My family moved to a ranch so far out in the country that I didn't have any friends. My Mom made me go visit Kenny and Bruce Barclay, the only kids for miles around. "Hey, let's eat a whole orange!" Kenny yelled, "Including the peel!"
We chomped and squirted fruit in the Barclay's squirrel-smelling living room, while Mr. Barclay stood in his saggy underwear watching Danger Man on a very tiny TV.
I ate the peel to show them I was no wuss. It wasn't half bad.
"Now let's try a raw potato!" short, flat headed Bruce suggested.
"Yah," said Kenny, his taller brother. He sported huge ears and tiny glasses that barely fit, the frame held together with a bandaid.
"You know what smells good?" said Bruce. He adjusted a small pair of binoculars and viewed the chickens pecking each other in the yard outside the window. "Gas smells good!"
"Don't sniff gas," Mr. Barclay turned up the TV volume. "Keep eating those potatoes, boys, it'll make your peckers grow."
I bit into my raw spud. It tasted pretty good, but then everything does when you're ten years old.
Mrs. Barclay struggled through the living room door with a huge pile of laundry. "You boys vamoose outside!" she said. "Valerie and I have some ironing to do."
Valerie, a big, dough-faced teenage girl with a permanent dent in her forehead, didn't say much. She grappled with a huge box of detergent.
"She hit herself with her own sledgehammer," Kenny told me. "Banging in fenceposts."
Bruce, Kenny, and I ran outside. Bruce started to throw rocks at the chickens. "Don't do that!" Kenny yelled. "They'll drop their eggs."
My Mom said Bruce was very shy. He needed friends. "You're the only one available," she told me.
"I don't really like him," I frowned. "Or Kenny."
"Kenny says he likes you," my Mom offered.
"I don't know what he likes," I said. "He can't even read."
"Maybe you can teach him," my mother smiled.
I shut myself in the bathroom with a comic book called "Asterix," about muscular ancient Gauls. I liked reading about faraway places. Dad worked as a farmhand on the ranch, my Mom cooked for everyone. I was supposed to be homeschooled. Tarzan was my favourite work of literature. Why couldn't I have a friend like Tarzan? Instead, I got Kenny and Bruce.
"Let's go ask old Mrs. Stockwell if she'll give us some candy," said Kenny.
Old Mrs. Stockwell lived in a cabin near the falls that bore her family name. She was the last of her line on the old family ranch. "All her kids grew up and moved to the city." Mom had said. "She's a stubborn old grannie."
Bruce knocked on her door. I could hear the Stockwell footsteps sounding, coming closer, very slowly.
Her wizened face peered out, surrounded by a grey and white cloud of billowing hair.
"What? You kids again?" She said. Wow, was she ever bent over. Her nose dripped.
"We'll chop wood for some candy," said Kenny.
"I don't need any wood chopped," she said in a high, quavering voice, "But you could water my plants." She smiled, revealing lots of white gum. "Last time you were here I lost my binoculars. If you see them, let me know."
The house smelled like lavender and pine needles, and green leaves and tendrils waved everywhere, Flowers popped out over by the kitchen table and bees buzzed about.
I saw a huge book on the couch. "What's that?"
"That's an old atlas," she said. "You can look at it if you want."
"Wow, thanks!" I took my shoes off and scuttled over.
Kenny and Bruce filled up some watering cans from the rusty sink faucets.
I put the atlas on my lap and flipped the pages. I felt the weight of the world on my knees. The pages were falling apart, I peered down to see that half the usual countries had different names or weren't there. "Wow, what place is this?" I asked, pointing to a green salamander shaped country in Europe.
"That's the Austria-Hungarian Empire," said Mrs. Stockwell. "It's not there now."
I turned to the beginning of the book to see when it was published. "Wow! Nineteen Oh Four!"
"Way older even than me," said Mrs. Stockwell.
"Hey, why don't you help us over here?" yelled Kenny. He poured, and a lot of water gushed out of the bottom of the pot and over the hardwood floor. "You won't get any candy."
"I'm not hungry," I said. "I just ate a raw potato." I kept reading. Wow, what a big and varied place the world was!
After the watering, Mrs. Stockwell handed over some mottled looking fudge. "This is all I have," she said. "Made it myself six months ago."
"Thanks," said Kenny, giving it a sniff.
"You boys take care now."
Mrs. Stockwell shut the door behind us, and we walked away eating the fudge. "Not too bad," said Kenny. "See what I got?" He showed me a tiny radio.
"That's Mrs. Stockwell's radio," I said.
"Yeah, but I think she's deaf," Kenny said. "She can't hear it anyway."
"That was funny when she asked about her binoculars," said Bruce. "She can't see well enough to use 'em. So I borrowed 'em for a while last time I was here." He started chuckling.
We passed a shed on the edge of the old lady's yard. Bruce opened the door, chuckled some more, and we went inside.
"Hey, what's this stuff in here?" Bruce said. He handed over some white cylindrical objects.
"Kinda like a fuse on the end," Kenny said.
"I think it's a blasting cap," I told him. "My Dad uses them on the ranch to set off dynamite when he's blowing up stumps."
