Watch Out, World!
Somewhere on the trail ahead, I could hear kids screaming. That had to be my group. Everyone else was back at the campground getting ready for lunch. I started to run.
I’ve been running around the Regional Park after this bunch of third graders for the past three days. I’m supposed to be their counselor—or one of their counselors anyway. When Mr. Gage, the principal at Hillcrest Elementary, told me about this school day camp idea, he said it was a big honor to be chosen. Each class would have two counselors, and only the most responsible twelve and thirteen year olds were picked. But somebody really messed up when they picked my co-counselor, DeVon Williams.
Big Deal Williams, with his “I am the Greatest!” buttons and his loud mouth. Mr. Big, who wouldn’t know what being responsible was if it were spelled out for him in neon lights.
The first morning of camp, DeVon took a hike in the woods and most of our kids tagged along after him. But I was the one who spent the rest of the day looking for Cassie O’Connor and Rami Jordan who got lost.
“They too dumb to find the way back,” DeVon said, “they shoulda stuck with me.”
Tuesday he knocked a wasps’ nest out of a tree and broke it open. Every kid watching him got stung. “They shoulda run,” said DeVon, counting his own stings like they were medals of honor, while the rest of the kids stood around admiring the Big Hero.
So I’ve been doing all the worrying, and DeVon all the fooling around. Like now for instance. DeVon should have had the kids back from the ranger station ten minutes ago.
The screaming scared me. What if one of the kids was really hurt this time? Fallen down a gully, maybe--or bitten by a rattler?
I speeded up, hot air pumping my lungs dry with every breath. Please don’t let anybody be hurt, I prayed. Please let them be okay.
I sprinted around a bend in the trail and there they were, crowded around the huge trunk of a live oak tree. No one was hurt. They were all jumping up and down, staring up into the tree and shrieking with excitement.
“Look out! Look out! He gonna fall!”
“Not him, man. He Meteor Man--he can fly!”
Just Big Deal Williams again, probably balancing at the top of the tree on one foot.
“Lunch time, you guys,” I shouted above the racket. I felt like a sheep dog trying to round up a lot of pesky lambs. “Come on, you’re late again. Let’s go.”
Three or four kids separated from the group and started back, but the rest of the gang swarmed around me, everyone trying to tell me what was happening at the same time. Only one voice stood out—DeVon’s.
“Hey, Hansen. Come on up here, man.” He sounded like he was at the top of the tree. “Got this crazy cat up here needs help getting down.”
Besides being the camp’s greatest daredevil and hero, DeVon was also an expert at making me look dumb. I was pretty sure there was no cat; he was just making it up. But there were a lot of abandoned cats living in the park, so there could be one. Whatever I did, I was stuck.
If I tried to climb up where he was—and didn’t fall off and break my neck on the way—Mr. Big would have everybody laughing over the way he’d fooled that dummy Hansen. If I said I wasn’t coming, the kids would think I was scared.
The kids had stopped yelling. They were watching to see what I’d do. “It’s lunch time,” I said again, hoping somebody would be hungry enough to leave and get the rest started. But even the ones who’d been ready to go when I first arrived were still hanging around wide-eyed.
“Aren’t you going to help DeVon?” Cassie O’Connor demanded impatiently.
If there was a second biggest trouble-maker in camp, it had to be her. She could look at you with those green cat-eyes and the corners of her mouth quivering and tell you her name was Cassie O’Connor, and you couldn’t believe her if your life depended on it.
Except for the dark red hair, and the ten thousand freckles, and her size—the top of her head came just above the buckle of my belt—she was another DeVon. She took every dare he threw out, and thought up some pretty good ones of her own. She spent half her time at camp sitting in the campfire circle that they used like the school office, either getting bandages put on her scrapes by Miss Osborn, or getting lectures from Mr. Gage.
I took a deep breath. Instead of cooling me down, all the hot air I sucked in just made me feel hotter. And madder. “Quit fooling around, Cassie. There’s no cat up there, and you know it.”
