Into the Marshes

Winner of the 2014 Scholastic Art & Writing Gold Key Award

Mama once sayed not to go down to the marshes cause the snakes and monsters and creeping crawlies live there. They gone eat you up, she says, gone eat you up like a sundae on Saturday morning.

What you think Donny Two Cents and I gone do on a boring afternoon?

We gone down to the marshes.

“You don’t think this real bad, do you, Squeaky?” Donny Two Cents asked me. Boy is scareder than a fish in a crocodile pond. Makes me scared too, but I ain’t never telling him that.

“Course I don’t think that, why you ask?” I snapped back. “We gone to the marshes to look for the Oogey Boogey Man.” I raised my arms real high and grinned like one a them crazies you see down by St. Ann’s. They just walk around in circles all day in St. Ann’s fenced-in yard and sometimes stare at the sun.

“Oogey Boogey Man?” repeated Donny Two Cents. He already trembling, that shakey boy. If we filled him with pecans he’d be a walking maraca. “What you wanna find the Oogey Boogey man for?”

“Ain’t you never heard a the Oogey Boogey Man’s treasure? Gold and silver and marshmallows and diamonds. All the best treasure in the world. And we gone find it down in the marshes. Everyone knows that’s where the Oogey Boogey Man keep it.”

“If you want my two cents, that sounds like a real bad idea, Squeaky,” sayed Donny Two Cents. That’s why they call him Donny Two Cents—he always say ‘If you want my two cents’ before he tell you that you bout to do something stupid. Then when he about to do something hisself, he say, ‘A penny for your thoughts?’ Lord only knows what he do with that spare penny.

“Gimme your hand, shakey boy,” I sayed real commanding. Like the army men on Papa’s black-and-white TV.

I dragged me and Donny Two Cents out down Herman’s Hollow Road, where the moss grew into the lane like it were grabbing it and pulling it into the dirt. Herman’s Hollow is the only road in Pecan Hill that you can see the sky from, because all the other roads been blocked by trees that drip Spanish moss on your car, if your car still work. Donny Two Cents and I is both eight, and even though if you put our ages together you get old enough to drive a car, ain’t nobody gone let you.

There’s a spot on the side of Herman’s Hollow road marked by a white cross. If you older than fifteen, that cross belong to Shana Lincoln, this girl who flipped her car into a ditch and is now with the Lord, but if you fourteen and smaller that spot is where you go to get to the marshes.

You hear real funny stories bout the marshes round Pecan Hill. Fulla uglies, they say. Swamp people, fairies, little men who steal your eyes and nose. My big brother Henry told me that’s where all the cemetery people went. The soil round here is so loose and watery that everything you bury go there someday. Maybe I’ll find Old Becky my dog there if I get lucky.

Donny Two Cents and me took the path into the marshes. The trees rose up outta nowhere and swallowed us whole and suddenly the only sunlight we saw were the little green bits that come through the leaves. The ground got real squishy too. It got all up in my feet and between my toes and Donny Two Cents and I just looked at each other and both laughed real loud, the kinda laugh that bounce off trees until it like the whole world be laughing with you, even if the joke ain’t funny. That’s why I like Donny Two Cents, you know. I been missing him when he gone and it’s eight types a wonderful he back with me today.

We went deeper and deeper into the marshes. The trees growed so close together in some parts their roots got all tangled and if you didn’t watch your step, you gone get tangled too. Like always, I walked ahead and Donny Two Cents followed behind and sometimes I had to look back and make sure he following right. Donny Two Cents is always late for everything. Boy is later than a mayfly in June.

“If you want my two cents,” he beginned, clearing his throat like he important, “this is actually called a wetland.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Wetlands have more trees. Mrs. Paris said.”

“Donny Two Cents, you loved Mrs. Paris so much you turn red whenever she ask you a question in class. You believe anything she say, even if she say the moon made a cheese.”

“You used to think that, Squeaky.”

“Yeah, but then I went to second grade and got smarts.” Even though we is the same age, Donny Two Cents is in a grade behind because his parents started him late. He small enough to pass for it, though.

“If you’re so smart, Squeaky, do you know where we’re going?”

I turned and gave him my most meanest glare that could put a hole though his head. “A course I know where I’m going, Donny Two Cents! You think I didn’t thought nothing before we left? I’m looking for slime. That’s a sign a the Oogey Boogey man. We’re gone get his treasure and bring it back so you and I can finally buy that shiny red car in the toyshop window. We only six dollars away.”

“How much that car cost?”

“Six dollars.”

We came to the edge a the ocean. At least, I think it were the ocean, because my jography skills ain’t the sharpest. It’s mostly Mrs. Paris’s fault. She smell too much a flowers and I can’t read too well when someone be shoving rose petals down my nose.

But this ocean had trees growing outta it. Like, big black trees with vines hanging around them and birds picking at them. The kinda things you see painted in books about witches. It take your breath right out your mouth.

“If you want my two cents, we should probably go back now,” sayed Donny. “Look up, Squeaky. It’s getting all pink in the sky. That means the sun’s going down.”

I shaked my head. “We ain’t leaving till we find the Oogey Boogey man. Did you know he keeps the dead with him, Donny Two Cents? He keeps the dead in a hotel at the back of his house where they stay and look after his treasure.”

