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Small as an Elephant

By Crystal Scott,2014-11-04 20:23
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Small as an Elephant

    Elephants can sense danger. They’re able to detect an approaching tsunami or earthquake beforeit hits. Unfortunately, Jack did not have this talent. The day his life was turned completelyupside down, he was caught unaware.

    He was in a little Hubba tent at Seawall Campground, on Mount Desert Island. The night had beencool, and Jack had been glad he’d insisted on taking his warmer sleeping bag when his momtried to talk him into the other one, the one that was lighter and easier to scrunch up.

    But now it was morning, and he was hot. His sweat-soaked hair stuck to his neck and forehead.Clothes dryer — that’s what the tent smelled like: a trapped-heat smell that filled hisnostrils and told him the sun was high. It’s gotta be lunchtime, he thought, kicking off his

    sleeping bag. Why hadn’t she woken him up? He raced the tent zipper around its track andscrambled out into fresher air.

    Dang!

    The rental car was gone! He stood there, rooted, as if his eyes just had to adjust to thelight, had to let forms take shape, and the car would be there, right where she’d left it. Butthe car was really gone. So was the little tent his mother had pitched on the gravelly groundnext to his.

    Jack tried to take a deep breath, but the air outside was now as heavy and suffocating as theair inside the tent had been.

    Had she moved sites? Maybe the ground beneath her sleeping bag was too rocky and she’d decidedto find a better site. Which would make sense, he suddenly realized, because the camping gearthey’d spread across the picnic table was no longer there, either.

    All that was left on the site was Jack and his Hubba.

    He fumbled for his phone to call her. No reception in the campground — at least not in thisspot.

    Relax, he told himself. It probably had nothing to do with what had happened yesterday. Asofter site — or one closer to the ocean — had probably opened up. She’d jumped on it andwas now sitting there, looking out at the Atlantic, waiting for him to show up.

    From what they’d been told, cars lined up every morning to get a spot at this campground —first come, first served. But Jack and his mother hadn’t come at dawn. In fact, they hadn’tarrived until late last night, and the ranger who explained the system said they were lucky —a family had just left because of a sick kid. Jack figured his mom got back in line first thingthis morning to see what else was available. This was their summer vacation, and they wereplanning on camping here in Acadia National Park for three nights. She’d want it to be extraspecial.

    Question was, should he pack up his tent and take it with him? Or find her first? His stomachgrowled; he’d look now and pack later.

    Like most campgrounds, this one had lots of looping roads twisting through the woods. Jackbegan with Loop A and Loop B, figuring those would have sites on the water. But unless he wasmistaken, or had missed a road or two, none of the campsites had ocean views. So he scoped Loop

    C and Loop D, slowly enough to get a good look at the sites, fast enough to not looksuspicious. Lots of places had a single tent, and since Jack’s mother had borrowed both of thetents they were using, and because they had pitched them in the dark, Jack couldn’t even sayfor sure what his mom’s tent looked like. So he stuck to looking for the rental car.

    His mother had specifically asked for a Prius. Not just because they were traveling all the wayfrom Boston to Maine and gas was expensive, but because she believed in doing what she could tosave the earth.

    “So what does this car run on?” Jack had asked. “Biodiesel?”

    “Nope. Gas and electricity.”

    “You can make energy from elephant poop, you know,” Jack had said. “The Dallas Zoo calls itpoo power!”

    biogas!” his mother had said.“P-U, talk about

    He’d laughed. His mother was so quick with one-liners.

    Him? He was an expert on all things elephant.

    Right now he wished he had the memory of an elephant. Was the car white or silver? Walking incircles suddenly felt ridiculous, so when he passed his own tent for the second time (it beingon the only campsite with one tent and nothing else), he decided to stop looking. Instead, he

    reached into his pocket, pulled out his spending money, and tossed it onto the picnic table.Fourteen dollars and sixty-three cents. He was going to find food.

    There were no concession stands in the campground, no restaurants — not even a conveniencestore — so Jack jogged out to the registration hut and asked the woman behind the counter (whowas reading a fantasy by Robin McKinley, the same one his friend Nina had read earlier thissummer) where the nearest market was.

    “Tired of Dinty Moore?” she asked. “Seawall Camping Supplies. Right down the road.”

