“I did hear a troll in the culvert,” said Haley, trying to stand at the full length of her short height as if that would convince her cousins. “You can hear him when there’s water in the ditch. I’m not lying.”
Amelia scoffed as she dug in the dirt behind their grandmother’s trailer. She knew her younger cousin was letting her imagination run wild.
“You just heard the water in the pipe,” she said, dropping a sunflower seed in the hard clay hole. “And you were already scared because Chase and Tanner were chasing us with sticks.” She began to push the upturned soil back into the hole. “Being scared made you think you heard something in the pipe while you were hiding by it.”
“I heard him,” Haley said resolutely. She stuck her stick in the mud, impaling it like a conquering flagpole. “He was singing a song about eating children.”
Jake, the second oldest among the three cousins, was swinging his stick nearby like it was a sword. “If I had my stick when Chase and Tanner came I would have made them sorry,” he said. He suddenly stopped swinging. He scratched his whitish blonde hair thoughtfully. “If they fought me one at a time,” he added. “But they wouldn’t do that, because they’re bullies and they’re cowards. I hate them.”
“I wish the troll would eat them,” said Haley. She had a spot of dirt on her nubby nose.
Amelia rolled her blue eyes. “There’s no troll, Haley.” She sighed gruffly. “You’re being childish. That’s because you’re still only six. When you turn seven, like me, then you will know what’s real and what isn’t.”
“Hey,” said Jake, “I know what’s real and I’m still six.”
“Yes, but you’re six and a half,” reasoned Amelia. “That means you’re seven if you round it up. Haley just turned six, so she’s really just five with a few days extra.”
“That makes sense,” Jake said, not really understanding the distinction. “I wish Chase and Tanner were five. Then we could make them believe there’s a troll and that it will eat them if they don’t stop throwing rocks at us.”
“And pulling my hair,” said Haley, tenderly touching her brown pigtails. She looked at Amelia’s long blonde hair and wished she had hair like that. She also wished Amelia would believe her about the troll. “And there is a troll,” she added, adamantly.
Again, Amelia rolled her eyes. Suddenly, she stood, letting her stick fall in the mud. “I need something to drink,” she said. “You both need something to drink, too.”
“It’s not sunny outside,” Jake said. “It’s not even hot. And it’s going to rain soon. I am not thirsty.”
“That’s because you’re not smart enough to know when you’re thirsty,” Amelia said simply. “You get distracted by fun. But I don’t get distracted by fun. That’s what happens when you’re seven. You don’t get distracted. You become grown up and you remember what you’re supposed to do, and you take responsibility for little kids. Like you.”
Amelia went into the trailer to fetch some water. She tiptoed past her grandmother, who was taking one of her many Saturday afternoon naps in he recliner, and went to the sink in the kitchenette. From the counter she took a tall glass and put it under the tap in the little sink. She filled it up halfway, then took a few big gulps. She then filled it up nearly to the top and tiptoed through the trailer again, stepping out onto the little back-porch and handing the big glass to Jake.
Jake drank from the glass, albeit reluctantly. He then handed it to Haley. Haley drank some of it, then poured the rest of it out on her muddy hands, trying to clean them off.
“You’re wasting drinking water!” Amelia chastised her. “If you want to wash your hands, use the waterhose!”
“It’s the same as water from the waterhose,” Haley said. “It just came from the sink.”
“No, it’s not the same,” Amelia said. She took a moment to both scowl and think up a reason why it was not the same. Her blue-eyed scowl was quite stark in her pale face. “They’re not the same because one came from the sink and one came from the hose. You are supposed to drink water from the sink and wash yourself with water from the hose.”
“But I drink water from the hose all of the time,” said Jake, very confused.
“That’s because you’re only six,” Amelia said, “and not seven. When you turn seven you’ll understand why you’re being childish.”
Amelia said nothing else on the matter, but took the dirty glass from Haley and set it on the porch. Haley really, really wished she had blonde hair and blue eyes like Amelia. Instead, she had brown eyes and brown hair, just like her mother.
“Let’s play a game,” said Amelia. “Let’s play Simon Says.”
“You mean, let’s play ‘Amelia Says’,” said Jake. “You never let us play as Simon.”
Amelia gave him such a chilly look of disapproval that frost seemed to form on her eyelashes.
“I want to try to catch frogs in the creek,” Jake said, persevering against Amelia’s coldest gaze. “There should be some out right now. I can hear them chirping.”
“Frogs don’t chirp,” said Amelia. “That’s birds.”
“They chirp at night,” Jake said, wringing his hands as if Amelia was trying to wrestle his whole world-view away from him. “I know they do. Other than the bullfrogs, I mean. They go…” He made a sonorous, guttural noise. “Ouch,” he said, rubbing his throat. “That hurt.”
“I don’t want to catch frogs,” Haley said, “but I do want to play in the creek. And I can look at the ponies.”
The darkest look overtook Amelia’s pale face. She did not like it when her cousins did not agree with her. She folded her arms and tossed her blonde hair with a shake of her head. “Fine,” she said in a tone that meant nothing was fine. “We will go to the creek. I don’t want to, but I can’t trust you two to play alone. Someone has to watch out for snakes.”
From within the trailer they could hear their grandmother snorting and gasping for air, then settling back into her rhythmic snoring. They left, knowing she would not wake up for at least another hour.
The entire week had been overcast with clouds, and just as often as the sun peeked through the thunder rumbled and the rain fell. The trailer park had become a muddy sprawl of gravel and puddles with drowned patches of rough crabgrass here and there submerged. Beyond the trailer park, however, there was a coven of trees gathered to shade the rambling creek which gave the trailer park its name: Wet Lick Park. In the rainy season of November the creek often rose and spread out, the swell of its berth recorded as greenish water stains on the trailers nearest to its boundaries at the back end of the trailer park. One day, their grandmother often said, the creek was going to become a river and carry the whole trailer park somewhere else; maybe someplace nicer.