“There is too.”
“Sure there is, man.” Even from so far away, I could hear the laughter in DeVon’s voice. He had me right where he wanted me. “A little old black kitty. Looks like it so little, it still need its mama.”
“Are you coming down for lunch or not?” I yelled. This whole argument was so dumb it shouldn’t even be happening.
“You got to come up here and help, man. I can’t climb down with a hand full of cat.”
I knew the kids wouldn’t follow me, or I would have walked away and left Mr. Big sitting up there. But if I wanted the kids to come, I had to win the argument first. I don’t know how this got started, but DeVon and I always seemed to be jousting like a pair of knights for our kids’ allegiance. I wasn’t used to feeling so hot and mad all the time. It was wearing me out.
“I’m not coming up there because it’s such a dumb idea,” I yelled. “Just like all the other ideas you’ve had.”
I was thinking of the wasps’ nest when I added that last insult, and of the other things DeVon had done that had ended with someone else getting into trouble. But I suddenly remembered his face yesterday when Mr. Gage had turned down his plan for taking the whole camp on a hike to the top of the mountain. DeVon hadn’t been kidding around then. He really wanted his idea to get picked. I did too, but all the teachers had voted no. Too hot, they said.
Sometimes I wish I could just punch a key and delete the stupid cracks I make, so people would forget I ever said them. DeVon was never going to come down now.
“You’re just a scaredy cat,” Cassie told me scornfully. “Well, I’m not. I’m going up and help.” She jumped, caught hold of the lowest branch, and had one leg over it before I could move.
“Cassie, get down!” I said, grabbing the back of her shirt. She wrapped her arms and legs around the branch and let out a screech you could probably hear five miles away in the City. If a teacher heard her and came running, I would really get it for “abusing my leadership role” or something.
Well, tough. I didn’t want this job anymore anyway. I only took it because my dad said I had to stop burying my nose in books and get out and make some friends.
He never explained how I was supposed to make friends when I had to go straight home after school every day and take care of my little brother and sister until he got home from work. And there wasn’t anyone at this camp that I wanted to be friends with anyway. Especially DeVon Williams. If Mr. Big were the last person in the world, I wouldn’t want him for a friend. No way.
Cassie was still screeching, and now the rest of the kids had joined in. They were all yelling at me to let her go and daring Cassie to go right to the top. I wasn’t going to let her try. If she fell and broke something, everyone would be sorry when it was too late to do Cassie any good. As long as I had to be her counselor, Cassie was staying on the ground where she belonged.
“Cut it out, Cassie,” I warned her. “I mean it. You aren’t going up there.”
Her only answer was to let go of the branch with one hand and swing wildly at my head. I ducked under her arm and shoved both hands between the branch and her stomach, scraping my knuckles on the rough bark.
Now what, I wondered? Knowing how stubborn Cassie was, we could be stuck to this tree for the rest of the week. Maybe even for the rest of our lives. Someday they’d find us, like empty cicada shells, still clinging to the bark. I couldn’t help it. I started laughing, and hot air rushed out of me like a burst of steam.
“Cassie? Victor?” Miss Osborn’s calm voice broke through the kids’ yells. The cavalry had arrived in the nick of time. “What’s going on?”
Grinning sheepishly at Miss Osborn, I let Cassie go. I could see her thinking about heading on up the tree, but she jumped down finally. All thirty kids were trying to tell Miss Osborn what happened at the same time.
“All right, all right,” Miss Osborn said, laughing. “I think I have the idea. I also think what everybody needs is lunch and a cold drink. So scoot.” Like a flock of parrots flitting noisily through the jungle, they went.
I was wishing I had her magic touch.
Miss Osborn took Cassie’s hand. She looked up at the old oak and down again at me. If she had been any other grownup, I would have expected angry accusations and a lot of useless suggestions about what I should have done. But she was Miss Osborn. She winked at me.
