With every bump of the wagon, my stomach lurched. I sat in the front bench by my older brother Jeremy, who was definitely not an excellent driver. Our horses, Gray and Blonde (try to guess their colors), grunted softly when Jeremy led them over an obtrusive boulder that sat in the middle of the prairie.
I could hear my younger sister Gertrude whimper from the wagon bed, but I couldn’t see her through the canvas cover.
“I feel sick,” she whined. “Can we please stop, now?”
“Of course not!” Jeremy said with exceeding exasperation. “We have a long way to go. We’re still probably an hour away from Possum’s Haven.”
Gertrude groaned loudly.
“Besides,” Jeremy reasoned, “if we don’t go all the way, then we aren’t official pilgrims!”
“You mean pioneers,” I corrected. “Very different.” I shot a sidelong glance at my twelve-year-old brother. He didn’t look back, but he seemed annoyed.
“They aren’t too different…” he mumbled as he pulled the reins this way and that.
“They are,” I protested, and stood up from my seat. “And me and Gertrude are leaving. You’re a horrible driver.”
Jeremy scowled. “No you’re not! It’s too far!”
There was another bump in our path, and I nearly found myself careening off the side. When I decided the coast was clear, I hopped off the moving wagon and jogged over to catch Gray and Blonde’s reigns. Jeremy grumbled, but the horses stopped abruptly.
“Come on out, Gerty!” I shouted to my sister. Soon enough her small form slipped from the back of the wagon. I held my breath as she nearly tipped over. I didn’t want to be the one to explain if she started crying.
Jeremy sat stubbornly in the front seat as I turned the horses around. I walked them into the red-painted barn a few meters away where a volunteer farmhand was waiting.
We’d been tugging the antique wagon around the pasture for nearly an hour, playing Jeremy’s favorite game. My older brother thought that since he was twelve--practically a man--he was too old for make believe. ‘Pioneer’ was the one exception to the rule. Of course, the game isn’t fun when played by oneself, so he dragged me and Gerty into it as least once a day during our three weeks at Possum’s Haven family camp.
We left the wagon to the farmhand, and parted ways. It took some persuading to peel Gerty from my side, but finally I was alone.
Skipping down the gravel path that led to the lodge, I considered my options. I could play with my best friend Cate, who preferred the game room, or I could take a stroll down one of the few forest paths that my parents allowed me to go alone on. Already fed up with the game room for the week, I took the path. Gray, crunchy gravel underfoot morphed into spongy soil and damp leaves. We were deep into autumn, and nearly all the trees around me had already donned their colorful cloaks of red and yellow. Ferns lined the path, the green contrasting greatly with all the fiery hues overhead. I skipped faster down the path.
Sometimes it’s wonderful to be homeschooled.
As the path progressed, the deciduous trees thinned and gave way to evergreens. I stopped skipping, and decided to be mindful of the large stones that now jutted out of the path. With the sound of my movement lessened, I could hear more.
Birds fled from their perches as I passed, and I glimpsed a rabbit scurrying away. I’d always hoped to one day see an opossum in the woods, the animal that the whole camp was named after. After nearly four autumns now, no avail.
On my first autumn, when I was six, Jeremy and I spotted a fox. I had concluded right there and then that the foxes had eaten every single one of the reclusive animals. However, during my second year, I spotted roadkill on the way to camp and realized that predation couldn’t be the case. But Possum’s Haven had no multitude of possums, and definitely wasn’t a haven for them.
I halted when a bird suddenly erupted from the bush beside me. The bluejay screeched and screeched bloody murder until it was out of sight.
It’s your fault you didn’t migrate sooner, I thought irritably as I calmed my jangling nerves. It’s not fun to be startled when you’re out in the wilderness by yourself.
I looked closer at the bush the blue jay had fled from, and was surprised to see a little round nest of twigs and twine sitting in it. I was tempted to take it to show Gerty, but I decided against it. I wasn’t that mean.
The next day, I burst from my place at the breakfast table and down the stairs to the game room before Jeremy could say “pilgrim.” I was immediately confronted with my mom, who stood patiently at the end of the steps.
“Ellie, why don’t you get your schoolwork done right now, so you can enjoy the rest of the day?” she asked.
Something deep down in my soul withered at the thought of math. “Can I just talk to Cate, first?” I pleaded.
“Sure thing,” she said. “But if you procrastinate again, you’re never going to get any sleep, and it’ll be your fault.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled, and continued down to the game room.
Cate reclined on an old plushy couch, her golden hair unbrushed and sitting in a massive tangle on the couch’s arm. She held a Wii game controller in her hand; her whole arm was tensed as she fiddled with its buttons. On a big screen before her flashed the dizzyingly vibrant animations of Mariokart.
“Hey,” I said, but I apparently wasn’t loud enough. “HEY!”
“Oh!” Cate jumped and nearly dropped the remote. Her car hurtled off its narrow track and into black oblivion. Cate sighed. “Yes, Ellie? You can join the next race, if you want.”
“Nah,” I responded, and settled on the couch next to her. “Do you want to come with me to the woods? After you’re done, of course.”
A pained expression bloomed on Cate’s face. “Well, I… I don’t know…”
“Aw, come on. You didn’t come outside all day yesterday!”
“It was cold!” Cate protested, looking up at me and letting her pixelated car crash again.
