Once again, I spent so much time with character development I didn’t even get to the “under the mattress” part. (If you’re familiar with urban legends, you can probably guess where this is going.) Tabby freaking rules, and I’m betting she and Heather will get into lots of trouble in a few years.
Tabitha poked at the fire with an decommissioned wire coat hanger. A chunk of smoldering wood tumbled from the pile, shooting stars of embers into the violet sky. She thought it looked like a volcano, the kind she’d seen on that TV show. She’d been sitting right in front of the screen, entranced, while ribbons of incandescent lava unfurled down mountains, melting everything in its path. Tabby imagined her town—her school—engulfed in lava. It wasn’t an unpleasant thought. She was so hypnotized by her own thoughts she didn’t hear the end of Martin’s story, but she didn’t have to.
There was a gasp and a giggle from the younger children bundled around the fire in their too-large sweatshirts borrowed from older siblings. Martin looked pleased, but his smile faded when he saw Tabby wasn’t listening.
“There was an iron hook, Tab,” he said. “Stuck in the car door!” He clawed his fingers into a hook and brandished it in Tabby’s face.
“Yeah, I heard,” she said, backing away from Martin’s flailing hand and poking at the fire. She was trying to make a bigger cloud than last time, but the flames were dying.
Martin frowned. He was a year younger than Tabby and, even though she was a girl, still craved her older-kid approval. “Don’t you think that’s creepy? I mean, the guy was right there! He could have killed them!”
“I get it,” Tabby said, giving up on the fire for the moment. “But it’s only scary the first time you hear that story. I’ve heard it about a million zillion times.” She felt around for her Coke can and took a swig. When she glanced up, she saw her cousin’s disappointment in the firelight. He was a sensitive kid, her parents often said, and Tabby felt kind of bad.
“But hey,” she said, taking another drink of her warm soda, “you told it pretty well.”
Martin’s face cleared. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Tabby said. “but don’t, you know, get all cocky.”
Martin beamed, then contained his pleasure. He shivered a little; he was wearing a brand-new Darth Vader t-shirt and couldn’t bear to cover it with a sweater. Tabby knew that tomorrow his arms and neck would be dotted with sickly pink peppermint lotion that would do very little to quell the violent itch perpetrated by the evening’s mosquitoes.
There was a whoop from the other campfire, the one inhabited by the parents. It was like the camping version of Thanksgiving, Tabby thought, and she was stuck at the kids’ table. She was the oldest of the cousins, but not quite old enough to join the adults and hear their raunchy jokes and stories about the stupid things they did in their youth. Tabby had heard a lot of these things when they thought she was asleep; many times during holiday gatherings she’d snuck downstairs and sat on the landing to catch snippets. Of course, she didn’t understand a lot of what was said, but she giggled when they had a good laugh. It made her feel a part of it.
She gazed at the adults. Phrases floated to her ears, things like, “so drunk” and “Pamela’s wedding” and “shotgun.” She heard the pop-fizz of Coors being opened, and she knew that tomorrow, while they were packing up the camp, the younger kids would be delighted to paw through ashes and dirt to retrieve the pull tabs. Tabby’s mom would give them a penny for each tab they found, and they were too young to know that even if they collected a hundred of them, it still wasn’t that much money.
“You got a story, Tabby?” Tabby looked up. It came from Heather, her nine-year-old cousin. She liked Heather. At three years younger than herself she was still kind of a baby, but didn’t really act like one. She was always the one who would go first on a dare and not be afraid of touching frogs or things like that. And here she was now, dark eyes reflecting what was left of the fire, asking for a scary story.
“Yeah, I got a story,” Tabby said. “But I think it’s way too scary for some of you.” She scanned the faces around the fire, enjoying the sight of all of their eyes getting bigger and darting at one another. “So. If any of you are going to be too scared, you should leave now.”
“I’m not scared,” Heather said.
“Me either,” said Marty.
The other kids professed their bravery, though some of them did so with shaky voices. “Okay then,” Tabby said. “But if you get all freaked out after I tell the story and it keeps you up for weeks or gives you nightmares, you have to solemnly promise not to tell on me. If you do, you’ll be banned from campfire stories. Got it?”
All of the heads around the fire nodded vigorously. Tabby jabbed the fire one last time, and, as if she was an ancient shaman creating a magical spell, there was a loud crack followed by an eruption of embers. She looked deliberately around at her tribe.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s begin.”