Today’s Story A Day in May story takes place the year before A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE, my historical YA-ish paranormal suspense.
As often happens to me, some elements of the last story I wrote slop over into a current story, so there’s a lost-in-the-woods component to this one, as there was to yesterday’s. Also a creature who may — or, in this case, may not — be mythical.
Bigfoot and Friends
by Marian Allen
When you grow up in an orphanage, you get to thinking you’ve seen everything, but something always comes along to top it.
I was found in an alley when I was just a baby, in the fall of 1950. The cops took me to Mrs. Brandt at the Faelin Municipal Refuge and, when they couldn’t find anybody to pin me on, left me there. She named me James Michener Franklin after her favorite writer and her favorite Founding Father, but she always called me Mitch. Or, when I was little, Mitchie.
Nobody ever adopted me. I’ve seen pictures of myself as a baby, and I can’t say I blame them. I was puny and sickly, and would have seemed like a bad investment, for sure. My eyes were almost crossed until I was nearly one, and my ears stuck out, and I never smiled.
By the time Bigfoot happened, I was going on seventeen and stocky and healthy. My eyes had straightened out and I’d grown into my ears. I smiled enough for all practical purposes, and I was used to other kids coming and going. I felt more like I was at the Refuge as unpaid staff than as a resident.
In fact, that was the summer – the summer of 1967 – when Mrs. Brandt sprained her ankle, and she got me certified or whatever to take her place ferrying the kids around for a couple of weeks.
That was also the summer Jimmy Gassman came to the Refuge.
I had had my room all to myself for a week or so after George Mason’s mom finished her 12-Step and got him back, and the other rooms were all full up, so Jimmy got put in with me.
That boy was, as Mrs. Brandt said when she was kidding around about those obsessions kids get, “all eat up with” Bigfoot.
When I took the three kids who wanted to go on that field trip to the zoo, Jimmy was excited and antsy until we were ready to leave, then he said, “We can’t leave yet! We didn’t see Bigfoot!”
I didn’t want to embarrass him, with grown-ups all around, grinning at him and slowing down to enjoy the show, so I said, “They don’t have Bigfoot in the zoo, Jimbo.”
Why not? Why not? “‘Cause Bigfoot is a person. You don’t put people in the zoo.”
A couple of the grown-ups nodded at me, and one of them gave me a thumb’s up. That kind of ticked me off, because what business was it of theirs? I didn’t say what I said so they’d approve of me, you know?
Anyway, the zoo wasn’t what you’d call a totally positive experience for Jimmy Gassman.
The next week’s field trip, the last one I’d need to drive for, was to the Forestry for a picnic and a nature walk. We all went, even Mrs. Brandt, who was in one of those big Frankenstein boot-braces and could hobble from the car to the picnic shelter. She would stay there and cook and look after the kids who wanted to read or play board games while I took care of the ones who wanted to do the walking trail.
I don’t know how it happened. I went in with five kids, with me taking up the rear so I could keep them in sight, and I came out with four. Maybe because my mind was on grilled hamburgers, or because he was still a fairly new kid so I wasn’t so used to being aware of him. For whatever reason, I didn’t notice when Jimmy pulled a little ahead of the group and followed the trail around a bend, so I couldn’t see him, and slipped away.
We got back to the shelter and I’d already inhaled a cheeseburger by the time Mrs. Brandt had counted noses and said, “We’re missing one. Where’s Jimmy Gassman? Anybody know where Jimmy is?”
Mary Ann Morrison, who looked like a red-haired, green-eyed fairy princess, but talked like somebody had told her how a lady acts and she’d decided to do the opposite, said, “Maybe he’s in the can. Or maybe he’s shitting in the woods with the bears.”
She got her usual snickers from the other kids and the usual glares from Mrs. Brandt and me, but Mrs. Brandt said, “Would you check on him, Mitchie?”
I grabbed a coke and another burger, both of which I finished before I got to the facilities a couple of hundred yards away.
No Jimmy. Back to the woods for me, then.
Just in case Mary Ann was right, I folded up some tp and tucked it into my jeans pocket.
Starting with where we had come out, I followed the trail in reverse, calling for Jimmy every few steps, stopping to listen for a reply. How could I let this happen? As if it wasn’t bad enough for the poor kid, having to come live in the Refuge, now I go and let him get lost, like he doesn’t matter to me any more than he does to the rest of the world?
About half-way in, at the point deep into the woods, I heard a rustling and a crackling. I looked for a tree to climb, in case it was one of those bears after my toilet paper (thanks for that image, Mary Ann!), but it was Jimmy.
I was so relieved, I almost forgot to be mad. Almost, but not.
“What were you thinking? What if you’d got lost? Mrs. Brandt is worried sick!” Okay, so she wasn’t worried sick yet, but she would have been if I hadn’t found him.
Jimmy just beamed up at me.
“You were right,” he said. “He’s a person, and this is where he lives.”
“Who?” I used that toilet paper from my pocket to wipe something purple off Jimmy’s chin.
“Uh-huh. Let’s get back to the shelter before Mrs. Brandt calls the rescue squad or something.”
I took his hand, determined he wasn’t going to get away from me again. He tried to pull free – he wasn’t a baby, after all – but I wouldn’t let go and he gave that up.
He said, “I thought I saw him, and I went after him, but it turned out to be a cat. I didn’t know cats lived in the woods.”
“Probably belongs to somebody around here,” I said, hoping he meant a cat cat, not a bobcat or something.
“Anyway, I got lost pretty quick.”
“Why didn’t you yell? I probably could have heard you.”
“I didn’t want to get in trouble.”
Yeah, that. How many kids have gotten in deeper hotter water than they were already in because they were afraid they’d “get into trouble”? I’ve done it myself, so I couldn’t say anything to him.
“We’d better hurry,” I said, “or all the burgers will be gone.”
“I like hot dogs better, anyway. But listen!”
“I’m listening. Step lively.”
He stopped and leaned back against my pull. I could have tugged him off his feet, I guess, but I stopped, too, and faced him.
“Listen!” He was grinning, as Mrs. Brandt says, like a mule eating briars. “I met him! Bigfoot! Really!”
“I did! I got lost and I was kind of scared, ackshally, but then he just kind of ootched up to me and handed me some of these purple berries and he ate some and I ate some.”
That purple stuff I’d wiped off Jimmy’s chin.
“They might have been poison! Didn’t Mrs. Brandt warn us not to eat anything we found in the woods?”
“I didn’t find them, Bigfoot gave them to me! Anyway, they were good, and I ain’t dead yet!”
“Don’t say ‘ain’t.'” Yeah. One of the kids I was supposed to be watching probably had wild berry poisoning,and I was correcting his grammar.
“Then he put his hand on my shoulder and guided me through the trees until we heard you shouting my name. Then he gave me a kind of little push like he was telling me to go on, and he left.”
“Jimmy ….” I wondered if he’d met a hippie backwoodsman camper, or if he’d just made the whole thing up. I almost said so, but I looked down at the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face and I just couldn’t. I know a little bit about wanting somebody to care about you, about wanting to have somebody special, about being a part of something outside of a Home for kids without a home.
So I said, “That’s the coolest thing I ever heard.”
I’ll admit, we got kind of sick of hearing about “that time I met Bigfoot.”
On the other hand, when, just before we drifted off to sleep one night, Jimmy said, “Mitch, you know what? You’re my best friend,” and I said, “Better than Bigfoot?” and he said, “Better than Bigfoot,” it made me feel all warm and fuzzy.
MY PROMPTS FOR TODAY: cat, Bigfoot, field trips