ON THE NOSE
I belong in the woods about as much as a tennis ball belongs in a frying pan. It was absolutely ridiculous for me to be walking along a nature trail, looking at all the marvels that are to be found in the great outdoors. If I want to see a spotted tiger moth, I’ll examine it under a microscope, thank you. But our class was on a field trip, and there was no reasonable way I could get out of going. The trip counted toward our grade. If there’s one thing I treasure, it’s my grades. How else can I keep score?
So, there I was, lagging at the back of the group following Mr. Rubinitsky along the high trail through Miller Forest, soaking up all the beauty and glory of several thousand plants, half of which were capable of making me sneeze, the other half of which were capable of giving me a skin rash. Ah, nature! And lag I did, falling farther and farther behind as I stopped to examine potential specimens. Despite my extreme dislike of the outdoors, I figured there was no reason to waste an observation opportunity. And there were several species of fungi that were extremely interesting. It’s funny how most people don’t even realize what a fascinating life-form fungi are.
So that is how, despite being on a clearly marked trail under the supervision of a professional teacher, I managed to get lost in the woods. I had stopped to examine a particularly alluring variety of fungus and was wondering whether to take a spore sample for later study when I looked up and noticed that I was the only large mammal in sight. One moment, I’m a student; the next, I’m Hansel. I got up and dashed ahead, but the path forked.
“Hey!” I shouted. I listened for a reply. There was none. Now I was faced with three choices.
One: I could stay right where I was and hope they noticed I was missing. That didn’t seem like a practical solution. I’d never been missed in my life. If I had been Adam, I could have left the garden for weeks and weeks without Eve realizing something was different.
Two: I could choose a path and follow it. Since one path was right and one was wrong, that approach had a 50 percent chance of returning me to my classmates. Not the best odds, but at least I could put a number on it. Of course, if the path forked again, the odds would get worse.
Three: I could head back the way we’d come and meet the others by the bus. That was assuming I could find my way back. An amusing assumption—I’ve been known to get lost walking home from school.
I was sure there were other possibilities, but I also knew that the longer I took making a choice, the more unknown factors would intrude. Before I could make my decision, I was distracted by a frantic rustling. A small creature dashed across the path, skittering out of the woods on one side of the trail, then back in on the other side. I caught just enough of a glimpse to know it was a rabbit. I stepped to the edge of the path and stared at the spot where the animal had run.
That’s when I heard the growl.
Actually, it was more of a snarl. Well, it was sort of a half-snarl, half-growl sound. The differences probably weren’t important at the moment. The key feature here was the threatening nature of the sound. This was not some form of animal greeting or mating call. This sounded more like “Hello, lunch.”
I took off, picking the more active half of the fight-or-flight reaction, and stumbled from the path into the woods. Some small part of my mind was amused that I seemed to be choosing the same route as the rabbit. The rest of my mind was busy urging my body to move faster. Running is not my best activity, but I must say I achieved a new personal best speed record as I tore through the underbrush.
Unfortunately, whatever was chasing me had a lot more experience in this version of tag. The growling sounds got closer. They were right behind me. Then they were right on me. Something slammed into my back.
I fell face forward. The force made me roll right over. It was the first time in my life I had ever done a somersault. I didn’t like it. As I slid to a stop, my glasses bounced from my head. I panicked at the thought of losing them, but I got lucky. When I groped through the leaves that surrounded me, I felt the frames right away.
Before I could put on my glasses or stand up, something gray and sleek and fast landed on my chest. It was so close to me that it was mostly a blur, but it was a blur with a mouth and a tongue and teeth—especially teeth. Even without my glasses, I could tell that the blurry teeth ended in blurry points of the kind designed to make holes in just about anything. The teeth appeared about ready to bite my face. This wasn’t a good thing.
I raised my hand as the animal lunged closer—the mouth so wide, it looked like my whole head would disappear inside. A wave of hot, raw animal breath washed over me.
The shouts from the path must have startled it. The head jerked back as the jaws snapped shut. “Yeeyouch!” It nipped my nose. Then it leaped away from me. With one powerful spring, it hurtled far off through the underbrush. I put on my glasses and looked to the side in time to catch a glimpse of something gray and fast. It was gone before I could determine what it was. It seemed to move through the woods with barely a sound.
“Norman!” More voices joined the search. The footsteps came closer.
“Here!” I shouted, carefully feeling my face to see if my glasses still had a nose to lean on. Ick. My head was pretty well slobbered up, but my nose seemed okay, though it was a bit sore at the tip.
With all this going on, the oddest thing is how only one aspect of the experience remained clear in my mind. Despite all that had just happened, I mostly could recall a tiny sensation that, at the time, seemed unimportant. My palms itched. They itched fiercely.
Copyright © 1997 by David Lubar