Amelia, Jake, and Haley walked down the gravel road leading to the back end of the trailer park. They kept their eyes on the trailers they passed, looking for Chase and Tanner should the two thugs suddenly appear from between the lots. Chase and Tanner did not respect boundaries and would walk through anyone’s lot for an ambush attack. They also stole from the other kids in the park. They had stolen the teddy bear that Amelia’s dad had sent to her from prison. That had hurt at first, but then Amelia told herself that she was too old for stuffed toys. She cried herself to sleep over it just once, and then never cried over it again.
“Hey there, girlies,” said a man from his ramshackle porch. He was skinny in a white tank-top and denim shorts that were shredded at the thighs. He looked slimy, as if he was covered in grease from his mustache to his exposed belly button hairs. Dark, wiry hair stuck out from his underarms and grew thickly on his pale arms and legs. “You want to watch some cartoons with me?”
“Leave us alone, Stan,” the children said as one.
“I got all kinds of cartoons,” Stan said, grinning beneath his oily mustache. His voice was high-pitched and had a strange, slow, overly sweet pronunciation. “Good ol’ Tom an’ Jerry an’ The Flinstones an’ the Looney Tunes. I’ve even got The Muppet Babies. That’s my favorite….”
The three cousins walked faster, Stan’s voice calling out to them in increasingly frustrated tones.
“Al’ight, then,” he said. “I’ll catch y’all some other time.”
They knew better than going into Stan’s trailer. Madison Dinkler went into his trailer once to watch cartoons and came out a long time later, bruised and crying for her momma. But her momma was dead from using drugs, just like Amelia’s momma. When Madison Dinkler tried to talk to her uncle about it, he told her to stay away from Stan, and that was that.
“She should have known better,” Amelia had said. “Stan doesn’t even have a satellite dish on his trailer. And he doesn’t have a computer. How can you watch cartoons anytime if you don’t have a satellite dish or a computer?”
“DVDs?” Haley said.
“Then you go and watch cartoons on his DVDs with him!” Amelia retorted.
Haley shook her head rapidly. “I wish the troll would eat him, too.”
The three cousins arrived at the creek to find it swollen halfway up the eroded embankment. Patch grass grew here beneath the shade of the elms and willows and oaks, and the bed of the creek was layered slate and limestone. Much of it was shallow, but there were also natural potholes as long and wide as a trailer. They sank deeply enough to drown a child. Minnows swam there, seeking these large potholes in the drier months, and migrating farther down the creek in the rainy months when the creek grew fat on rainwater.
“No frogs,” said Amelia, putting her hands on her hips with satisfaction. “Just like I said.”
“Then I’ll just catch some crawdads,” Jake said.
“And I’ll watch the ponies,” said Haley.
“And I will watch for snakes,” said Amelia, crossly, crinkling her nose in displeasure. She sat down on the exposed roots of a tree growing out of the muddy embankment of the creek, folding her arms in a huff, as if she was being punished.
Beyond the creek was a fence around which tall grass grew. Beyond the fence was a broad field belonging to a farmer. The field was shaggy with wild grasses and daisies and goldenrods. Two ponies stood in the sun, chewing at the tall grasses. Haley looked at them longingly, yearning to pet them.
“I wish I had a pony of my own,” she said.
“Only children want ponies,” Amelia retorted. “Grown-ups like me want real horses.”
“I would want a black pony with a white mane,” Haley said, ignoring Amelia. “I would feed it apples and comb its hair and braid its tail.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to braid a horse’s tail,” Jake said. He had a crawdad pinched carefully between his fingers. “Doesn’t it hurt them?”
“No,” said Amelia, authoritatively. “But it doesn’t look right, either. You’re supposed to braid its mane.”
“I would be extra careful about it,” Haley said. “I wouldn’t hurt it, braiding its tail. I would be extra careful and braid its mane and its tail and put little red bows in its hair.”
“That’s so childish,” retorted Amelia. “You’re so childish, Haley.”
“Well, what would you do with a pony, Amelia?”
“Nothing,” said Amelia. “I just told you—grown-ups have horses, not ponies.”
“Then what would you do with horses?” Haley said, crossly.
“Ride them, of course,” Amelia said simply, tossing her hair because she knew that Haley wished she had her blonde hair.
“Well, I could ride a pony,” Haley said. “I’m small enough.”
“Because you’re not a grown-up,” Amelia said, her pink lips twisting into a small, victorious smile.
Haley stared down at her flip-flops in defeat, her dark hair hanging glumly from her head.
“I know what I’d do with my horse,” Jake said, grinning. “I’d name it Glue.”
“You’re such a butthead, Jake,” Amelia said, frowning. She scraped her fingers into the loose mud and threw a wad of it at Jake, hitting his T-shirt. He just laughed it off— literally laughing until the mud was shaken off and fell into the creek.
They heard some grunting coming from the nearest trailer and looked to see what it was.
“The troll!” exclaimed Haley.
It was not a troll. It was old man Buckner. He was carrying a propane tank into his backyard where his new grill waited. This “new” grill was actually a very old grill— rusted and stained and blackened with years of carbonized grease—but it was new to his possession.
“It’s just Buccaneer Bill,” said Jake, disappointed.
