Vinnie the RatChapter 5
The kids rode in mob formation down a beaten-up road. Herbert, Esther and Marian felt out of their element, unaware this part of their neighborhood even existed. But enough kids knew about it. Children, younger and older, rode bicycles up and down the street, racing one another, cruising with no hands, and popping wheelies. Broken pieces of rock, dirt, and gravel scattered across the worn out road, crunching under their wheels. An older kid sailed off the back of a piece of plywood propped up on a pair of paint cans before his back wheel came from underneath and threw him into the asphalt. His body rolled along the rocky ground and slid into the drain gutter. Marian’s mouth dropped. Esther cringed. Herbert closed his eyes.
“Nice landing, jerk!” Aaron yelled as they passed by.
A couple of kids laughed as they helped the boy up. He winced in pain when he saw his bloody elbow. The Dolor children refused to dally and stayed with Aaron.
“Why do they call him Vinnie the Rat?” Marian asked.
“Is he an actual rat?” Herbert asked.
“Is his dad an exterminator?” Esther asked.
Aaron shook his head. “I don’t know what his parents do. They don’t live here. This is his grandma’s house. He’s here every day, running his store on her front porch.” The kids stopped their bicycles at the end of a cul-de-sac and approached a cute, white cottage. “A while back, Vinnie started selling his toys off, and no one knows why. Then he started buying and trading. Next thing—he’s got a ton of items everybody wants. He sells most for cheap—unless he knows you really want it.”
Aaron opened a screened porch door and held it behind him a second longer than normal for the Dolors to enter. “Vinnie!” He cheerfully hollered.
A frail boy wearing round-wired silver glasses and a bowtie sat in a rocking chair with a concise dictionary on his lap. His hair was greased and parted down the middle like mothers make their boys for picture day. He looked up from the dictionary and his eyes narrowed when he saw Aaron. Marian recognized him at once from her class. He sat near the front and didn’t talk much.
“Open for business,” he recited. Esther giggled at his nasally voice. She wondered if it was the cause behind his nickname.
“We’re looking for a book, Vinnie,” Aaron began.
“A logbook!” Esther interjected. “The logbook of Ponce de León!”
Aaron made a funny face at her like he didn’t expect her to speak.
“A logbook?” Vinnie responded, staring at the metal porch roof.
“We think—well, it should tell us about his journey through Florida,” Marian added.
Vinnie the Rat jumped from his seat. He was about the size of Esther, but walked around like he was a grown-up. “I suppose I know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Can it, Rat,” Aaron said. “We know you got it from my Paw-Paw.”
“I will give it back,” Vinnie said. “But—it’s going to cost you.”
“What do you want, Rat?” Aaron asked flatly.
“How much you got?”
The kids each thought of what they considered valuable. Marian’s fish Sparkles. Esther’s lizard Lemon. Herbert’s Allosaurus claw replica. But none of them could imagine parting with them, and they were sure Vinnie wouldn’t regard them as precious, anyway. Marian assumed Vinnie was quiet and sweet in class. But now thought otherwise. She feared they would never get what they needed, especially in time to help her father.
“Hi, Vinnie,” Marian said. “I’m Marian. We are in the same class.”
Vinnie looked her up and down, well aware of who she was.
“It’s very important that we find this logbook. We are trying to help my parents and our town. I know you don’t really know us—but whatever you can do to help—please, we need your help finding this book.”
Vinnie pushed the glasses up his nose and sniffed.
“C’mon, Vinnie,” Aaron said. “Help us out!”
“All the grown-ups and news keep talking about some strange creatures in our neighborhood,” he said.
The children looked at each other like someone had caught them shop-lifting.
“I bet a lot of people would pay a lot of money to prove something like that,” Vinnie continued. “Enough money someone could retire on. You get me a photo of one of those creatures they keep showing on the news—and I’ll get you your logbook.”
“How in the world do you think we are supposed to do that, Vinnie?” Aaron asked.
“The same way you expect me to hand over a five-hundred-year-old logbook.” Vinnie replied. Clearing his throat, he leaned back in his rocking chair, picked the dictionary up, and continued reading.
The four kids met under the live oak at the Dolor house. The sunset rested on their faces and turned them pink and orange. Marian held her mother’s camera while the others leaned on their bicycles in the grass.
“Mom showed me how to use her camera,” Marian said. She turned the camera over in her hands, examining the buttons and switches. “One of these is the shutter speed.” Marian clicked a button and heard a mechanism slide inside. “There—that should help with the lighting.”
“Are you sure she won’t get mad?” Esther asked.
Marian thought about it for a moment. “No, this is serious business. It’s not like we are playing with it.”
Esther conceded with that logic and nodded.
“I bet the Fountain of Youth is real,” Aaron mused, with his arms draped across his bicycle’s handlebars. “I bet that’s what Ponce meant when he said the forest hides the world’s greatest secret.”
“Herbert and I saw a scroll on the gate that looked like a fountain,” Esther replied with a smile.
“Think about finding the Fountain of Youth,” Aaron continued. “We would be famous. And rich. And live forever.”
“Think about our father, who has a vampire for a boss,” Marian snapped. “Who cares about fame right now?”
“I do,” Aaron replied flatly.
“We saw the ape Thursday night when it came out of the woods,” Esther said.
“And it had no problem jumping on the roof,” Herbert added.
“That’s right!” Marian agreed. “My guess is it likes to hang out in the trees.”