“It’s always cold up here in the fall. Wear a jacket.”
Cate rolled her eyes and pressed the power button on her remote. She smiled, though. “Whatever. I’ll go.”
I’d almost gotten Cate into the woods when my despicable older brother stopped us.
“Guess what!” he exclaimed, walking quickly down the gravel path to meet us.
“What?” I asked. Something about pioneers, I thought.
“Mister Bart says I can ride Blonde by myself now,” he said proudly. “Are you going on that trail? You guys could ride on him, too. It would be funner than walking.”
I was about to immediately object, but Cate seemed to like the idea.
“Yes!” she answered excitedly.
“Good! I’ll go get him.”
I frowned and leaned over to whisper to Cate. “You have no idea what you’ve gotten us into.”
Milliseconds later, Jeremy reentered our field of vision astride the massive golden-tan horse that was Blonde. Jeremy’s feet hardly reached the stirrups, but he didn’t seem to mind as he bumped his way down the path. He dismounted, and helped Cate and I up onto Blonde’s back.
“Don’t you think three people is a little bit too much for Blonde?” I asked, even though I knew there was no way to get us off of the horse now.
“Nah. You two are featherweights, anyway.”
Cate giggled girlishly, but I rolled my eyes. “Just don’t let us fall off,” I said.
We were moving before I could finish the sentence. Startled, I clung to Jeremy’s shoulders. Cate did the same to me.
“We’re official explorers, now!” My brother declared as we trotted into the woods. “Maybe we’ll even see a couple bears!”
I groaned. Jeremy dug his heels into Blonde’s sides, and whistled for the animal to pick up the pace. The trot became a lope, and I fought with all my might to keep upright. Cate, who took riding lessons back home, fared better, but I wasn’t anticipating such a bumpy ride.
Jeremy chatted with Cate about imaginary moose and feral snipers for about five minutes. Already, we’d gone farther than I had yesterday, and I wondered at all the pines and wildlife that scattered in our wake. Another blue jay fled from its nest, spooking Blonde and bringing our canter to an immediate halt.
“I didn’t know there were dragons around these parts,” said Jeremy with animated fear in his voice. He coaxed Blonde back into a trot.
“Yeah. We’d better be careful and take it slower, now,” Cate said. Although I thought the game was totally stupid, I was thankful she told him to slow. My breakfast had been poised to come back up for the last few minutes.
The game continued until we reached the end of the trail, where a small mountain stream lay. A strange mix of fir trees and dogwoods surrounded the sandy banks and provided meager shade. Jeremy slipped off Blonde, and Cate and I did likewise. I was so thankful to be on my feet again that I nearly bent down and kissed the sand. Jeremy led Blonde to the stream, and Cate pet the wheat-colored horse as it drank. Bored, I hopped across the natural stepping-stones in the brook and decided to explore the area.
“You’re a good rider,” I heard Cate say to Jeremy as I turned over a large rock. Sometimes I wondered if Cate was more of Jeremy’s best friend instead of mine. Annoyed, I set off upstream by myself. I was pretty sure the water led to the lodge, eventually. I didn’t want to suffer another jostling on Blonde again.
I trekked through the brush for a long time, occasionally having to use my hearing and sense of direction when closely knit vegetation wouldn’t let me get close to the water. At one point, I thought I heard the searching calls of my friends, but I ignored them, keeping in mind the idea that I would meet them on the other side of the trail soon enough.
When I finally took a break, my legs were achy and my stomach was growling for lunch.
I should’ve arrived by now.
When daylight began to dim, I felt panicky. The others would be searching for me frantically by now. Common sense told me to forget the original plan and retrace my steps, but if I did, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be pitch-black dark by the time I got there. That was not a situation I wanted to be in. Jeremy wasn’t really kidding when he mentioned bears: Possum’s Haven was more of a black bear’s haven. Especially during nighttime. I gritted my teeth and moved on even as my clothing snagged against thorns and I tripped on the spiderwebbed roots in my path. Little did I know it, but my feet led me steadily further from the creek.
Nightfall came, and I was far from home. I stopped in my tracks once I couldn’t see them anymore. I was hungry and tired… I slouched down against a tree I couldn’t identify. There was no use going any further.
That’s when I heard it. The sound of a large animal struggling through the thicket--awfully close. A bear. It had to be a bear. Shaken now to the point of crying, I sucked in a trembling breath before I could make any more sobbing noises, but I was too late.
The giant animal sniffed the air; it was definitely larger than your average black bear. Maybe it was a grizzly. Whatever the monster was, I kept stock still until it was so near I could feel its breath on the back of my head.
Bursting under the pressure, I fled from seat. The animal grunted in surprise.
I ran faster--straight into a tree. My head collided with the tree with enough force to stun me for a second, and by that time, the creature had caught up with me.
Paralyzed with fear, I stood rigid against the tree. In the moonlight, I glimpsed the creature’s massive form.
It wasn’t a bear.
It stood on four giant clawed feet, and was nearly two times as tall as I was. It’s fur was pale and thin and its snout was long and rat-like. It looked like a giant opossum.
Before I could scream, the monster brought the backside of its colossal front paw to my mouth.
“Shut your gob,” the thing hissed. “We don’t want none of you explorer folk out here.”