Unfortunately, Andrew, hearing only Becky’s part of comment, was a bit confused. There were only two Jennifers in their school. One was short and heavy, the other one tall and thin.
“Jennifer who?” he asked. “Ya don’t mean the one who’s nothin’ but a bag of skin an’ bones?”
At that, the redhead’s face fell. He turned his face away from the group.
A hush fell over the entire group.
Everyone else was shocked and speechless, including Mark. They seemed to have forgotten about Andrew until he spoke.
For a while, no one seemed to know what to do.
Becky was the first one to return to her senses. “You are so mean!” she snapped. “Did your parents ever teach you anything, other than the cowboy stuff?” Her eyes got huge and they looked scary. She gave the cowboy a long glare.
Andrew was just as shocked. He had no idea what went wrong. Nevertheless, he lowered his head and did not speak again.
“If I were Jennifer,” said Becky. “I tell you what I would have done. I’ll tell him to get out of my face!” She rolled her eyes heavenward. “That walking stick,” she continued. “What did his parents feed him? Sticks?”
The two friends chuckled and each gave her a high five.
“Why did that dude – man, what’s his name – follow Jennifer around like a puppy?” Logan was saying.
Even though Logan’s tone had a bit of stinging edge to it, Mark could have sworn the redhead’s face flushed a darker red as soon as he mentioned Jennifer.
“Dunno,” George replied. “Bet he thinks he’s so great and everything. A transfer and an eighth grader.” He clapped on his best friend’s back. “I’m sure Jennifer hated it. But she’s just too nice to complain about it. I mean, he’s new.”
Logan nodded, seemingly feeling better.
Mark nodded and gave him what he wanted to hear. “That’s right.”
His friend smiled broadly and said no more.
So that was it. The end of their conversation. They both fell silent once again. Mark had no idea of what else to say; Andrew couldn’t find anything else to boast either.
The other three, however, were not as amused as Andrew. Their conversation appeared to have gone acerbic.
Andrew turned suddenly, his face flushed with pleasure and pride. Mark figured it must be something important and he’d better started paying attention.
“Dad said I can lasso better ‘n any cowboy star in the Hollywood. Ya reckon that’s true?”
He never told his friend that, with a height like his, he would never get a real cowboy role in the future. Mrs. Theatrice, the drama teacher, was only being nice when she offered him the leading cowboy roles in school because Andrew’s parents had told her about his cowboy collection.
And Mark certainly did not tell him that the additional heels on his boots made him rather more like a cowboy on high heels. That would hurt Andrew’s feelings badly.
But Mark always played nice. Oftentimes he would nod his head while he pretended to be listening.
The clicking sound of the cowboy boots promptly brought his attention back to Andrew.
Looking at those boots, Mark could not help but feel a bit sorry for him.
“What’s it for?” he went on, knowing exactly what Andrew would say but asked it anyway.
“It’s for the show today,” said the cowboy, beaming. “But I’ve got to be at the rehearsal on time. So I decided to go ahead an’ wear it. Just in case…”
Out of the corner of his eyes, Mark thought he saw Becky turn and roll her eyes.
He wouldn’t blame her. She must have heard that and the cowboy stuff for a trillion times too.
“Nice outfit,” Mark commented, as if he were seeing something new and interesting for the first time. Yes, Andrew could be bizarre, arrogant, and sometimes even shy. But he did have a soft heart. Mark knew that because they grew up together. Like the time when his grandfather passed away. Mark was five and could use some help to take his mind off the tragic event. Andrew did just that: he was a good listener and was always more than willing to share his cowboy collections with Mark. But all that was years ago and now they hardly spoke to each other.
Mark winced inside when he saw the new neckerchief around Andrew’s neck and a coiled rope fastened to his cowboy pants.
He must have been uncomfortably hot wearing these.
While the others were chattering away, Mark was walking quietly beside Andrew. He needed some time in peace and quiet.
Mark stole a quick glance at his companion and wasn’t surprised by what he was seeing.