    Jack knew all about Dinty Moore stew — not from camping, but from the nights when his mom hadto work late and he made his own dinner. “Do you know if —” He was going to say, If a woman

     but a feeling in the pit ofwith short blond hair and a light-colored Prius has come through,

    his stomach made him change his mind midsentence. “If that store you just mentioned has thosebright — those neon-red hot dogs?”

    The woman laughed. “Red snappers! Absolutely!”

    Jack smiled. As least one of the things his mom had promised on the drive to Maine was going tohappen. He was going to bite into a glowing red hot dog and hear a snap.

    The first thing Jack did once he’d left the park and was on Route 102A was pull out his phoneagain. There was a single bar — he had a tiny chance of reaching his mother. He punched in thenumber. Yes! It was ringing!

    But she didn’t pick up. He wished they hadn’t argued in the car last night. He wished he’dtried to be a little more understanding.

    He hung up and tried again, this time listening to her voice-mail message: “Becky Martel here— or not here, to be exact. Don’t leave any old message. Wow me!”

    He waited for the beep and then shouted, “Where are you?”

    Seawall Camping Supplies didn’t look like any store Jack had ever visited. It was a cabin —with a porch and everything — and had signs all over it. HOT SHOWERS AND LOBSTER POUND, readone sign. Another said, IT’S COOLER ON THE COAST. He would have felt nervous about walkinginto the strange place if not for a third sign that read, COIN-OP SHOWERS INSIDE STORE. CHANGEAT THE COUNTER. The sign made him laugh, and he wished his mother was there to share the joke.

    A rack of stuffed animals greeted him just inside the door: lobsters, seals, moose, and blackbears — but no elephants. The decklike wooden floor creaked as he ambled — among maps andmaple syrup, fishing line and Goldfish crackers, all jumbled together — to the counter, wherea woman in an apron was waiting to take his order.

    “How much are the hot dogs?” Jack asked.

    “You can have two dogs, chips, and a small soda for four dollars,” she said.

    “Red ones?”

    “Of course. What do you want on ’em?”

    “Mustard,” he said, taking a five out of his pocket and then, before handing it over, asking,“Can I buy a paper, too?”

    Bangor DailyThe woman nodded at the pile of newspapers by the door and added the price of a News.

    Jack sat down at a table on the porch to wait and scanned the headlines, barely giving himselfenough time to read the words. Breathe, he reminded himself after a moment, the way his motherwould. What’s the worst that could have happened?

    Car accident. Definitely. The only thing he knew for sure was that his mother had taken thecar. She’d taken the Prius and had headed off somewhere this morning (Last night? As soon as I

    ) and, although she was a good driver — in fact, that was her job, driving afell asleep?

    shuttle for the Intown Inn — he figured anyone could speed off these twisty island roads.

    BLACK BEARS caught his eye, but it was an article about a football team and not wild animals.Another headline, about a missing nine-year-old girl, stopped him. (Did adults get kidnapped?)Jack was reading?this story when the woman brought his food.

    “Scary, isn’t it?” she said, glancing down at the paper. “Sure hope they find her safe andsound.”

    Jack nodded, thinking about his mom and pushing the paper away. He took a bite of his hot dogand heard the snap — the snap his mom had told him about, the snap she was supposed to show

    him . . . show him and laugh about. She was supposed to show him the hot dog’s thick casing

    and its candy-apple color, then they were supposed to laugh and eat and talk about the firsttime she’d ever had a red hot dog in Maine.

    He felt heaviness in his arms and put the hot dog down. Dang it! These were supposed to be thebest three days of his whole summer. The ones that were going to make up for all the boringdays he’d spent in their nothing-to-do apartment. Mom, in her exploding firecracker way, hadborrowed equipment, read online reviews, made lists of all the best places to visit, circledmaps, and even downloaded music for the car ride. She could hardly stop talking about SandBeach, Thunder Hole, and all the other great things she wanted him to see on this trip.

    Where was she? Why had she taken off when they already had more things on their list than theycould possibly do? He could imagine her going off to get something — some last-minute thingthey needed to make this trip absolutely perfect — and then meeting someone interesting.

    Someone who made art out of sea sponges, or wrote the messages in juice-bottle caps. She wouldbe unable to pull herself away. “Can you believe it, Jack?” she’d say. “He sits in anoffice all day, thinking up what to write inside the tops of bottles.”