Bill Buckner never had much luck with his grills. To the contrary, he was very unlucky with his grills, as attested by the black patch he had over his missing eye. A few years ago he was trying to cook ribs and somehow caused his propane tank to explode. He was not near it, or else he would have been killed, but he was close enough that shrapnel from the explosion ruined his left eye. Now he only had his right eye, and he still insisted on cooking every one of his meals with propane. The cousins called him “Buccaneer Bill” since he looked like a pirate. The cousins believed that Chase and Tanner were responsible for the explosion, just as they thought everything that went wrong in the trailer park originated in the cruel minds of those two bullies. If a tornado had danced through the trailer park, the cousins would have thought Chase and Tanner had summoned it up with their willful farting.
Carefully dropping the propane tank next to the grill, Buckner stood up and stretched his back, grimacing as something popped. Spotting the cousins in the creek, he walked over to the green-stained fence.
“You kids be careful over there,” he told them. “You’ll likely drown in those deeper ends.”
“We’re staying in the shallows,” said Jake.
“That’s what you think until you sink,” said the one-eyed man. “The water plays tricks on you. It gets deeper faster than you can see. Drops you out of sight before you know which way is down.”
“That’s how the troll hides in the culvert,” said Haley. “The water plays tricks on your eyesight, so you can’t see him.”
Buccaneer Bill frowned at this assertion, being unfamiliar with trolls and the like. “Just be careful, is all I’m saying.” He walked around to the front of his lot, disappearing behind his creek-dyed trailer.
“Why would there be a troll in the culvert?” Amelia said, irritated. “It’s not the same as a bridge. Grown-ups know that. Grown-ups know that bridges and culverts are not the same at all, Haley.”
“And there isn’t enough room for a troll,” said Jake, hoping to be considered a grown-up also. “Not unless the troll is only a foot tall. And that’s silly. Trolls are supposed to be huge. Like, bigger than a trailer.”
Haley turned her back to both of them, huffing and puffing with stubborn belief. “There is too a troll there,” she said, staring down at the yellow-eyed daisies in the field. “I don’t care if you believe me or not. I know it’s true. He was singing a song about eating children.”
“You’re going to have to stop being childish and grow up sooner or later, Haley,” Amelia said, standing up and brushing off her shorts. “That’s what happened to my mom. She couldn’t grow up properly and so she couldn’t live in the really real world and they had to put her somewhere where they could baby her because she couldn’t do anything for herself. You’ll go to the same place if you don’t grow up. You try to escape the real world and they have to put you up until you feel better and can take care of yourself.”
“I thought your mom liked candy too much,” said Jake.
“That’s what kids do,” Amelia said, scowling at Jake. “Eat lots of candy. And that’s what she did. She was always eating candy to make her escape the real world.”
“What kind of candy does that?” asked Jake, still oblivious to the scorn in Amelia’s gaze.
“The kind that real grown-ups don’t eat,” Amelia said with a sharp pronunciation not unlike nailing a door shut against the continuation of this conversation.
“Hey ladies!” called a gruff voice. “Ladies, ladies, ladies!”
As one, the three cousins turned. But they already knew who was walking toward them with malicious intent and arrogant swagger. Chase and Tanner: the tireless bullies of Eve’s Creek Elementary school. Chase was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey that was too big even for his corpulent belly. His face was round and darkly tanned, his beady little porcine eyes glinting hatefully. Tanner was walking beside him; a head taller with knobby joints and a pale complexion freckled from fingertip to hairline, as red in the head as a bloody woodpecker. He was wearing a green tanktop and camouflage pants that crumpled up at the tops of his oversized black boots.
“Go away!” Jake yelled at them, valiant despite the tremor in his voice. “Or you’ll be sorry.”
Chase and Tanner glanced at each other, smirking.
“What can you do, Stumpy?” Chase snorted. “Cry on us?”
“I think we should be careful,” Tanner said, grinning. “He might bite our shins.”
“I’ll knock your heads off,” Jake said, always enraged whenever someone spoke of how short he was. He released the crawdad he had in his hand and then went searching along the creek for the stick he had. As he looked for the stick, and failed to find it, he became increasingly distraught and desperate.
“Where did it go?!” he exclaimed.
By the time Jake found his stick, Tanner had already waded in and grabbed hold of him. The taller boy held the shorter boy’s arms behind his back and led him out of the water toward Chase. Jake struggled, but to no avail. Tanner’s grip was like twin snakes coiled in contention for the same small animal. Amelia and Haley followed after them, helpless.
“Let him go!” Amelia demanded in her most grown-up voice. “Let him go right now.”
Her most authoritative tone did nothing to stop them. Chase just laughed and tightened his fists, holding them in front of Jake’s face. Jake struggled, but could not break free. Chase drew back one fist and then paused, leering in Amelia’s direction.
“I’ll let Stumpy go,” Chase said, his grin broad and brown. “If you give me a kiss.”
Amelia made a face— similar to what she would have had she woke up to find a toad’s butt resting on her nose— and shook her head.
“Then I guess I gotta’ give Stumpy a tummy ache,” Chase said. He thrust a fist into Jake’s stomach, knocking the wind out of the littler boy. Tanner laughed and held their victim up as Jake tried to sink to the ground.
“Stop it!” cried Haley. She ran at Chase with her little fists, tapping him on his back. Using one hand, he shoved her away, sending her into Amelia.
“Oh no!” Chase said, all mock-fear. “Stumpette is mad. I better be careful or she might whine me to death..”
“The troll’s going to get you!” Haley shouted.
Chase and Tanner were confused at first, looking to each other in wide-eyed surprise. Then they burst into laughter.
“Troll? What the hell’s a troll?” Chase said.
“It’s a big monster!” Haley said, trying to talk over their loud laugher. “And it eats children!”
