Sticky SituationsChapter 6
The next day, the children felt awful at school. Staying up all night usually does that to a person. But not telling your parents or teachers the reason for your sluggish and sickly behavior makes everything even worse. No one understands or takes it easy on you. And every subject seemed inferior to the impending duty of finding and photographing mythical creatures around town. The Dolor children drudged through school in misery. But by the time they exited the bus with Aaron, a second wind of excitement hit them.
“I say we need a new plan,” Aaron said. “We split up and take photos of each.”
“Well, actually, I suggested that yesterday,” Esther informed.
“I don’t care,” Aaron said flatly. “Did you girls figure out what unicorns like?”
“Well, yes, but—” Marian began.
“Great,” Aaron replied. “The girls will go after the unicorn, and the men’ll go after the ape again. And I know where to get it.”
Marian and Esther didn’t like being bossed around, but they were too tired to argue. Herbert’s face turned pale. The thought of traveling alone with Aaron terrified him.
“Don’t worry, Herbie,” Aaron assured him with a smile and smack on the back. “I’ll look after ya.”
Reluctantly, Herbert followed Aaron on his bicycle around the neighborhood, the two boys veering and gliding while Aaron told Herbert about each house. “That place gives good candy on Halloween,” he said. And “there’s a mean dog in that yard”, and “that guy took a little kid once. Stay away from there.”
The boys came to the bottom of a large hill that neighborhood children used for racing. Herbert described it later as a mountainside. At the top, forgotten tractors rusted alongside gigantic mounds of dirt and rock at an abandoned construction site. The city deserted the project months ago, and the contractor left the equipment until the funding returned. Aaron scaled the hill without a problem, but it exhausted Herbert. He stopped his bike, defeated, a third of the way up to push it the rest.
“Some kids can’t make the climb!” Aaron hollered. “But you better get moving, or Barb’ll get ya!”
Herbert squinted his eyes at Aaron, about to ask who Barb was, when he heard a terrible honking and screeching noise. He turned from Aaron to see a large white mass of feathers and orange beak charging at him from the yard closest to him. It was a big angry goose, and it apparently did not appreciate Herbert near its house.
He screamed as it flung itself at him, the violent beak just missing his face. His little legs moved like lightning while the bird turned on its orange stick legs and ran at him again.
The goose nipped at his shoes and pants.
“Run, Herbie, Run!” Aaron screamed from the top of the hill.
Sweat swept down Herbert’s face, slipping his glasses with them. He shoved them up his nose with his forearm, and the bike handle jerked sideways in his loose grip. The bicycle fell down, tangling up Herbert’s legs, dropping him to his knees and scraping the skin off.
Herbert cowered under the bike frame. He peered through the cracks of his fingers and saw the giant white bird veering down on him. Its wings widespread. Its horrible red eyes glaring.Herbert shrieked. The bird wrenched its neck away and honked at something behind him. Herbert felt the sun disappear. The shadow of someone stood over him. The bird hissed. Herbert screamed again.
Aaron jumped over Herbert’s bicycle and slammed his foot into the bird’s abdomen. The goose flailed into the air, sideways, honking and screeching until hitting the ground several feet away. It picked itself up and ran back into its keeper’s yard, spluttering and cursing at the boys in defeat.
Herbert’s heart pounded. He looked up to see Aaron picking up his bicycle.
“Stupid bird,” Aaron said under his breath. He kicked the stand down on Herbert’s bike and set it upright.
“Thank you,” Herbert said.
“C’mon,” Aaron replied.
The two boys made the rest of the climb together. At the top, Herbert saw that the hill banked left and dropped into a large reservoir, a quarter of a mile wide. Miniature mountains of granite and coal scattered for hundreds of yards in each direction. In the distance was a green reservoir, full of flotsam and jetsam floating on oily water next to a rusty old school bus.
“What is this place?”
“Where we’re gonna prove that skunk apes exist,” Aaron replied. He dropped his bike on the ground after taking his backpack off the front of the handlebars. He strapped it to his shoulders and dropped down the side of a steep dirt hill.
Herbert laid his bike down and sat on the edge. The height frightened him, but knew he must keep up with Aaron, who was already racing off without him. His feet felt the side of the loose dirt and he scooted his butt down the soil.
By the time he landed on the bottom, Aaron was climbing another large embankment with a crane at the top. Herbert floundered across the loose dirt and rocky terrain until he reached the base of the colossal peak. He hated the idea of climbing such a steep hill of loose dirt, but knew Aaron was waiting for him at the top. He wandered the eastern edge, hoping to find a less frightening way up. The far end sloped downward, meeting the earth like a ramp. Unfortunately, an abandoned tar pit separated his way from it. He searched for a path through the pit, huffing and puffing across whatever dry boulders he could find. But the tar pit grew wider and the boulders smaller. And soon, he understood why Aaron had climbed the hill on the steep side.
“Herbie!” Aaron’s voice echoed through the construction site. He had forgotten about his friend and was now worried when he couldn’t find him.
“I’m here!” Herbert replied from below.
“What are you doing down there?” Aaron asked.
Herbert looked up the side of the embankment and saw a goofy Aaron smirking at him. Herbert put enough distance between himself and the tar pit to attempt climbing the embankment. It was loose dirt on the surface, but steadier rock lay underneath, making the climb less arduous than he expected.
