Walking towards the swamp, I swallowed the lump in my throat. I wasn’t sure if it was Old Sally I was afraid of or all the other critters that might be crawling around in the slime at the bottom of the water. Jimmy and the others had run on ahead and Willy looked at me as though I was a brain cell or two short of normal.
“I can’t let you do this, Lizzie.”
“You’re not my boss, Will.”
“No, but I’m the oldest and if anything happens to you, I’m going to catch the blame.”
“Is that what you’re worried about? Getting into trouble?”
“Yeah, I’m worried about getting into trouble.” He sighed loudly as though I were one stupid person. “And I’m worried about something bad happening to my best friend in the whole world. Can’t you just give in this one time, Liz? I know you’re a tough little thing, tougher than all us boys put together. You don’t have to prove it to me or anyone else.”
“Knock it off. You act like I’m going to die or something. It’s not that far across the short end and I’m fast. Old Sally isn’t going to get me.”
“What about snakes?”
“I’m not afraid of snakes and you know it.”
A creepy shiver ran through my insides and I swallowed the bile back into my stomach. Willy knew for a fact that I despised those slimy little bloodsuckers. Just the thought of having one on me, made me want to turn around and run home as fast as my feet would carry me. But running is never an option when you were trying to prove you were as good as a boy. And I’d made up my mind to prove it and prove it I would. Besides what were the chances that I’d get any leeches on me anyway?
“Leeches or not, Will, I’m going to do this.”
“Lizzie, you are out of your mind crazy.”
“Just don’t try to stop me, Will. I mean it, or...”
“Or what, Liz?”
He stopped and looked at me with an expression I’d never seen before. It took a moment for me to figure out what kind of look it was. Disappointment. Willy was disappointed in me and for a minute I felt the burning of tears behind my eyelids. I knew he wasn’t disappointed that I meant to go through with this stunt. He was disappointed and hurt that I’d used a threat on him as though he were just anybody. And Willy wasn’t just anybody. Never. He was my friend. He’d always stuck up for me and had even taken the blame a few times when I’d been in trouble and in danger of a licking from Dad. But more than that, he was the one person that I could talk to about my dreams and he never poked fun at them.
“I’m sorry, Will. I didn’t mean it.”
“You aren’t mad at me, are you?”
“No, I’m not mad, Liz. If you’re going through with this craziness, we’d better get moving.”
As we walked up to the other three boys, Jimmy ran up to me. “You’re in luck, little Lizard. Old Sally is sleeping at the other end and just to be nice, I wouldn’t let Tom throw dirt clods at her.” He grinned like he expected a medal or something.
“Uh, yeah thanks, Jimmy.” I thought I’d let the lizard crack pass because I was more than a little grateful that he’d stopped Tom from waking that old gator. I walked over and gave Tom a look that had withered better and much bigger boys than him.
“Hey, Lizzie. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I always throw dirt at Old Sally. I just forgot for a second why we were here.” He looked sheepish and inched away from the edge. I guess he was a little afraid that I might push him in. I never would, but it wouldn’t hurt to let him think I might. Tom was cute and he used that to his advantage. If he did something not so nice, which he did pretty often, he’d put on his best innocent look and pretend he hadn’t known what he was doing.
He was ten years old and his pa was in prison for doing something bad, but Tom never would tell us what it was. He’d just look at you with his big brown eyes and say, ‘I dun no.’ He’d look so innocent that you’d feel terrible calling him a liar. But we all pretty much knew that he was lying.
“You better run, Tom, before she gets ya.” Jimmy laughed.
“I told you all to call me Thomas.”
This was an old argument. Tom wanted to be called Thomas, even though it wasn’t his name. His mother had told us his name was Tom not Thomas. Sometimes if we were in a generous mood we’d call him Thomas just to be nice. It was pretty obvious that no one was in the mood to be nice today and I just wanted to get this over with before I embarrassed myself by running home.
“I’m going in now.”
I started down the slight incline and they all gathered around to watch. Willy said he’d be the look out and if Old Sally moved I was to run and get out of there as fast as I could. Jimmy said I should take off my flip-flops, but the idea of stepping in there without them was more than I could stand. I inched my toes into the water and walked in as quietly as possible, trying not to ripple the water. It was warm, almost as warm as the bath water Ma fixed for us every night and very slippery. I went all the way in and the warm water crept up to my thigh. It wasn’t very deep, but deep enough to make moving across the slimy bottom difficult.