His fit of laughter petering off, Chase gave Jake another fist to the stomach. “If this…what was it? Troll? If this troll tries to get me, I’ll just give him a beating like I’m giving Stumpy here,” he said. He punched Jake in the belly again and Jake crumbled. “That’d teach Mr. Troll to mess with me.”
Just then old man Buckner arrived in his backyard, looking to throw the ashes from his ashtray into the creek. When he saw the kids, he hollered at them.
“Hey now there!” he hollered. “What’s this funny stuff goin’ on here?”
As his good eye rolled over Tanner, it seemed to loosen Tanner’s grip on Jake and Jake finally broke free. He fell to his knees, coughing and trying to catch his breath. Amelia and Haley helped him up and the three cousins fled, running to their trailer. Chase and Tanner were too surprised to follow after them.
“Leave those kids alone!” Buckner said. “Or I’ll blacken your backsides!”
Haley, Amelia, and Jake flung the door open to their grandmother’s trailer and crowded around her chair, sitting cross-legged like Buddhist monks in prayer to their immobile idol. Their grandmother was still asleep, and still snoring, but that did not matter. Just having an adult around was enough when they were upset.
“Let me see your stomach, Jake,” Amelia said.
Dutifully, Jake lifted his shirt and Amelia peered closely at the red swathes where Chase’s knuckles had struck him like a meteorite shower. She poked at it with her finger and Jake yelped.
“That hurts!” he growled.
“Don’t be a baby about it,” Amelia said. “I have to check for any serious injuries.” After a moment’s consideration, she shrugged. “I think you’ll be fine.”
“God, I hate them!” Jake moaned, pulling his shirt down. “I wish they’d get hit by a firetruck. ”
“Don’t worry about it,” Amelia said reassuringly. “I’m sure you won’t see them next year. They’ll be kicked out of school…or be taken to jail…or…”
“Or get eaten by the troll!” Haley said encouragingly.
Amelia just shook her head, her lips a deep-cut frown.
“They always have to hurt me,” Jake said, “I can’t ever fight back. It makes me…it makes me feel like a weakling…” He started to cry and Haley tried to put her arm around him, but he ducked out of the way. “Dad used to tell me all of the time that I was weak. He did. He said I was a spoiled baby and that I shouldn’t cry so much. But I don’t know how to beat them. I’m too weak and too stupid!” He yanked at his own hair as the tears fell, wanting to hurt himself for not being able to protect himself from those who hurt him.
“Your dad’s stupid,” Amelia said. “And he’s weak. That’s why he left. That’s why all of our parents left. They weren’t grown-ups. They only thought they were, but they weren’t.”
As tears spread from Jake to Haley, their grandmother stirred with a snort and a fart in her recliner.
“What’s this now?” she said, bleary-eyed from sleep and not having her glasses on. By the time she put her spectacles on, the children had dried their eyes. “Is everything all right?” asked the old matriarch.
The three cousins looked to each other.
“Are my little goslings upset?” she asked, searching their faces with her owlish eyes. At length, Amelia spoke.
“Haley is being childish,” she said, the snideness in her voice like a whip against Haley’s back. “She thinks there’s a troll in the culvert. She thinks it’s going to eat us. She’s just so…so…childish.”
Haley muttered something in defense of herself, but it came out only as a mumble.
“Is that what you’re scared of, my little gosling?” her granny said.
“I heard it,” Haley whimpered. “It was singing about eating children.”
Her granny chuckled, or coughed. It was hard to tell the difference. “Oh my dear! Trolls only eat bad children. They don’t eat good children.”
“Are you sure?” asked Haley. She craved reassurance, even if it was for something other than what had upset all three of them.
“I promise,” her grandmother said. The bent little woman stood— with many a pops and cracks and groans— and walked toward the kitchenette. “Now. Who’s hungry for beans and weenies? I’ll even let you have some chocolate milk, if you don’t go bouncing off the trailer walls. This old place can’t take none of those shenanigans, now.”
Later that night they climbed into bed. Haley and Amelia shared a small bed next to their grandmother’s, and Jake slept on the floor with a pillow and a rug to soften the vinyl tiles. Their grandmother’s trailer was not large enough to have actual beds. It was more akin to a camper than a full-sized trailer.
The three cousins did not sleep well at night. Even Amelia sometimes called out for her mother or father, if only to chastise them. This was one of the reasons why the cousins looked forward to mornings and afternoons, and dreaded evenings. Evenings bled too readily into night, and night into bad dreams.
Haley did not dream of her parents tonight, however. While Jake dreamed of playing basketball with a scarecrow that was his father and Amelia dreamed of dumping her mother’s candies in the toilet, Haley dreamed of the troll in the culvert. He rose up from that dirty, ditch-water ground, covered in reeds and cattails and with a jaw made of scabious concrete and hair of crabgrass. He sundered the highway with his emergence, shouldering its asphalt weight out of the way, tossing it into a castle-like ruin near the trailers.
Haley just stared at him, unable to move. The troll stared at her, also unmoving. They stared at each other and Haley did not know, after a while, if she should fear the troll or consider him a friend.
He then opened his rusty-pipe mouth, and sang his song. It sounded like a tongue of water lapping a limp, battered body against rocks.
“Listen to the water,
come to me, unloved daughter,
for my belly needs tender meat
and you look a tasty treat.
Sink, sink, sink— sink down below,
sink with my song’s sweet undertow,
for I am hungering for your bones;
for blood and tears upon my stones.
Once upon a time, beneath a bridge,
I lived in a mighty mountain ridge
where children crossed to graze their sheep
all day long, on summits slick and steep.
Minced lamb, minced child— it is all the same,
and to waste any good meat is a shame,
so I take what chance gives. and mischance at that,
and live well through the years, happy and fat.”