“Thanks for saving this red-headed monster again,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “That’s what I’m here for.” I looked at the backs of my hands and then at the new scrapes along Cassie’s bare legs. “Sorry I was so rough on you, Cass.”
It would take more than a couple of scrapes to make Cassie complain. She stuck her tongue out at me.
Miss Osborn gave her hand a little shake. “Cassie…,” she said warningly. As the two of them walked away, I heard Cassie asking Miss Osborn if she had any kids of her own.
Miss Osborn was one of the new teachers coming to Hillcrest Elementary in the fall. She wasn’t a teacher exactly—she was the school secretary. But the secretary is the only grownup you can really be friends with—the only one who doesn’t have to give you grades or make you behave. Miss Osborn was going to be a great secretary.
She was the first Flatlander I’d ever met—one of the black ones, like DeVon. Every time my dad said something about Flatlanders being different from Hillsiders, I thought of DeVon and I knew he was right. They even talked differently from us. And their names—I never heard names like Taisha and DeVon before. When I thought about Miss Osborn, though, I wasn’t so sure. Miss Osborn was the best.
Behind me something dropped heavily out of the tree. I whirled around. DeVon was down at last, grinning broadly. Everything that happened, good or bad, was just a joke to Mr. Big. With a flourish he produced a small black kitten from under his t-shirt.
I watched it skittering frantically into the underbrush, knowing it wasn’t any better off than if he’d left it in the tree. It was probably going to starve to death…or be eaten by something bigger. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in the park, and seen a lot of those little skeletons.
“Man, you a real mess,” DeVon said. He didn’t sound particularly unhappy about it. “You a counselor, man. You ain’t supposed to beat up on your little kids.”
I could feel myself heating up again. “You’re a counselor too, in case you’ve forgotten. You aren’t supposed to let your kids do dumb things and get themselves hurt.”
Instead of getting mad, DeVon looked pleased—as if he had me right where he wanted me. “You want a fight so bad, Hansen,” he said, “why not try it with somebody your own size?”
I shook my head. “I’m not fighting you.”
“Why not? You one of them pacifists?” Devon danced around me, jabbing at my shoulders like a boxer. “You afraid to fight?”
I wasn’t afraid exactly. Well, okay…I was afraid, a little. I’ve never fought with anybody, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that no matter what it looks like on TV, getting hit or kicked in real life has to hurt. I didn’t want to beat up anyone else, and I didn’t want anyone beating on me. The whole idea was stupid. Human beings are supposed to talk to each other.
“Come on, man,” DeVon jeered. “What you waiting for?”
There was no way to explain how I saw things to people like DeVon. You either understood it or you didn’t. It was obvious he didn’t. Anyway, I was wasting valuable time. This half hour while the kids were eating lunch was the only free time I was going to have today, and I really needed it.
“It’s your turn to eat with the kids,” I said. What I really wanted to say was, Will you please get going and leave me alone?
The next thing I knew, DeVon had the front of my shirt twisted in one hand and his other fist in my face. “Don’t tell me what to do, Hansen,” he said furiously. “I’m not just as good as you. I’m better. You hear me? I am the best!”
My mouth was hanging open. I snapped it shut. Best at what? What was he talking about?
Suddenly, as if signaling the end of a round in the boxing ring, the distant lunch gong broke the silence between us. DeVon straightened slowly, letting go of my shirt. We stared at each other for a second. Then we both turned and headed in opposite directions.
I’ve messed up again. I can’t believe I’m doing all these dumb things. One right after the other. It’s like I want to prove old Know-It-All Hansen is right.
Man, when they told us about this camp counseling thing in the Regional Park, I wanted to get picked so bad I kept my fingers crossed for a week. Mrs. Dufrocq told us only the most responsible twelve year olds were going to get picked, so I figured I had a chance. Not a big chance, maybe, but a chance.