    Yeah, OK. But why take the tent?

     and then She would have some train of reasoning, no doubt: first she thought this,that

    occurred to her, but then . . . It would be one thought sparking another, until all the ideasburst into flames — or so it seemed to Jack. It didn’t even make sense to try and figure it

    after she explained.out; he knew that by now. Sometimes he couldn’t even follow the thoughts

    And now a whole morning was shot. Well, he wasn’t going to just sit around and wait, not thistime, dang it. She could go off and have her amazing time — he was going to have his ownadventure.?He?was on Mount Desert Island, and he hadn’t?even put his toes in the ocean yet.He’d change that.

    He cleared off his table — leaving the newspaper for someone else to read — and walked acrossthe street to where lots of people had pulled over to escape their cars and teeter along thetumbling, rocky shore.

    The day was growing steamy, and the ocean air smelled like warm olives. Jack bounced?from?thedry, sea-worn stones down to the darker, seaweed-covered boulders below. As he did, hecouldn’t help examining each group of tourists — the large family with the grandfatherholding on to the shoulders of twin boys to balance himself; two girls in green camp T-shirtswho stood outside their camp group, uninterested in the wildlife in a tidal pool; a bunchof?older women sitting around a flat rock as if it were?a table and sipping something from athermos — all the while searching for his tall, willowy mother, her cropped blond hair. Hedidn’t bother to search the more remote edges of the?beach; she hated being alone.

    A boy about Jack’s age, eleven, but with shorter hair and a wide smile of bright white teeth,was tossing a Frisbee with his little sister. The girl’s long blond hair whipped across herface as she flung the disk into the air. Neither had much of a throw; the Frisbee kept smackingnearby rocks, sometimes getting wedged between them. It didn’t matter. It was impossible torun on this treacherous beach, and both of them laughed at the senselessness of the game. Sodid their parents, who were watching from stone chairs.

    Jack wished he could be that boy, a kid who had nothing more to worry about than where hisFrisbee landed. A boy who could make his parents happy just by playing a silly game.

    Then he immediately took it back. His mom was cool. Real cool. Cooler than a lot of other moms.He promised himself he’d tell her that when she returned.

    She definitely wasn’t on this beach. Should he go back to the campsite in case she was there?Nah, he thought. She’d know to look for me here. He’d stay, give her time to come down. He

    imagined her sneaking up behind him, surprising him here.

    He took off his sneakers and socks, then peeled off his shirt and carefully wrapped his phoneinside it. He tucked the bundle in a dry crevice of a fairly large boulder. Maybe once he gotdown to where the tide had receded, he’d even be brave enough to swim. (Though it didn’t lookas if anyone else was even thinking about going near the foamy, churning water.)

    At the first bright algae-green tidal pool he came to, Jack picked up a snail and examined itsshell. Then he crouched, preparing to pick up a crab.

    “It’ll pinch you.”

    Jack looked up. The Frisbee kid and his sister had come up beside him.

    “Not if I pick it up from behind,” said Jack. He carefully positioned his fingers on the backof the crab’s shell.

    The boy’s sister squealed as Jack lifted the crab into the air. It waved its pincersfrantically.

    “He’s so big!” said the girl. “Isn’t he, Aiden?”

    Used to be huge until the Elephant Child shrank it, thought Jack, remembering a story his

    mother had told him.

    Eventually, Jack let the crab go, and without saying a word, he and Aiden leaped from oneslippery rock to the next toward the water, while Aiden’s sister wandered back toward herparents. They dipped their feet into the freezing-cold sea until Aiden’s parents called themaway from the dangerous surf, and then they whipped seaweed at each other’s legs instead.

    Jack imagined his mother standing on the shore, watching, smiling at their foolishness.

    He started to ask Aiden if he wanted to build a castle out of the rocks, when Aiden’s fathercalled down to say they were leaving.

    “Are you staying at the campground?” he asked instead.

    Aiden nodded.

    “Me too,” Jack said.

    “Maybe we’ll see you at the ranger’s talk tonight,” Aiden replied, then ran to catch upwith his parents.

    Jack watched Aiden’s family gather their things and walk away together. Aiden’s mom drapedher arm over Aiden’s shoulder. Jack walked over to his shirt and checked his phone, prayingfor a message.

