When Mike Stock told us about the orange clay pools, we called bullshit because Mike Stock lied as habitually as the rest of us chewed gum.
“I’ll show you!” he kept saying.
And so a pack of us entered the woods that morning, behind the military housing at Fort Leonard Wood. The forest was quiet, with creeks, tree frogs, and small turtles. The summer after second grade, and my younger cousins were visiting for the first time.
We walked for hours, sated by the prospect of Mike having to own his lies. Adam still lived across the street then. We’d brought his little brother along, and my small cousin. They were both four, and neither complained. Not even as the forest climbed up and up.
We never worried about snakes here in the woods, though we saw them often enough in fields to the west. Mike and I found burned up garters on the ledge between our carport and our front door. They’d slept too long in the Missouri sun. Two summers later, we’d nearly step on a rattler in a field to the west. He’d grab me around the waist and run us back to our dirt bikes. I loved Mike like a brother. More than a brother. My brother was an asshole, and the only kid who complained as we climbed upward, clinging to trees to keep from losing ground. Nobody had thought to bring snacks.
At the top of the hill, the forest ended abruptly, and we saw orange clay pools in every direction. They were large enough to soak in, and we did. Throwing off our socks and shoes, and submerging in the warm water. We were orange as fuck. Clay in our hair, our nails, our mouths. We’d burn as the afternoon wore on.
Walking home came more quickly, though the small kids had had enough, and we took turns carrying some of them. A perfect day. We all congratulated Mike on being honest about a thing. Finally. At last.
Even as we walked home, we couldn’t believe our fortune. An entire landscape of clay pools. Next time, we’d bring lunch, and Capri Sun. Adam said we needed Otter Pops and his mom had some. That cheered us for the final hour of our walk.
The street lights hadn’t yet come on when we walked up the short hill to Adam’s backyard. His mom didn’t even greet him. She told him to go inside, take off his clothes, and wait for his father. She said he never should have taken his brother.
The rest of us stood there, watching Adam and his brother follow their mother inside, without a glance backward. No Otter Pops?
“Why’s he gotta take off his clothes?” my brother asked.
Who knew? Maybe she objected to the clay. We still hadn’t noticed the feel of the neighborhood. The panic. We walked through the alley between houses, and onto Gridley Loop. A bunch of parents were standing together on the street, which was odd. They turned as a group and started hollering at us. They went on and on. How reckless we’d been to drag tiny kids who knew where. How dangerous to vanish without a word to anyone. How could we have been gone all day? All day! Without permission!
When had we ever needed permission to walk? The summer days were ours until the streetlights came on. That was the agreement. And usually we were hollered at for leaving our tiny cousin behind, not for bringing her along. It was unjust. I said as much for all the good it did me. I can’t remember if we were punished. All I remember now is the marvelous day. The forest giving way to magic, as though we’d earned it with our labor. We’d walked ourselves toward magic. That’s what it felt like. The spell undone by returning home to angry, irrational adults who’d changed the rules on us.
We never went to the clay pools again. We’d been forbidden to go, even if we left the younger kids behind. Mostly we rode our bikes round and round Gridley Loop, watching for snakes, or played kickball in the street. Adam’s family moved away. Two different kids named Chip moved into the neighborhood with their sisters.
Mike and I were on our bikes together the day his dad ran up to us, crying, and said the family that was moving in next door had spent the afternoon looking for their youngest son. They’d finally found him in a heavy trunk, with a litter of kittens. They’d all suffocated; the child was four. It was their second day on the base in Missouri.
My dad was crying later when he told us about it, too. He’d only just met the parents to discuss their child’s funeral. I thought of my little cousin, that day in the woods. How we’d taken her without a thought.
Missouri. Magic and grief. Snakes and dirt bikes, and Mike Stock beside me. In our canvas Nikes. Riding like we could get somewhere.