"How do you set them off?" Kenny stuck a fuse about an inch from his face.
"Matches," I said, and Bruce jumped up.
"I've got a lighter!"
"Wow, where'd you get that?" said Kenny.
"Dad's room, he won't miss it. Let's set those caps off!" Bruce exclaimed, flicking his lighter in the air.
"We've got to do it safely," I said. "Somewhere we can run away real fast."
"Yeah, I don't want to get blowed up," Kenny said. "Like on Danger Man."
Mrs. Stockwell's axe sat on a log in the middle of the yard. "Maybe we can blow up some stumps," Kenny said, picking it up. "Like your Dad."
We jogged out to the edge of a cattle grazing patch, making sure not to drop anything. At the edge of the field lay a stretch of recently cleared land. "Let's explode this stump," I said, pointing at a fine cedar specimen.
"I'll dig a hole," Kenny thrashed around with Mrs. Stockwell's axe, and Bruce got down on his hands and knees and threw the dirt aside.
I placed the blasting cap in the hole, with the fuse sticking out.
"I get to start it, I get to start it," Bruce said. He stuck his lighter close, but couldn't get it to work. He flicked it and flicked it. A few sparks fell. "It was working yesterday," he said. "I was flicking it all day then."
"You probably wore it out," I said.
I felt pretty trembly, walking around with blasting caps, but now my knees felt like they
couldn't hold up. "Your hands are shaking," said Kenny. "Are you a scaredy cat?" "A little bit," I said. "I think we should leave these caps here."
"I want to hear a bang," Bruce said. "I'm going to make this stuff bang."
"I'm gonna try the radio," Kenny said. "See if I can get the Calgary stations."
He and I walked away, leaving Bruce with the axe and the blasting caps.
I looked back and saw him raise the axe once or twice, "I'm trying to crush them," he yelled. "Maybe they'll go off if I crush them."
Kenny turned on the radio. We heard an announcer's voice. "The weather today will be slightly cloudy."
"Move the dial back, Kenny!" I shouted. "You're close to a station."
Behind us came a short exploding crack, followed by several seconds of complete silence. Then we heard a blood curdling scream. We turned around and Bruce tore past us, his hands up in the air, blood streaming down his fingers. Kenny and I stood there shocked as Bruce ran yelling towards his house.
"He must've chopped his fingers off with the axe," I said.
"I heard a bang," said Kenny. "Did you hear a bang?" He turned, sprinted after Bruce.
I stood there in the field, looked around at the mountains, all covered with a late afternoon haze.
I slowly inched over to the pile of blasting caps. They looked untouched. I moved them slightly with my foot, then took the axe and buried them in the stump hole. Prickles of stress skittered up and down my back. I lay the axe under a bush and ran off for home as fast as I could, panting and wheezing by the time I reached our house.
"How was your visit with the Barclays?" my Mom asked. "Did you play any fun games?"
"I think Bruce chopped his fingers off with the axe," I gasped. Then I started spluttering and bawling. My stomach heaved, I ran into the bathroom, but I was okay, just a bit of fudge, I swallowed and came out and my Mom said "I'm going to phone the Barclays right now."
She dialed. "I wondered why their truck was driving so fast down the road."
"They're probably going to the hospital!" I yelled. "Bruce's fingers were all blown off!"
Mom couldn't get Mr. or Mrs. Barclay on the phone. They called Mom the next day to say that Bruce was back from the hospital. He'd lost the very tops of two of his fingers, and the nails, but he could still learn to play the guitar.
"Mrs. Barclay said he chopped some wood with an axe and missed," my Mom said. "The Barclays don't want you over there anymore. They say you're a bad influence."
"That's good," I said. "That's very good."
"My Dad and I will have a long talk with you tonight when he's back from work," she said.
That afternoon, I went back up to the potato field and picked up the axe. I found the radio where Kenny dropped it. The Calgary station was still talking about the weather. Then I walked to Mrs. Stockwell's. I placed the axe back where we found it, then went up and knocked on the door. Mrs. Stockwell opened it just a crack.
"Weren't you here yesterday, with those Barclay boys?" she said.
"You gave us fudge," I told her. "I found your radio."
"Yes, I was wondering where it was," she said. She opened the door wider. "Where did you discover it?"
"Out in the potato field." I looked behind her at the plants, all the sun heating through the window glass made it a jungle back there, like where Tarzan lived. I breathed in the lavender scent again.
"I wonder if I could take another look at that atlas," I said. "I want to see the land of the Gauls."
"You're quite the intellectual boy," said Mrs. Stockwell. "Those other boys just didn't seem to care. They dripped water all over my floor."
"The whole world is in that Atlas," I said. "I can water the plants today, too. I won't let anything drip."
"I can use a helping hand," said Mrs. Stockwell. "All my friends are gone now."
"What country is this big green one that looks like a pork chop?" I asked.
I felt slightly worried about the Mom and Dad meeting, but I would visit the Barclays one more time. My mission would be to ask for and return Mrs. Stockwell's binoculars.