    Nothing.

    He scanned the beach one more time, hoping to see her face.

    No such luck.

    It’s OK, he told himself, tucking his phone back into his pocket. It hasn’t been that long.

    He looked down at the rocks on the beach, the rocks that only an hour or so ago had been almostcompletely underwater. As he looked at them now, he saw something: a bird’s-eye view ofelephants, a whole herd of them. The smooth, darker rocks were grayish brown, some withspeckles. One particularly rounded rock looked just like the back of the leader. That rockcalled to him.

    Jack climbed back down and lay upon its warm surface.

    He remembered the first time his mother had taken him to see an elephant. He had been reallylittle, no older than four. They’d been at a circus, and he’d hated it — hated the chaoticmusic, the sudden snap of the ringmaster’s whip, the diamond-eyed clowns. So she’d carriedhim away from all that and into another tent, a tent where the most enormous animal he’d everseen stood only a few feet away. Jack had whimpered and buried his face in his mother’s neck,but he couldn’t resist peeking at the huge creature. And then the elephant had reached towardhim with her trunk, reached toward him and tapped him on the shoulder. He’d squealed andplunged back under the cover of his mother’s chin. But the elephant had tapped him again, andkept on tapping him till he lifted his head and looked over at her. Slowly, slowly, she’dreached out her trunk again and touched his cheek. Jack remembered giggling, remembered feelingas if the elephant tent were the safest place in the world.

    Jack lay facedown on that rock until he’d pulled every last bit of heat from it, and then hemeandered back to the campground. He strolled past the wooden registration hut, with its pointyroof and welcoming porch (no Prius in the parking lot), past the signs below towering treesthat directed drivers to the proper loop in the thick, scrubby woods, past the entrance to theoutdoor amphitheater, to A-loop. He decided to take the long way around the circle. He toldhimself that if he was extra patient, if he remained calm and hopeful, if he walked slowlyenough around the shady A-loop, checking each and every site for the car, his mom would beback.

    As he turned to the right, he heard Aiden’s voice and his little sister’s, too — Julie, heremembered Aiden calling her — and realized that they were the family that had hung anenormous blue tarp over their entire campsite, protecting it from rain. He was tempted to popthrough the brush that made their site particularly private and say hi, but didn’t want todraw too much attention to himself, didn’t want Aiden’s parents to start wondering who thiskid was, anyway, and why he was just hanging out, all alone.

    Plus, he didn’t want to break the spell.

    But it wasn’t to be. His Hubba was still the only thing on his site.

    “Anything wrong?”

    Jack jumped. He’d been so intent on seeing his mom — willing her to appear right there at thepicnic table, waiting for his return — that he hadn’t heard the park ranger come up behind

him.

    She was dressed in a gray uniform with a badge and carried a clipboard. Her face was slightlywrinkled; her eyes were kind.

    At this point, any other kid would tell the ranger that his mother was missing, that he had noidea what had happened to her. Then the adults would take over. They’d ask questions and putout a missing-person report. Someone would take him in and feed him dinner while they lookedfor her. And they’d probably find her. If not tonight, then soon.

    But Jack wasn’t any kid. And his mom wasn’t just any mom.

    “Nope,” said Jack, placing his hands in his pockets. “Everything’s good.”

    It wasn’t much past six, and the sun was already setting. Jack needed a plan. He figured hecould eat at the camping supply store again, but maybe it would be smarter if he bought a fewgroceries and brought them back instead.

    And a fire would be sweet. A fire would add light (although he did have his flashlight, hereminded himself) and warmth. And he could cook something on it . . . or he could if he hadsome pots and pans. Which he didn’t.

    Marshmallows. A stick was all you needed to cook those. He’d buy one or two healthy things,something to drink, and marshmallows for toasting. Wouldn’t his mom be surprised when sherolled in and saw him sitting there in front of the fire, popping a perfectly brownedmarshmallow into his mouth! He might just turn to her and say, “Want one?”

    “Smell you!” she’d say, which was her way of saying, You are one cool kid, Jack Martel.