The usual Andrew outfit. The same old thing Andrew always wore for special occasions. Or, for that matter, the same old style he wore to everywhere else except school: a cowboy costume, complete with high quality, polished boots, and a new cowboy hat atop his head. Sometimes Mark wondered if he wore them to sleep.
“Memorial Park, pal,” he said. “That ought to keep the boredom down.” He grinned. “We got plenty of food. Right, George?”
George was locking his bike. He looked up, nodding eagerly, and turned back to his bike.
At this point, Mark couldn’t think of anything better to do. He wasn’t about to go back to Dark Woods anytime soon either.
Andrew spoke for the first time. “Let’s git goin’, y’all,” he said impatiently.
Logan and the rest began prattling, except Andrew.
Andrew was standing alone. He shifted his weight and gave Mark a grim smile, then looked down at his feet.
This wasn’t turning out the way Mark wanted. No one was taking him seriously.
“You guys don’t believe me?”
Becky waved her hand dismissively. “You’re just like them, Mark,” she said. “Always bragging about something you didn’t do. That’s so uncool. I mean, nobody dares to go in there. Not even Sheriff Probe.” Sheriff Probe was the toughest man in town.
Mark shuddered at the name. That’s whom his father would be calling if he doesn’t find the antiques soon.
“But–but I did,” he insisted. “I saw a ghost in there!” He pointed in the direction of Dark Woods as though to emphasize the seriousness of it.
Another stream of laughter erupted from the others.
Logan wiped the tears off his eyes. “You are funny today, Mark,” he said, chuckling. “You must’ve been more bored than we are!”
Mark opened his mouth to protest, but Becky rolled her eyes. “Can someone please stop him?”
“About the ghost.”
“What ghost?” asked Logan, looking puzzled. Then a smile slowly spread across his lips. His eyes twinkled. “That’s a good one, pal! I like the joke!” He laughed. The others joined him.
Mark stared hopelessly at him.
“Mark!” Logan, with his tall, skinny frame and a red head of hair, stepped forward. Mark tried to keep a straight face when he recalled how Logan’s eyes had gotten so huge while Becky was screaming on the top of her lungs. It was such a peculiar sight. “What’re you doing here, buddy?”
Mark shrugged. He couldn’t really explain what had happened in the Dark Woods.
The redhead’s face turned serious. “What’s the matter, buddy?” he said. “You seen a ghost or something?”
Mark’s eyes widened in surprise. “How’d you know?”
“Look who’s here,” said an angry voice. “Showing up just to freak us out!”
Relief washed over Mark as soon as he heard that all-too-familiar voice. No one else could beat that cranky voice of Becky’s.
And he was right. Standing before him was Becky in a pair of Bermuda shorts, hands on her hips and her eyes narrowed into slits. She looked like she was ready to lash out at Mark.
It was hard to believe that he was out of the Dark Woods at last. And alive.
His heart beat faster as he slowly brushed a cluster of larkspur apart.
An earsplitting scream greeted him and nearly knocked the breath out of his body. Mark managed to grab hold of a fistful of stems to steady himself.
Mark reached out to the cliquey larkspur but doubts began to creep back. But what if the wild plants were merely some form of illusion that might lead him deeper into the woods?
A swarm of mosquitoes flew around Mark. A few of them landed briefly on his arm and stung him. Mark slapped at them angrily and cursed under his breath.
Almost immediately, he heard a gasp coming from the other side.
A little further down was another stretch of wild plants that swayed in the wind. Once Mark was close enough, he saw they were larkspurs that reached above his full height.
Maybe this was it.
He took a deep breath. The freedom he was yearning: freedom from the curse of the gloomy shades.
Yet Mark managed to calm down and contemplate the whole thing over. He couldn’t keep running forever. Maybe that was how others, too, got lost in the Dark Woods.
But, on second thought, what if he was heading right into somewhere, where he might soon meet his fate and join others who had gotten there before him? What if he never found a way out?
Mark slowed to a jog trot, thinking he was at a safe distance. He thought his lungs would burst.
Looking at what was before him caused his heart to skip a beat.
The landscape was entirely different. Birches grew amid other wild weeds, and some of the weeds were reaching up high above his waist.
He did not know whether he should laugh or cry.