“We’ll never escape Chase and Tanner,” Jake said, morosely chewing his bland oats the next morning. “They’ll bully us for the rest of our lives.”
“Don’t be silly,” Amelia said. She was eating toast and an egg, because those were the things she assumed all grown-ups ate. “That’s not true.”
“They’re in my grade,” he said, smacking his cereal with his spoon. “They should be in your grade, but they failed, so they’re in my grade, which means they’ll be in my grade until I leave school.”
“Oh, they’ll probably fail again,” said Amelia. “And then they won’t be in your grade anymore.”
“Then they’ll be in my grade,” Haley said, her brow broken with sorrow. “And they’ll pick on me and pull my hair and call me names.”
“And they’ll still live here,” Jake said. “So they’ll still pick on us even if we aren’t in the same grade as them.”
Amelia did not know what to say to that, so she bit into her toast and chewed while thinking about their predicament.
The two bullies were almost two years older than Amelia, but a grade level behind her, which meant they would be going to school with the cousins for at least another four years, and all likelihood would be going to the same Middleschool and Highschool. And since they lived in the same trailer park, they rode the same school bus. Chase and Tanner often threw things at them while riding home. The cousins had to sit in the front of the bus so the bus driver could see them, otherwise Chase and Tanner would hit Jake and pull Haley’s hair. The worst was saved for Amelia, however. Both of the intrusive boys tried to kiss her when she was not looking. It made her nauseated. Their teeth were so yellow they were almost brown. Their breath smelled brown. She would have rather been hit with a hundred of their paper wads than be kissed by them.
“Everything will work out in the end,” she said. She had heard adults say this a lot, which meant it was a lie, and she knew it was a lie, but it was the grown-up thing to say, so she said it.
They finished their breakfast— or what they could eat of it, for Haley’s appetite had fled her the night before— and then they washed the dishes in the small kitchenette’s sink. Their grandmother was watching her Sunday religious programs, since she could not go to church anymore because of her bad knee.
“You kids skedaddle outside,” she said. “Enjoy the nice weather while you can.”
The weather was not nice. It was broody. The overcast sky was darkening with the gloomy threat of rain. Still, the cousins went outside anyway. They disliked the preacher man with the sweaty forehead and the crazy eyes that came on this time in the morning.
“He’s a werewolf,” Haley said as they stepped out into the muddy backyard. “He’s fighting it, but he’s going to transform one day. Right in the middle of his church. That’s what they mean when they say ‘wolf among lambs’. Werewolves in churches.”
“There are no such things as werewolves,” said Amelia, carefully stepping around the deeper puddles in the yard. “There are beastly men, though. Men who act like animals. Chase and Tanner will be like them when they get older.”
“Not if they get hit by a fire truck first,” said Jake, merrily splashing his flip-flopped feet in the water puddles. “But if they did turn into werewolves I would be willing to shoot them with silver bullets.”
Amelia shook her head ruefully, thinking about how difficult it was to be the only grown-up in their little group.
“It’s going to rain,” said Haley. “I can smell it.”
“I can see it,” said Jake, pointing up at the dark underbelly of the clouds.
“The weatherman said all of that yesterday,” Amelia said, unimpressed by both of them. “That’s the only way you can know for certain. When a weatherman tells you.”
“The troll likes the rain,” Haley said, kneeling down beside a water puddle. “It makes the ground wet and slippery. It makes creeks and rivers get bigger and move faster. He likes all of that.”
Amelia rolled her eyes. She looked down at the little heap of clay where she buried the sunflower seed. “This water will make my sunflower grow,” she said.
“Or drown it,” said Jake.
Amelia shot him a chilly look that would have frozen him to his marrow had he not been distracted by the worms wiggling up from the turf. When she saw that he was not looking, her icy scowl melted into tepid indifference.
“I think we should go fishing!” exclaimed Jake. “We have lots of worms to go fishing. Then we could skin them and eat them!”
“The worms?” exclaimed Haley.
“No, the fish we catch with the worms,” Jake explained.
“The creek doesn’t have any big fish,” said Amelia. “Minnows don’t count.”
“I’m not talking about the creek,” Jake said. “We can go across the road to the pond. You know. On the other side of the fence.”
“You mean on the other side of the highway? We’re not supposed to cross the highway.”
“Grown-ups do it all the time,” Jake said. “Why not us?”
Amelia nodded reluctantly at this, even as the clouds above the trailer park darkened. “Okay,” she said. “But we don’t have any fishing poles.”
“We can make them,” said Jake. “All we need are some sticks and string.”
“I don’t think we should cross the highway,” said Haley. “It’s dangerous.”
“Not if you look both ways,” Amelia said, now fully invested in the notion since it would reinforce the premise of her being a grown-up. “I think Miriam has some yarn.” Calling her grandmother by her first name was also another conceit that she believed proved she was a grown-up. “I’ll go ask for some.”
While Amelia fetched the yarn, Jake put several worms into an old mason jar. Seeing them wriggle made Haley think of the disgusting prospect of puncturing and entwining their slimy bodies on a hook. She shuddered and wondered if worms could feel pain.
“You don’t have any hooks,” Haley said, sighing in relief.
“Yes I do,” Jake said, proudly. He went to the back-porch and knelt down, reaching beneath the wooden floorboards, withdrawing a cardboard box hidden near the cinder-block foundation. Opening the box Jake revealed his hoard: paper clips, stubby pencils, safety pins, erasers, needles, and other knickknacks. He liked to believe he was “prepared” and, so, collected things that he could use to justify the notion that he was prepared. What it was he was “prepared” for, Haley did not know. All she knew was that she was disappointed that she would have to go fishing now— and hook slimy worms on makeshift hooks— or else be called childish by Amelia again.