I managed to keep my balance and was about half way across when Jimmy screamed. The sound of that scream made the hair stand up on my arms and I made a big mistake. I moved too fast and the water made a big splash. Not only that, I was stuck. The mud sucked at my feet and I couldn’t move. It was like trying to move in glue that was partially dry. The more I pulled the harder it sucked.
“Lizzie! Get the hell out of there!”
My mouth fell open and I turned to stare at Willy. I knew for sure I was going to die. That was the only reason Willy would dare say a cuss word like that.
“Old Sally is coming, hurry up. Don’t just stand there looking at me like you’re stupid. Move it!”
I jerked my head this way and that. I couldn’t see that old gator anywhere. This was bad, very bad. She’d gone under, which meant she was going to get me for sure. Frantically I pulled and pulled, but my feet wouldn’t budge.
“I can’t move, I’m stuck!” I yelled back at them while I used my hands to try to pull my feet clear.
Someone grabbed me by the arm and pulled hard. It was Willy and with him pulling on my arms, my feet were finally free. We streaked like lightening the rest of the way across. Just as I was climbing the embankment on the other side, Old Sally came flying up out of the water after us and clamped those powerful jaws so close to my ankles, I could have sworn I felt the tip of her nose brush against me.
Everyone was screaming and running so fast we left a dust cloud billowing out behind us. When we reached the grassy area around the old well, we flung ourselves to the ground flat on our backs. We couldn’t speak, just concentrated on breathing. I felt like I had a jackhammer going in my chest and wondered if it were possible for a person’s heart to jump right out of their chest. I imagined my heart flopping out and hopping down the road like a big old toad frog. It was such a hilarious image that I began to giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Willy was still pale and scared looking.
I told him about the heart frog in between fits of giggles and all the others began to laugh. Willy wouldn’t have been human if he’d been able to keep a straight face. His color came back and he laughed hard and when Willy laughed it was infectious. We all laughed so hard we couldn’t stop. That is until Jimmy brought me back to sanity with his next words.
“Lizard, you want me to pull them leeches off your legs?”
Looking down in horror, there they were. Not just one or two but what seemed like dozens of three or four inch long leeches stuck all over my legs from the knees down. The breath left my body and I flopped backwards onto my back with a thud. Everything went black for a second and then I heard Willy yelling at Tom to bring a bucket of water from the well. I tried to sit up.
“Just lay back down, Liz. I’ll take care of these things.”
If it weren’t so gross to kiss a boy, I surely would have kissed Willy at that moment. I felt weak. Just the thought of having to touch those things to pull them off made me sick. After all this, I was just a girl. Feeling humiliated I sat up and said the stupidest thing possible.
“I can do it.”
“Are you sure?”
I didn’t answer because I wasn’t sure. I would rather have had Old Sally eat my leg than to pull those things off. I couldn’t very well admit that in front of all those boys though, could I? Reaching down to the biggest one, thinking I’d start at the worst, I grabbed on to it and pulled. And pulled. It stretched. The harder I pulled the more it stretched. I felt sick. Cold sweat popped out on my forehead and I wished with all my heart that I were a normal girl, sitting on a blanket in the grass and asking politely for a drink of water from Willy. It was a nice dream, but the reality was staring me in the face. That thing just kept stretching, refusing to let loose of my leg. Taking a deep breath, I pulled as hard as I could and it let go. I gave it a fling as far away from me as I could.
“Wow, that was cool. Can I do one?” Jimmy asked with a look of awe.
Willy grinned. “Just lie back, Liz and let them have some of the fun. Don’t be a hog about it.”
Oh man, I really could kiss him. My eyes turned to his and the twinkle was back. “Sure okay, I guess I can’t hog all the fun.” I lay back down and gritted my teeth as they removed those horrible blood-sucking creatures off me.
After they were all gone Willy washed my legs with the fresh well water. “Not too bad, you may have a little bruising, but we got them pretty fast, so it won’t be bad.”
The other three boys lost interest and ran off towards home. Willy took the bucket back and hung it on the nail sticking out of the post by the well and then we walked slowly back to the line of shanties. It was close to dinnertime and even though a few minutes ago I would have sworn to never eat again, I was hungry.
“What’s the next test going to be?”
“No more tests today. We’ll meet at the shed again in the morning and that’s soon enough to talk about it. You scared at least ten years off me today. I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience.”
“Oh, Will, don’t be a sissy.”
“I know where those leeches are, Liz. Don’t tempt me to go back for one.” When he turned as if to go back I squealed just like a girl and ran for home wondering how I was going to explain to Ma what happened to my flip-flops.
Copyright Elizabeth Melton Parsons©