After a few grueling minutes, he reached the top to see Aaron sitting in the crane operator’s seat. He shot up as Herbert came over the edge.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” he said. He threw his backpack onto the ground and took out a large black hood and a gorilla mask from last Halloween.
Herbert looked at him, confused.
“I’m gonna put this on and take a stroll across that pond.” Aaron pointed at a large clear reservoir in front of the crane’s hill. A path of stones and plywood made a bridge across it. “And you are gonna stay up here and take photos with this camera.” He handed Herbert a disposable camera.
“We are gonna cheat?” Herbert asked.
“Shut up, Herbie.” He shoved the camera into Herbert’s hands and slid down the cliff with the mask and hood. Herbert sat down in the dirt while watching Aaron race across the pathway over the pond. He put the hood and mask on and waved his hands over his head, indicating to Herbert that he was ready. Herbert put the camera to his eye and watched through the tiny viewfinder. Aaron walked across the boards, draping his arms low and wide, and giving his best Bigfoot impression.
Herbert wound the film and put the camera to his eye again. Better to take two photos.
“Herbert Dolor,” a slithering voice whispered in Herbert’s ear. He dropped the camera, and it hit the ground beside a pair of crocodile-and-snakeskin shoes.
Herbert spun round to see Mr. Dauer.
“Where did you come from?” Herbert asked.
“You know, Herbert,” Mr. Dauer said. “I never thought I’d see you stoop so low as to cheating and lying.”
Herbert looked at the camera on the ground.
“Then again,” Mr. Dauer said, “it’s not the first time you withheld the truth to get out of doing something the hard way. Seems you are making some bad habits, Herbert.”
“I think you should leave,” Herbert whispered.
“That’s cute—trying to sound like your big sister.” Mr. Dauer laughed, and his neck twitched. “I bet it’s not a habit at all, is it, Herbert? I bet it’s just the kind of boy that you are. A boy that makes friends with bad kids like Aaron and lies to get away with things.”
“Who the—heck—are you!?” Aaron hollered. His head was popped up over the edge of the embankment and his hands clambering to pull his body the rest of the way. He was out of breath from running to the hill as soon as he saw Herbert was not alone.
“Aaron White,” Mr. Dauer greeted him with a smile that disappeared into a scowl as the filthy boy stood to his feet. “What a pitiful sight you are.”
“Beat it, grandpa,” Aaron fired back. “Who invited your cripply old bag o’ bones up here with us?”
“Herbert, of course,” Mr. Dauer said. “We were only discussing his recent descent into sin and loathsome behavior.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I descend onto you with my fist and foot, you ugly butt-munch. Get away from Herbie and get away from us.”
“Oh, you’re such a creative young boy, Aaron.” Mr. Dauer brushed his hands together and a white cloud of dust sprung up into the air. “Did you learn that vocabulary from your pitiful upbringing of a father? Or do you not even remember him before his imprisonment?” He took a step toward the boys. Herbert took a step back, extremely aware that the three of them were completely alone.
“Oh! I know—” Mr. Dauer continued. “It’s because of that teacher who always gives you F’s instead of listening.”
“Jokes on you, jagweed—I don’t even care about my grades!”
“Clearly.” Mr. Dauer straightened his back and looked disinterested. He took another step toward the boys. Aaron remained motionless, but Herbert stepped back.
“Herbert, if I can give any advice,” he opened his hands like a mentor. “Better be careful, walking so close to the edge. You never know when you might fall.”
Aaron looked at Herbert just as the soil came from underneath him. Herbert felt his stomach leap into his chest as he slid down the side of the hill. His head smacked into the rock face under the loose soil, and his body tumbled the rest of the way. Aaron slid after him. He watched Herbert’s body disappear behind a plume of dust and sand.
Herbert had landed in the tar pit. The black asphalt crept up his legs and chest. He screamed for help and flailed his arms and legs under the thick, viscous sludge.
“Herbert!” Aaron yelled as he came through the cloud of dust. “Don’t move, Herbert! I’ll get something to help!” Herbert was only a few feet away, but out of Aaron’s reach.
He found a two-by-four sticking out of the dirt and dust at the bottom of the hill. Yanking it free, he lunged one end at Herbert, who was bawling, face up in the pit with eyes closed.
“Herbert, grab the pole!” Aaron instructed.
Herbert opened his eyes and took hold of the splintered wood beam. Aaron pulled with all his might, and Herbert slid through the muck toward him. Before he moved a foot, the wood slipped through Herbert’s palms and slit them open. He sunk back to his initial spot in the tar.
“Oh, God!” Aaron screamed. “For Pete’s sake!”
He threw the two-by-four out again, and Herbert took hold anxiously. With two great heaves, Aaron pulled Herbert to the edge of a boulder. The boys locked arms and Aaron pulled him out. They rolled on their backs, Aaron laughing hysterically and Herbert weeping. Aaron felt bad and wrapped his arms around the small, sticky boy.
“I’m sorry, Herbert,” Aaron said. He looked up and Mr. Dauer was gone. “Figures,” he muttered. He looked beside him and saw the camera. It had fallen down after them.