“Miriam is asleep again,” Amelia said as she emerged with a spool of bright pink yarn.
Jake groaned upon seeing the yarn. “Why’d you have to get pink?”
“Because it had the most of all of them,” Amelia said, “and grown-ups have to be practical.”
Haley knew that her grandmother had just as much blue yarn and black yarn and that Amelia simply wanted to use pink because that was her favorite color, but she did not say this aloud.
Jake took the cardboard box and the mason jar and started walking up the gravel road. Haley followed and Amelia soon overtook both of them to assume herself into the grown-up position of leading the other two. She held her blonde head high, her hands clasped behind her back in the same manner of the headmistresses she saw on her favorite black-and-white television shows. She liked these black-and-white television shows because she thought grown-ups liked black-and-white television shows.
Approaching the highway meant approaching the ditch beside the highway, and so the culvert of that ditch. Haley stared at the culvert apprehensively, slowing her pace and falling behind. Jake noticed and shot a confounded look at her over his shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“The troll…” Haley said.
“Don’t be a baby,” he said. “There’s no such thing as trolls.”
“I can hear his song,” she said, stopping and standing still. “He wants to eat us.”
By now Amelia was glancing back, also, and giving Haley her most disapproving frown. “You’re being so childish, Haley,” she said. “Look. Watch me and I’ll prove there’s nothing here.”
Amelia stood at the end of the gravel road, where the highway and the ditch ran perpendicular to the trailer park’s entrance. She then jumped up and down, up and down, yelling “There is no such thing as trolls!”
With bated breath Haley watched in horror, thinking the troll would rupture the ground and lift Amelia up and swallow her whole.
Instead, nothing happened.
“Now c’mon,” said Amelia, turning around and looking both ways before crossing the highway. “Stop being childish.”
Jake nodded. “Don’t be a baby.” He then looked both ways and crossed the road too.
Haley watched her two cousins climb over the fence on the other side of the highway, hopping down into the field where the small pond resided, ringed in reeds. Haley did not want to be left behind. That was scarier than any troll. She also thought she caught a glimpse of movement over by the trailers; furtive and sneaky and gone. It looked like a red splash next to camouflage and she thought it might be a cardinal in the bushes. Still, it unnerved her.
“There’s no such thing as trolls,” Haley told herself. “There’s no such thing as trolls.”
She started walking to the end of the gravel road. She forced one foot, then the other, to move. Step by step by step. Arriving at the end, and standing on the section beneath which the culvert yawned with its two mouths, she almost smiled.
“There is no such thing as trolls!” she reiterated, more confidently than ever before.
But her eyes lingered on the edge of the driveway, where the gravel became grass, and the grass became concrete, and the concrete dropped into the ditch. She heard what she thought was lapping water, but that lapping water became a cadence, and the cadence became a voice, and so Haley became frightened. Without looking, she ran across the highway toward the fence. Tires screeched and a horn blew and a car swerved, striking Haley with its cold wind.
Coming to the fence, Haley clung to its wire as if she was clinging to her own life. She felt a mighty drum beating, hurting her chest with its wild pounding rhythm.
Gradually, her rapid breath slowed and she calmed down. She glanced back past the highway toward the culvert. It was as silent and still as a tomb. Sighing in relief, she climbed the fence and walked through the field to join her cousins as they tried to make fishing poles from reeds and yarn and paper clips.
“This is not working, Jake,” Amelia was complaining. “Paper clips aren’t hooks. They can’t hook fish.”
“Well, your yarn is not working, either,” Jake accused, trying to tie the yarn to his reed and failing. “Maybe if it was the blue kind…”
“That’s silly,” retorted Amelia. “It’s all the same. The blue kind would do the same thing as the pink. The color is all that’s different..”
They both looked up to see Haley walking toward them.
“I told you there was no troll,” Amelia said.
Haley nodded sheepishly. She felt relieved, but she also felt like a fool.
For ten minutes the cousins tried to make their poles and set their worms. Amelia abandoned the attempt, and so too did Haley a few minutes later. Only Jake persisted, as a matter of pride, and, to his two cousins’ astonishment, he assembled something akin to a fishing pole. Baiting it with a worm, he grinned like a scamp with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Ah-ha!” he laughed, triumphantly. “Told you it would work!”
Directing his attention to the pond, he cast his line and waited for the fish to bite. When they did not, he cast it again. And then he cast it again. And then the yarn came unwound from the reed and fell into the pond. He then struck the pond’s surface with his reed, splashing and flinging water everywhere.
“Aw fuck!” he shouted. He whipped the pond like it was a lazy horse that could not be persuaded to stand up and work. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Haley threw a hand to her mouth, eyes gaping. Even Amelia was shocked, if only briefly. She tossed her hair complacently.
“Foul language is uncalled for,” she said, having heard an adult say it on tv once.
Heaving and seething, Jake stomped down the reeds around the pond until his fury abated. When it had fully receded, he apologized to his cousins and sat down, staring glumly at the pond and wondering if he would ever be able to catch a fish.
“Dad was supposed to take me fishing,” he said. “He promised all the time. But he never did. And now he can’t.”
“I don’t care about my dad,” Amelia said. “He’s in jail, which means he is a bad person, and I don’t want to have anything to do with him.”
Haley tried to think of her dad, but all she could summon up was a shadow-faced figure without features. She touched her face and wondered which features were his. She knew which features her mom had given her: her brown hair, her brown eyes, and the crescent scar down her lip. She did not know how she got the scar, and she wished she did not have it. Whenever she asked her grandmother about it, her grandmother would only shake her head and say that “Drinking can cause a lot of pain.” Haley took this to mean that her mother accidentally cut her mouth when she was really little with a cracked milk bottle.