I wasn’t their first pick, but Adham went and broke his foot falling down some stairs in the dark, so they sent me instead. I come up here expecting to be the best counselor this camp ever had. Going to show Mrs. Dufrocq and everybody else that I should have been their first pick. And what happens?
They give me some kind of Superman for a co-counselor. Know-It-All Hansen. Can’t do nothing wrong. Never made a dumb mistake in his whole life. Talk to the grownups like he was one of them, and they listen to him, too. He know every tree and bird and trail in the Park. Everything we do, he done it before a million times, and he know the right way to do it.
It’s my first time in this park. Bruner/Brumleve Regional Park, they call it. I like the sound of those words rolling along together…Bruner/Brumleve. Never even knew the Park had a name until now.
I been looking up at these cool green hills ever since I was born, wishing I could hike around in them. Explore. Only when you live in the Flatlands, man, there ain’t no way you can get to the hills. Between them and you there’s the City, and then Hillside. And Hillsiders are scary people. You don’t want to be caught on their turf by yourself. Not if you black like me.
Hansen is a Hillsider. That’s how come he know this park like it was his back yard. It probably is. Sure ain’t mine. I started messing up right off. Got so excited just being here, I set off to explore the whole park in one morning. A whole mess of little kids—the third graders I’m supposed to be counselor for—tagged along with me.
We had a great time. Everybody looking for birds and deer and snakes. Didn’t see any snakes, but we seen some deer and a bird even bluer than our school colors.
When we got back, it turned out I’d gone and left a couple of kids in the woods somewhere. All of a sudden I felt scared and stupid—how could I have messed up so bad? What if we couldn’t find them?
But finding lost kids is no problem for Hansen the Hillsider. I ended up hanging around with the rest of the kids and Miss Osborn in the campfire circle, while Victor—Victor! Can you believe it? With a name like that, how can he lose?—hikes off into the wilderness and brings back Rami Jordan and Cassie O’Connor alive.
Next day I broke open a wasps’ nest—a big thing, look like a brown paper bag. Look empty, too. I ain’t that dumb, even if I never seen one before. Only it wasn’t empty. Everybody got stung. Nothing I could do with old Know-It-All glaring at me, but pretend like it didn’t hurt. Like at school, when they vaccinate everyone. The big kids got to be brave so the little ones don’t get scared.
And now here I am again. Up a tree. Trying to rescue a wild kitten that don’t want to be rescued. I got scratches all over my hands, and a crowd of little kids down below yelling about how I’m Meteor Man and I can do anything.
I got to come down with this kitten, or those kids going to be worrying about it for the rest of the time we in the Park. Every chance they get, they’ll be pestering me to climb back up here and rescue it.
Once an eight-year-old gets an idea in its head, it never quits. ‘Specially that Cassie O’Connor. Coming up here was her idea. She heard the kitten crying, and she would have rescued it herself if I hadn’t said I would.
That girl…she as tough and smart as they come. Ain’t scared of nothing. If I had a sister, I’d want one like Cassie, red hair and freckles and--
Suddenly, above all the kids’ voices, I could hear another one. “Lunch time, you guys,” it was saying. “Come on, you’re late again. Let’s go.”
Even thirty feet up I knew who was down there, doing the right thing as usual. Wouldn’t catch him up a tree, when he ought to be somewhere else. No way. But I could sure use some help.
“Hey, Hansen,” I called. “Come on up here, man. Give me a hand. I got this crazy cat needs rescuing.”
I couldn’t hear what he said, but Cassie spoke right up. “Aren’t you going to help DeVon?” she said.
“Quit fooling around, Cassie,” Hansen said in that calm way he has, like nothing is ever bad enough to lose your cool over. Always makes me want to see if I can’t get him to lose his somehow. “There’s no cat up there, and you know it.”
“There is too,” she said.
I grinned. You tell him, girl. “Sure there is, man,” I called. “A little old black kitty. Look like it so little, it still need its mama.”
