Five o'clock came early. Dexter hadn't dreamed—if he had, he didn't remember it (and since the Freaky One had come into his life, his dreams were more bizarrely memorable than ever)—but he did have a sense of having been asleep. He did feel rested, but not nearly enough.
"Come on, boys! Grab a pole and let's get out there! Duncan, wake up, son! The morning won't last all day!"
Duncan was still asleep; sometimes it seemed like he could sleep through anything. Dexter rejected Freakazoid's suggestion to kick him awake, and gave him a gentle nudge instead.
It took several nudges to wake the sleeping giant. "Huh? What? Get off me, Twink!"
"Dad says it's time to get up and go fishing."
"Oh! Why'nt you say so?" He jumped up, and Dexter was treated to the lovely sight of Duncan in his Bart Simpson boxer shorts. And nothing else.
"Get dressed," he said, averting his eyes.
By the time Duncan was ready, Dad had already baited their hooks for them, and set their poles on the bank, ready and waiting.
"Do you remember," Dad began, launching into the familiar story, "the first time I took you boys fishing? You must have been about . . . six and four, I think. Dexter, you asked me, 'Doesn't it hurt the worm to put him on the hook like that?' And I said—"
Both boys finished the sentence for him. "Not as much as it's gonna hurt him to get eaten by a fish!"
"Dad," Dexter complained, "you tell this story every summer! You might want to get some new material!"
"There's nothing like the classics, son. Now cast off and let's see if they're biting."
This was the part that Dexter hated most. In their years of coming here, he had hooked 1) a tree, 2) a squirrel, and 3) Dad's lucky hat (which was never seen again). He closed his eyes and hoped for the best.
The hook landed in the dirt, a few yards away from the water. He reeled it in and tried again. This time it at least went into the water, though not very far out.
And then the waiting began.
The thing that Dexter both liked and hated about fishing was that most of it involved sitting quietly and waiting for a fish to bite. While he enjoyed the quiet, after a while the waiting got tiresome. It was then that he realized that he hadn't heard a peep from Freakazoid in quite a while.
You there, Freak?
Yeah, I'm just being quiet so I won't distract you.
Well, I'm just sitting here right now. If you want to talk, that's okay.
Well, all right! So . . . what do we do after we're done fishing?
Clean the fish and eat them for breakfast.
EEEUUUUCHHHH! TOUCH FISH GUTS? BLEAHHHHH!
That's what I say, but Dad says if we don't clean it, we can't eat it. So I'm stuck touching fish guts.
What do you DO with them?
Throw them in the woods for the bears to eat instead of us. I think. Sometimes we throw them in the water, but that's kinda gross.
I'll give you plenty of warning, so you can turn off the video feed till it's all over.
You'd let me do that?
Why put you through something gross if you don't have to? Just keep your ears open for the all-clear.
Will do! Is that your bobby thing bobbing up and down?
It is? It is! I've got one!
"I've got one!"
"Well, reel it in!" Dad stood up and grabbed Dexter's rod before it went sailing off into the lake. Together they managed to reel in a fairly good-sized fish.
"Oh, he's a good one! Throw it in the bucket and go back for more!"
"Since we don't have the cooler, I had to improvise." Dad held up a bright red fire bucket. "It's deep enough so he shouldn't flop out of it. And it's clean."
"How do I get it off the hook?"
"Gimme that!" Duncan grabbed the fish out of his hands, slid it off the hook, and tossed it into the bucket. "You're such a wimp, Dex!"
"I am not!"
"Quiet down, boys! You'll scare the fish away."
"Sorry, Dad." The two of them squelched the argument before it got going, and Duncan even helped Dexter bait his hook again.
When he looked back, Dexter couldn't remember a lot of good times with his family. Mostly he hid out from them in his room. Going out in public with them was a nightmare. But these fishing trips were different. Maybe because they didn't have to talk to each other.
Duncan caught the next fish, which was bigger than Dexter's. He peered into the bucket, where the first fish was still flopping around. "If I put him in there," he asked, "will they fight each other?"
"I doubt it," said Dexter. "It's a little hard to fight when you can't breathe."
For that, he received a punch in the arm. But not too hard, because Dad was watching.