Hesitantly, the clouds began to rain. It was a soft drizzle, more mist than downpour, and the cousins were not bothered by it. They let the thin wetness fall over them like the ghostly breath of a waterfall.
But then two figures stepped out from the mist, dark and yet dreadfully familiar in their swaggering gaits.
“You guys suck at fishing,” Chase said.
“Yeah,” laughed Tanner. “You totally suck.”
“You should go away,” Jake warned, picking up his reed. “Or you’ll be sorry.”
Chase and Tanner ignored him, walking straight to Amelia. She, for her part, did not step back or flinch. She crossed her arms, assuming the air of an adult addressing children.
“You two should really go home,” she said, tossing her hair nonchalantly. “Think about your behavior. You keep it up and you will go to jail. And you don’t want to go to jail. You never come out. Then somebody doesn’t like you in jail and they hit you and shank you and you die in jail. Or you’re paralyzed in jail, which is even worse. So you should really think about the consequences of your actions.”
The two boys were grinning throughout her speech, and kept walking toward her. Haley watched them with a horrible feeling of dread. There was something worse in their grins than yesterday; something worse than she had ever seen in their grins while at school or on the bus or even in the trailer park when there were no adults around. They reminded her of wolves. Their eyes reminded her of the preacher on tv: gleaming and sweaty and hungry for something.
“You shouldn’t have come over here,” said Chase. “Nobody’s around except us.”
“Yeah,” laughed Tanner. “Nobody.”
“I’m not scared of you,” Amelia said, standing firm. “You need to leave. Now.”
“All I want is a kiss,” Chase said. “That’s all. Just one kiss and we’ll go.”
“I don’t give kisses to toads.”
Chase’s grin did not fall or falter on his rounded, porcine face. “Then I guess I’ll just have to take it.”
Jake raised the reed like a baseball bat, ready to send Chase’s noggin rolling into the pond. But Tanner struck Jake first, sending the shorter boy sprawling into the grass with a crimson gash in the ridge of his brow. Jake grunted a moment, strained to sit up, then fell back, head lolling with pain as blood trailed down his eye. Chase was on top of Amelia before she could scream, pulling at her hair.
“Give me a kiss!” he said, his beady eyes the most horrid thing Haley had ever seen. He was pushing his face into Amelia’s and kissing her with his brown kisses. She cried out, but he just kissed her even more, assaulting her face with his lips.
“Stop!” Jake managed to yell, trying to stand.
Tanner kicked Jake in the ribs, sending him back to the ground again. “Crack-a-lack!” he said. “Another whack!” He kicked him again and again with his oversized boots. Jake whimpered and coiled into himself, defeated by the pain.
Haley did not know what to do. She looked back and forth between Amelia and Jake, between Tanner and Chase, between the trailer park and the field, and she could not move. Fear had ossified in her muscles, making a statue of her.
When Amelia started shrieking, though, Haley found that her hands knew what to do. They reached down and picked up a stone as big as her foot. She then ran over and hit Tanner squarely in the back with it. There was a hollow thud on impact and Tanner went down, arching his back and floundering and gawping breathlessly like a fish out of water. She then ran over to Chase. He was pawing at Amelia’s shirt, now, trying to tear it off as Amelia struggled against his kisses. Gripping the stone tightly, Haley raised it with both hands and, coiling like a discus thrower, spun and swung it with all of her strength and her weight.
Somehow in the effort Haley missed her footing and slid to her side in the mud, twisting with the motion of the uncoiling blow. The stone still struck Chase, but as a glancing blow to his shoulder. He cried out and tumbled off of Amelia. Amelia was weeping and clutching at her shirt, tears streaming down her red cheeks. She was too shocked to do anything else.
Rain fell harder, surging as if to hammer the trailer roofs into corrugated tin. Recovering from her fall, Haley got up to her feet as the rain pelted her. Chase got up, too, staggering with pain.
“I’m going to fucking…fucking kill you!” he raged.
Haley bolted toward the fence. Up and over she went, Chase grabbing at her foot. She kicked him off and ran across the highway. Chase followed her, though not as quickly. She could hear his cussing and promises of murder through the rain and the war-drum beating of her own heart. It scared her beyond rational thought and she became a rabbit fleeing a wolf; jolting her into panic.
Unthinking instinct drove her to dive into the ditch like a soldier in war and she crawled through the reeds in a scramble to the culvert. The ditch was already filling up with water. Roof runoff from the trailer park was feeding into it, as was runoff from the highway and the torrential rainfall itself.
“I see you, you fucking bitch!” screamed Chase.
Haley dove into the culvert, squeezing into the tight, concrete-bellied troll and squirming her way into the center of it.
“I know you’re in there!” Chase yelled. “Come outta’ there, you little bitch!”
Laying on her belly, Haley snake-waddled to the other end of the culvert. Toward the center of the culvert, it narrowed, the passage crumbling with years of rust and erosion and neglect. She drew her arms in tighter against her chest and dug her feet into the gravel, pushing her way through that dark, damp place.
As she was about to reach the other side, Chase appeared. He dropped to his knees and reached into the pipe, trying to grab her. She stopped and backed away, his fingernails lightly scratching her forehead.
“I’ll get you!” he snarled. “Just you wait!”
But as fearsome as Chase’s threats were, another voice began to frighten Haley even more. It was faint at first, and faraway, but it was growing stronger, nearer, beneath her and around her; inescapably closing in as the rainwater runoff rose beneath her. It was the sound of the troll’s song. She knew it by now, and knew she had to get away from it, no matter what awaited her beyond the two mouths of the culvert.