“Ape’s don’t do that!” Aaron said. “Every picture out there of it is some blurry dark image walking through a field at a distance.”
“You’re thinking of Bigfoot,” Esther said.
“Same difference. I say we find a big open field and wait for him to walk through it.”
“Why would it do that?” Marian said. “It could be any field, any time, any day.”
“If we don’t know how to attract the skunk ape, should we go after the unicorn?” Esther asked. “Or we can split up and go for both.”
“That’s a good idea, Ess,” Marian said.
“We can worry about the unicorn later,” Aaron said. “We stick together and put all our efforts into the big, nasty ape. Paw-Paw took me to meet some guy who studies skunk apes in Ochopee last summer,” Aaron said. “I know what’ll attract it.”
“So we set up a trap at the house,” Marian said. “And try to capture a photo tonight.”
The kids’ imaginations raced while they pictured the ape in their yard again.
“Hogs and berries,” Aaron said.
“What?” Herbert asked.
“That’s what we need to feed it. Hogs and berries.”
“What about the unicorn?” Esther asked.
Aaron kicked his stand up. “I know what to get,” he said. “You figure out what to feed unicorns. I’ll head home and meet you back here tonight.” Before they responded, he sped off toward his house.
That night, the girls waited an hour after bedtime before sneaking upstairs to Herbert’s room. They found him snoring in bed. Herbert sleeps deeply, and the girls shoved him onto the ground before he woke up.
It didn’t make him angry though, because he remembered why they came. The three Dolor children crept downstairs. They went out the French doors at the back of the living-room, because the patio door attached to the kitchen would be too loud and the front door was too conspicuous. Outside, they rounded the back of the house and sat in front of the patio, under the dark cover of the live oak and Esther’s favorite blanket.
“What time did he say he would show up?” Esther asked.
Before Marian answered, the kids heard the rattle of bicycle spokes and an unfamiliar ring. Then, a spring slapping metal, and they imagined Aaron leaning his bike against the front of the house.
“Ow!” Aaron cried. “Stupid animal!” There was a scuffle and the yelp of a small mammal.
The kids’ eyes finished adjusting to the darkness, and Aaron came into the backyard.
“Did you bring a hog?” Herbert asked him excitedly.
“I ain’t catching no hog!” Aaron hollered. His harsh voice frightened the Dolors, afraid their parents might hear.
“But it’s not a big deal,” Aaron continued. “I brought my older sister’s chihuahua.”
They looked down at the leashed brown dog next to Aaron’s feet. He tied it around the base of the oak and emptied a pocketful of blueberries next to it before finding his place next to the Dolor children on the back porch.
It wasn’t long before the children felt sleepy. Hunting for animals, whether to shoot with a gun or camera, can take a very long time. The conditions must be just right, and even then, it seems always to be up to chance. The chihuahua slept under the tree, ants busily ate the blueberries, and the children became apprehensive.
Marian looked at her brother and sister, asleep on top of one another. She turned to Aaron, who seemed to be wide awake and staring at the dog.
“Do you think it will come?” She asked.
“Shh,” Aaron whispered. “I told you hunting is all about being quiet and still.”
Marian pursed her lips and half-rolled her eyes.
“If it doesn’t, we may have to take matters into our own hands,” Aaron whispered. “And if does, we need to be ready to run. Skunk Ape’s don’t like their pictures taken. It could become violent.”
Marian didn’t know what to think of that. Her imagination trailed off, and she thought about the first time she saw an alligator. Mr. Dolor and she had hiked in the Wildlife Management Area Tosohatchee when she was little. They had come upon a small lake, and Marian went too close to the water. Mr. Dolor scooped her up in his arms before a big splash erupted right next to her. She never saw the ten-foot alligator. But Dad did. He always saw those things. He put her on his knee and called the gator back with a special noise, mimicking baby alligators. It scared her, but she knew she was safe with her father watching it.
Nothing made sense at this new house. His new job and trying to “make it big” consumed Dad. Marian always thought they had lots of money. But apparently not enough to satisfy Dad. The two of them hadn’t hiked in a couple years.
She remembered taking the picture again and got excited. It hadn’t crossed her mind yet, but if they captured a good photo, their parents would have to believe them. The children wouldn’t even need Vinnie or the logbook. Their parents could call the right people, get it in the News, and tell the police. Someone older and more experienced could take care of it. Maybe Dad and she would even go for a hike in the forest before sealing it up. She wouldn’t be alone. Things would be like they used to be again. And maybe she would get on the News like that weird guy and old lady talking about snakes and toxic waste. That would be neat.
Marian snapped out of it when she heard a loud snore. Next to her, Aaron leaned against the house, fast asleep. She sighed and dropped her head between her shoulders. She leaned over and pushed him. He jolted awake and became very cranky.
Without more discussion than grunts and groans, the two understood they needed to give up. Aaron stood and stumbled toward the tree. His sister’s chihuahua sat up happily, ready for a walk. Aaron tied the leash around his bicycle handlebar and rode away, wobbling down the dark road, glistening from the dew under the moonlight.
“Esther, Herbert,” Marian whispered, and tapped their shoulders.
The two opened their eyes and stretched their arms into the air.
“Where’s Aaron?” Esther asked.
“Did we get the photo?” Herbert yawned, but he didn’t really care.
“It’s really late,” Marian said. She led her brother and sister inside to their beds before crawling into her own. A thought flashed across her mind that her parents might believe her if she had that photo. She frowned, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.