“Are you coming down for lunch or not?” he shouted, sounding a little less cool.
Maybe just this once I could get him to lose it. “You got to come up here and help me, man. I can’t climb down with one hand full of cat.”
“I’m not coming up there because it’s such a dumb idea,” he yelled, “just like all the other ideas you’ve had.”
Old Know-It-All never heard of forgive and forget. He got to rub it in whenever he can, remind the kids what a smart guy he is and what a loser I am. Now I got to bring this stupid cat down with me, no matter what, so they’ll know he was wrong for once.
I kept the kitten busy watching my wiggling fingers while I snuck up on it from behind with the other hand. When it quit squalling and spitting, I tucked it inside my t-shirt, hoping it wouldn’t eat out my insides like the fox did to the Spartan boy on TV. Then I headed down in a hurry.
I could hear Hansen arguing with Cassie about letting her climb up and help me. This was one argument I hoped he was going to win. I didn’t need her falling out of the tree and breaking something she couldn’t fix, like her neck. Lucky for all of us, Miss Osborn turned up just then and sent everyone back to camp for lunch.
Miss Osborn been the secretary in my school ever since I started there in kindergarten. Man, she is the greatest! Whenever I see the words, Black is Beautiful, I think of her. She the only grownup I ever met who listens to you. Really listens. Figures you got some brains inside that big head, even if you don’t always use them.
Next year she’ll be coming up to Hillcrest Elementary with this same bunch of little kids. I figure if we had more teachers like her—and school board members, and City Council people—we could lick just about any problems you want to name….
By the time I got down to the ground, only Hansen was still there, so I missed my chance to show him up in front of the kids. Could still show him he was wrong, though.
I put the kitten on the ground and watched his face. Mr. Know-It-All look surprised at first, like he hadn’t believed me. Then he started to say something, but changed his mind. The backs of his hands were scraped and there was a little blood on his Save the Rain Forest t-shirt. Keeping Cassie on the ground must have been harder than I thought.
“Man, you look a mess,” I said, teasing him. He always look so clean and unruffled. “You a counselor, man. You ain’t supposed to beat up on your little kids.”
Hansen couldn’t understand a joke if you spelled it out for him in letters ten feet high. Got permanent lines in his forehead from worrying all the time. “You’re a counselor, too, in case you’ve forgotten,” he said, all hot and bothered. “You aren’t supposed to let your kids do dumb things and get themselves hurt.”
Whoo! I can see this my chance to push him a little. Nobody to see us. Nobody will know. “You so hot for a fight, Hansen, why not try it with somebody your own size?” I didn’t really want to fight him. He’d probably get hurt. Just wanted to show him he wasn’t so perfect either.
He shook his head. “I’m not fighting you.”
“Why? You one of them pacifists?” I did a little Rocky dance around him, jabbing at his shoulders. “You afraid to fight?” When he didn’t answer, I added, “Come on, man. What you waiting for?”
He gave a kind of shrug, like the whole idea was too dumb to bother with, just like all the other ideas I had. All of a sudden I did want to hurt him. And the next thing he said made me lose it.
“It’s your turn to eat with the kids.”
He was telling me my job. Man, I hate that. I hate when someone tells you to do something you already know you got to do, so when you do it they get to think it’s because they told you to.
I grabbed his shirt and stuck my fist in his face. “Don’t you tell me how to do my job, Hansen,” I yelled. And then I told him what I wanted him to tell me. What I wanted him to believe. What I wanted to believe myself, only I was having a hard time with him around. “I’m not just as good as you. I’m better. You hear? I am the best!”
He stared at me like he thought I’d gone crazy. We stood there, him with his mouth hanging open, and me feeling like he’d won again. Then somebody back at camp hit the lunch gong a tremendous wallop. I glared at him for a second, but there wasn’t a thing I could say to get through his thick head how I felt.
I headed back to camp wishing he’d fall down some dark stairs like Adham and leave the Park to me and the kids.