha, hoo; hoo, ha, hoo. Ben could hear Knobby Knees following the call, pushing slowly through the branches. At the edge of the yards, where glowing patio lights pushed away the dark, Ben gave one last call then ran to their house. He sped up to his room and flopped onto his floor with his Boy's Life magazine. A few minutes later, there was a knock on his open door.
"Hey," his sister stepped into his room and looked him up and down. "What have you been doing?"
"Reading," he showed her the magazine. "About tracking coyotes." Ben glanced down to see what she was looking at. Bits of leaves and twigs covered his clothes.
"Thanks, Ben," she said.
Brian writes short stories in the few odd hours that he isn't working his day job or being a parent and husband. Brian had an earlier story appear in the June 2003 issue of Toasted Cheese. You may contact him with comments at bmoore[at]wideopenwest.com.