Haley’s hand seized on a rock in the culvert that was as big and sharp as a troll’s tooth. She lifted it and flung it at Chase, biting him in the forehead. His hands went to his head and he growled like a bestial thing
“Come after me!” she shrieked at him. “You…you…turd-mouthed potty-head!”
Chase’s eyes flashed with lightning-anger as blood trickled down his face. He dropped down to his belly and started crawling toward into the culvert.
“When I get a hold of you I’m going to poke out your eyes!” he roared. “I’m going to cut off your fingers and make you eat them!”
Struggling, Haley started pushing herself backwards, away from Chase as he squirmed his way towards her. She squirmed with all of her might, no matter however much she scraped her legs and arms and stomach against the broken rocks and the gravel in the belly of the troll. She knew, by the feral violence in his eyes, that what he said would be true if he caught her. She knew from her dream that if she did not escape, the troll would do even worse.
Suddenly, Chase stopped advancing. He strained and he bobbed his head and he breathed heavily, his face turning red, but he could not inch forward. The expression of fury on his face gave way to an expression of confusion, and then alarm. He tried rocking side to side, and he tried pushing himself backwards with his hands. But he could not move. He was stuck; stuck halfway in the partially-collapsed pipe, his rounded belly constricted by the narrowed tunnel. Haley kept moving, though, until, inch by inch, she emerged backwards out of the culvert.
She was soaked, and scraped, and bleeding, but she was alive. The water in the ditch line, she noticed, was rising. She stood and found that it was up to her ankles. She squatted down again and looked at Chase. He was pale, now, and straining to keep his chin up out of the rising water.
“Help!” he cried, spitting the muddy rainwater out of his mouth. “Please! Help me!”
Haley looked at the culvert, and looked up at the dark clouds laid out from horizon to horizon with no end in sight. The rain redoubled and Chase’s pleas became shrill. Even so, Haley could just barely hear him crying above the drumming rain.
“Help! Help! Heeeeelp!”
He started weeping, and choking on water.
Eventually, all Haley could hear coming from the culvert was the sound of the troll gurgling his dreaded song.
Haley crossed the highway again— this time looking both ways in the heavy rain— and climbed over the fence. She returned to find Tanner sitting on the ground, hunched over and squeezing his eyes. Despite the downpour, Haley could see that he was crying.
“Where’s Chase?” he said in a whimper. “I heard him yelling.”
“He’s gone,” she said.
“He went home?”
“The troll got him,” Haley said. “He ate him up. Go see for yourself, if you dare.”
She pointed toward the culvert, but Tanner just sat there, unwilling to move even as the rain fell harder.
Haley helped Amelia up to her feet. The oldest cousin was trembling in the rain, and crying too.
“We need to get Jake to Granny’s,” Haley told her. “He might have to go to the hospital.” When Amelia did not respond, Haley cupped her hands to Amelia’s cheeks. “Amelia. Listen. I can’t carry Jake by myself. You’re a grown-up and I need your help. Please.”
A light of recognition flickered in Amelia’s eyes. Haley was so relieved to see it that she was not all that jealous of how blue Amelia’s eyes were anymore, or how beautifully blonde her hair was, or how unmarred were her lips.
“Okay,” said Amelia.
They both stooped down on either side of Jake and lifted him up; Haley under one arm and Amelia under the other. After a few feet, Jake helped them help him by flexing his spine and steadily working his heavy legs. With the rain still crashing down upon them, they walked to the fence and helped him over. Then they crossed the highway. As they went over the culvert, Haley could see the that troll was bloating with water, the ditch swollen with rainwater that had nowhere to go. The old troll’s concrete ribs were bursting with his meal.
Their grandmother was waiting at the trailer door, calling to them in a worried voice.
“Oh my goslings!” she cried. “Don’t ever leave me alone like that! I thought that horrible pervert Stan had gotten a hold of you!”
She helped them inside, and gave them a stack of towels. While they dried off, she made them hot chocolate to drink and then inspected Jake for his injuries.
“What happened?” she said.
“Chase and Tanner ambushed us,” Jake said, talking quietly with sore ribs. They were not broken. “We tried to go fishing, but nothing worked out.”
“Those two hooligans need their butts busted,” their grandmother said.
“Haley took care of them,” Amelia said, proudly. “She saved us.”
“That’s a good girl,” said her grandmother, beaming. “You have to watch out for each other, you know. I’m sorry I’m not as young as I used to be, or I might be able to take better care of you than I do.”
“That’s okay, granny,” said Jake. “We can take care of ourselves.”
Their grandmother smiled and then sat down in her recliner. She fell asleep a few moments later. A few moments later than that, the rain stopped.
“So what really happened to Chase?” asked Jake. “Did you kick him between the legs?”
“Did you go get Buccaneer Bill?” asked Amelia. She grimaced. “Or did you get Stan to…show him cartoons?”
Before Haley could respond, someone shouted outside. Another shout met the previous one, and there came a flurry of splashing, crunching footsteps along the muddy gravel road, passing by the trailer.
“There!” someone shouted. “I see something there!”
“Oh gawd!” someone said. “There’s somebody in the ditch!”
“Quick! Pull ‘im out!”
“Looks like that Miller boy…I think…”
“Jesus, he’s…he’s gone…”
“Somebody call an ambulance!”
“I said he’s gone! Just look at ‘im!”
“What the hell happened to him…?”
Amelia and Jake looked at Haley in abject astonishment, their irises completely circled by the whites of their eyes.
Haley just shrugged and blew on her hot chocolate before taking a sip. She decided it would be too childish to say, “I told you so.”