Donny Two Cents sayed quietly, “Are you looking for your dog Old Becky, Squeaky?”

I couldn’t look him in the eye. “No. Becky ain’t the one I’m looking for.”

We circled around the huge pond for a while. Every now and then I thought I saw something moving in the water, like a crocodile or a gator. There’s gators here, Henry told me once. Gators like eating children because we so tiny and easy to catch. But I’m the fastest girl in the grade.

We couldn’t see the sky too clearly now that it weren’t no longer pink. The black trees looked like claws without the sun and everything that moved becomed a monster bout to eat us. It was April, but I was shivering.

“If you want my two cents, we gotta sleep now,” sayed Donny real quietly. “We can look for the Oogey Boogey man in the morning. I bet he’s real powerful at night, Squeaky, and we can probably get him better in the daytime. Penny for your thoughts?”

I didn’t want to admit he was right, because that’s always what happen, and the worse thing is, Donny Two Cents ain’t the kinda guy who rub it in your face when you wrong. That make it worse because you got nobody to fight.

“Squeaky,” Donny Two Cents whispered. “Look.”

Above us a line a lightning bugs was flying in a circle. They was like dancing stars and they twinkled the same way. Think a the bestest nightlight you got at home, it ain’t got nothing on fireflies.

I looked at Donny Two Cents. His face were all lit up by the bugs, and I ain’t never gonna tell nobody this, but he looked like a angel. He were looking at me too, real close, and he sayed, “We can go to sleep right here up by this tree. If these lightning bugs don’t protect you, Squeaky, I will. I promise no Oogey Boogey Man gone take you away.”

I scrunched my face up but really I wanted to give him a big stupid hug. He know me better than most. He know that even though I’m in charge, a leader is only as good as the people behind her. At least, that’s what Mrs. Paris says.

We crawled up against the tree like two baby bunnies and fell asleep under the dancing stars.

_ _ _

Donny Two Cents waked me up the next day. There was bright sunlight coming through the leaves and my stomach were rumbling. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a melty Mars Bar I been saving since last Tuesday. I split it with Donny Two Cents but he sayed he weren’t hungry and why would I argue with him over a Mars Bar?

“Mama gone be mad,” I telled him straight. “We been gone since yesterday.”

“I’ll take us back outta the marshes,” Donny Two Cents promised. “We can always go look for the Oogey Boogey man some other day. Maybe take Henry with us, he got a gun.”

I didn’t say nothing, but I followed him back around the pond with the black trees growing in it. We saw a gator, but the gator did nothing but stare at us. When I get back I gone tell everybody I saw a gator and weren’t scared one bit. Besides, even if the gator came Donny Two Cents would knock it so hard it’d see Heaven.

We heard voices coming through the trees, and Donny Two Cents told me they were swamp spirits and they probably didn’t mean us no harm so we didn’t answer or go near them. Some a them were calling my name though. My Christian name, Grace, not Squeaky.

I didn’t know how Donny Two Cents did it, but pretty soon the trees got thinner and we were almost back at Herman’s Hollow, right at Shana Lincoln’s white cross. There were more voices too, even ones I recognized like my Mama and Papa and Henry and Old Mr. Pitcher from next door and the sheriff and Deputy Sanders. And right as I walked back onto Herman’s Hollow, Mama saw me first and gave this weird happy yell and ran up and nearly knocked me over because she were hugging me so hard.

She were crying too. “Grace! I though we’d lost you, girl!” And then Papa and Henry were there, and Papa weren’t crying but his eyes were red and Henry gived me this look like he weren’t sure if he should whup me or not. The sheriff’s mouth was open and Deputy Sanders smiled.

“I guess we can call off the other search parties in the swamp,” sayed Henry to the sheriff. The sheriff nodded and sayed something into his walkie-talkie.

“We’re going home,” Mama whispered, her voice all thick. “We are going home and getting you all cleaned up and giving you something to eat.”

Mama keeped switching between yelling at me and saying how glad she was the whole car ride home. It weren’t until we turned onto our street that I realized I ain’t said goodbye to Donny Two Cents, but he probably come round tomorrow.

The whole parish were in our living room. Mama’s bridge partners pinched the skin off my cheeks and Papa’s hunting buddies were smiling at me. Even Mrs. Paris were there. After a while, Mama’s pretty friend Miss Ackley asked me, “Grace, why did you go into the marshes?”

Some people gave her funny looks for that but I puffed my chest up real proud and sayed, “I went with Donny Two Cents to see the Oogey Boogey Man.”

“Donny who?” asked Old Mr. Pitcher.

“She means the Lincoln boy,” Papa sayed, his face real serious. Mama looked at him, then me.

“Grace, what I tell you everyday?” she whispered real quiet. “Donald Lincoln died a year ago in that nasty car wreck with his sister Shana, out on Herman’s Hollow, where we found you today. Remember, we went to the funeral? He’s been dead, he’s been in the ground, he’s with the Lord now. What were you thinking, going into the marshes on your own?”

“Mama, you know what Henry say!” I yelled back real strong, in a way that gone get me a whupping later on. “Every time you bury something in the cemetery, the soil so loose it drain into the marshes. Donny Two Cents helped me get out, Mama. He’s there, I know he’s there. If you want my two cents, he always will be.”