Charlie Eggleston looked at the frog he held cupped in his hands. “Want to go home now?” he asked gently.
The frog did not answer, which was not really a surprise.
Charlie knelt and opened his hands anyway. The frog took three long leaps into Tucker’s Swamp, disappearing with a final plunk! under a mat of algae.
Wiping his hands on his jeans, Charlie took a deep breath. He loved the smell of this place—loved everything about it, for that matter: the great willows with their drooping branches and trunks so big his arms could barely reach halfway around them; the familiar paths—sometimes a narrow strip of solid ground, sometimes no more than a string of squishy hummocks; the shallow pools filled with frogs and salamanders. Most of all he loved the sense of magic that hovered over the swamp, the feeling that something deep and strange here had resisted being civilized.
A familiar lump of anger lodged itself halfway between his stomach and his throat. He couldn’t believe Mark Evans’s father was going to drain the swamp and turn it into an “industrial park.” He snorted at the words. People always accused him of lying, but the very phrase industrial park was a whopper that beat any he had ever told. How could a collection of factories be called a park?
Glancing around, Charlie wondered if it was safe to leave the swamp yet. His mother would be angry if he didn’t get home soon. But if he left before Mark and his gang had given up waiting for him, he might never get home at all.
The buzz of insects filled the air. A mosquito began drilling a hole in his neck. He slapped at it. When he brought his hand away the insect’s flimsy body lay crushed in his palm, its head and thread-thin legs extending from the small blot of Charlie’s own blood that marked where its abdomen had been.
“Little vampire,” muttered Charlie, reminding himself that he didn’t actually love everything about the swamp.
He turned to go, stirring up a small cloud of yellow butterflies as he pushed his way through a patch of ferns. A water snake slithered off the path and into a murky pool. Life seemed to pulse all around him, and the idea that someone was going to destroy the swamp made him sick all over again.
That was why he had made up the story that got him in so much trouble with Mark today: to protect the swamp. Besides, he told himself, just because I don’t have the facts to prove it doesn’t mean what I said wasn’t true. I bet it really is.
Charlie was dragging his bike from the brush pile where he had hidden it when a familiar voice sneered, “Well, look here—it’s Charlie Eggleston, king of the liars.”
Charlie felt his stomach clench. If he didn’t get away fast, Mark and his cronies were apt to turn him into something resembling roadkill.
Swinging onto his bike, he began to pedal.
One of Mark’s friends appeared ahead of him.
Charlie swerved to the right to avoid him but found his path blocked by another of Mark’s pals.
“Get him!” cried Mark—rather unnecessarily, thought Charlie, since the gang was already working pretty hard at doing just that.
Charlie spun his bike and headed straight for the swamp. Shouting and screaming, the others charged after him. Under normal circumstances they would probably have caught him. But with fear as his fuel, Charlie was able to outdistance them, if only by a few feet. At the edge of the swamp he cast aside his bike and plunged in, splashing through the murky water, not caring where the paths were, what he stepped in, whether he was going to ruin his sneakers. The terror was on him, and he had to get away.
He could hear Mark and the others splashing in behind him but dared not glance back to see how close they were. Heart pounding, he raced through water that reached past his knees. He knew his mother would be furious when she saw his swamp-soaked pants, and even as he fled Mark’s vengeance some small part of his mind was inventing an alibi to offer when he got home.
The voices began to fade behind him. Mark’s shouted “I’ll teach you to lie about my father, you snot-faced baby!” were the last words Charlie actually made out.
He was gasping now, and the breath burned in his lungs. Looking around, he found he had entered a part of the swamp he had never seen before. He felt a little tingle of fear, until he realized that since he had abandoned all the regular paths he should be someplace new. Tucker’s Swamp wasn’t that big, so if he kept going he would have to find his way out sooner or later—though if it was later he would probably be in even more trouble at home for not showing up in time for supper. His father was big on having the whole family sit down together.
He slogged on, hoping his favorite daydreams—the ones about weird creatures that lived in the swamp—were really only fantasies after all, and that he wouldn’t find anything too large or too strange before he made his way out again.
The swamp turned out to be bigger than Charlie had realized. Even so, he didn’t start to panic until he noticed the sun getting low in the sky. The orange and pink that smeared the horizon were spectacular, but their awesome beauty announced a fast-approaching darkness, and he had no desire to be wading through the swamp once that darkness arrived.
A flutter of wings made Charlie look up. Was it dark enough for bats to be out yet? He shivered, and moved on.
Somewhere to his right he heard the hoot of an owl. When he turned to see if he could spot the bird, he noticed a strip of dry land.
Maybe that will get me out of here! he thought eagerly.
Filled with new hope, he squished toward it.
The swarming mosquitoes were thicker now, and he was constantly slapping at his neck and arms. The evening chill had settled, and his wet legs were freezing. What a relief it was to see a glow of lights ahead! He began to hurry along the path.
Another hundred yards brought him to the edge of the swamp. He crossed a grassy area, came to a road, and looked around expectantly. The chill that rippled through him this time had nothing to do with the dropping temperature. Where am I? He had been all the way around Tucker’s Swamp dozens of times and had no recollection of ever seeing this spot.
Much as he dreaded what his parents would say, Charlie decided he had better call home to see if they would come and get him. That decision made, he set off along the road to his left, where the lights seemed closest, hoping to find a pay phone.
Mist curled around his feet. Wisps of it rose before him like beckoning fingers.
Charlie shuddered. Wishing he had not abandoned his bike, he began to walk faster.
A moment later he found himself standing in ...