    Jack liked imagining these scenes, even though he knew, in truth, he’d leap up and demand thatshe tell him where she’d been. And then she’d say something like, “I knew you’d be fine,Jackie,” to make him feel better, but it wouldn’t. Just the opposite. And then he’d be somad, and at the same time so relieved, that he’d start to cry. So instead of being all OK andindependent, he’d look like some helpless little kid.

    This time he jogged out of the campground. He was nervous about bumping into the same ranger —not sure if he could keep his voice steady, keep his eyes conveying cheerfulness. As soon as hegot onto the beat-up island road, he tried calling his mother again. Still no answer.

    This time it was a guy with a mustache and a baseball cap behind the counter at Seawall CampingSupplies. Be natural, Jack told himself. Kids probably come in here by themselves all the time.

     He gave the guy a quick nod (which felt more nerdy than cool) and checkedNo big deal, right?

    out his options. He decided on salami, cheese, marshmallows, and orange juice, but when headded them up, they came to more than ten dollars. He had a little over nine. What to give up?

    He was still trying to decide when he looked over at the coffee station and saw paper cups.Maybe they’d be willing to give him a cup, or sell it to him for ten cents or something, andhe could get water out of the tap at the campground. Then he wouldn’t need to buy the orangejuice.

    “Hey, OK if I take a cup?”

    “No problem,” the guy said. “Take one. Heck, take two.”

    So he put the orange juice back, then walked to the counter with the rest of his supplies. Asthe guy was ringing him up, Jack saw a display of matchbooks on the counter. He’d needsomething to light a fire with if he planned on roasting marshmallows. “Do those costanything?” he asked, pointing to the matchbooks.

    “Twelve dollars,” said the guy.

    Jack’s mouth fell open.

    “Nah, just kidding. Free — free to people who buy butts — but you can have one.”

    Jack used all but a few coins to pay for his groceries and then started out the door.

    “Hey!” shouted the guy.

    Jack’s heart pounded. Did he do something wrong? Take something by accident?

    “You won’t burn anything down with those, right?”

    Jack stopped and held up the marshmallows from his bag.

    “Oh, yeah,” said the guy. “Cool.”

    As he walked back past the registration hut, thinking about toasting his Jet Puffs, Jacksuddenly remembered the sign he’d read inside when he and his mother had registered lastnight: COLLECTING FIREWOOD IN PARK PROHIBITED. It was hard to believe they meant it; the woodsalong the campground road were full of dead wood, low branches on trees that had died, stickscovering the ground. It was all right there for the taking. Wouldn’t it be helping them togather some of this brush? The woods would look neater. . . . Did he dare?

    Maybe he’d just hunt around his own campsite, where he wouldn’t be so obvious.

    He glanced toward the site where Aiden’s family was staying. He could hear Julie talking in ahyper, squeaky way and the others laughing. Jack thought about walking over and just saying,“Hey, you’re going to the talk tonight, right? The schedule at the gate says it’s aboutowls. . . .” but he knew Aiden’s parents would start asking the usual questions, which he’dhave to answer carefully:

    Where’re you from?

    Boston — Jamaica Plain. (He liked answering Jamaica Plain before people had the chance to say

    What part? which was what they always asked, even if they’d visited Boston only one time.)

    Are you camping with your family?

    My mom.

    Where’s your dad? (Julie would probably be the one to ask this.)

    He’d settle on the truth. He’d had enough practice lying to know it was best to tell thetruth whenever possible. I don’t have one.

    Would you and your mom like to join us? (That would probably be Aiden’s mom.)

    She’s not feeling well, he’d say. That was as close to the truth as he could come.

    But the imaginary conversation made him tired — tired of thinking, tired of trying to figurethings out. Definitely too tired to risk talking to Aiden’s family.

    On the way back to his campsite, he passed bundles of wood for sale — only two dollars — buthe was out of money. His mother had better pay him back tomorrow; that was his souvenir moneyhe’d spent on food. Buying food was her responsibility.

    He slipped into his tent, ripped open the food packaging with his teeth, and ate salami-and-cheese sandwiches without the bread. Hors d’oeuvres, he thought. Then he stuffed a handful of

    raw marshmallows into his mouth and closed his eyes.

    “Baby elephant,” he heard his grandmother saying. He was five, and they were sitting at atable. He had just stuffed his sandwich crusts into his mouth.

    “Baby elephant,” she’d said.

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