Hit him back!
I'm not gonna hit him back!
Why not? You've gotta stand up to that bully sometime in your life, Dex!
Maybe later, okay? After we're done fishing.
When will that be?
I don't know! When we've caught enough to eat, I guess.
The sun was over the tops of the trees before they had enough to call breakfast. Good thing, too; it was getting hot out here. Dexter looked out at the cool, clear water and longed to take a dip, just to cool off a bit.
"Okay, boys," said Dad. "Time to clean the fish. Though they've been in the water—"
"So they shouldn't be dirty," Duncan and Dexter chorused. This was another oft-repeated joke that wasn't that funny anymore.
"Oh, you've heard that one."
"Only every time we go fishing," Dexter muttered.
"Let's bring the fish back to the campsite first, so we can put them right over the fire. We'll throw the waste into the bucket and dump it as far from us as possible."
Guess who gets that job? Dexter thought sourly. He then groped for the mental link between himself and Freakazoid. Fish-cleaning time, Freak. You might want to go watch Rat Patrol for a while. It's gonna be really disgusting!
Try not to hurl in the bucket this time.
I won't—wait, you know about that?
That library holds ALL your memories. Good and bad. Sorry to bring it up.
That only happened once! I'll be fine!
I hope so. Well, see ya in a while!
There was an audible click as the link was temporarily disconnected. Dexter sighed, picked up the small knife that Dad used for cleaning the fish, and got to it.
It was nearly lunchtime before they had the fish all cleaned, and Dexter was starving. As he had expected, he was carrying the bucket of fish guts out into the woods. He sighed, got up, and started to leave the dock area.
And that was when Duncan's arm swung around and knocked him, pail and all, into the lake.
He wasn't worried about drowning; he could swim just fine. When he came up, sputtering and choking on water, Dad and Duncan had already left the waterside. They hadn't even noticed that he wasn't with them.
Why's it so damp in here? Where's all this water coming fro—DEXTER! Are you okay? What happened?
Dexter hauled himself up onto dry land and shook himself like a dog. Oh, nothing. It was an accident.
What was an accident?
Duncan kinda . . . pushed me into the water.
WHAT? That big jerk! Why, I oughta—
Freak, no! Let me handle it!
No! We've done things your way for long enough! You're not wimping out on me this time! That guy needs to be taught a lesson! I don't care if he is your brother, you need to stand up for yourself!
Okay. I'll tell Dad when I get back to the campsite.
And what do you think he's gonna do about it?
I don't know . . .
I'll tell you what. NOTHING! Same as he ever does! You've got to handle this yourself, Dexter Donald Douglas! Be a man!
Okay! I will!
He squelched up the path to the campsite and found Duncan spearing the fish parts with sticks. "Dunc, can I talk to you a minute?"
No! Firmer than that!
Freak, let me do this, please.
"Have a nice swim, dork?"
"Why'd you push me?"
"What?" Duncan looked all innocent. "I didn't push you!"
"So you just accidentally happened to knock me off the dock, then?"
I know he's lying, but I can't tell him right out that he's lying! "Duncan, you know that's about as believable as—as saying that a mermaid pulled me in!"
"A mermaid? A real mermaid? With a seashell bra and everything?"
Dexter gave him a look. "No, not a real mermaid! Mermaids aren't real!"
"But you said—"
"What's going on, boys?" Dad had heard raised voices and came over to do something about it.
"Duncan pushed me into the lake!"
"I did not! It was an accident! I didn't see him there!"
"You're not denying you did it!"
"Okay, that's enough!" He physically separated the two of them so that no violence, accidental or otherwise, could occur. "Dexter, do you know for sure that Duncan meant to push you?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Then maybe it was an accident."
"But he's always punching me and shoving me around! You weren't even watching! You don't know for sure that it wasn't on purpose!"
"That's enough, Dex! You apologize to your brother for unjustly accusing him."
"You heard me. You've got one minute, or I'll put you in time out!"
"Dad, I'm seventeen! Don't you think I'm a little old for time outs?"
"I'm serious. Apologize, or go sit in the car for an hour."
"An hour? Do I at least get the keys so I can have the air conditioning on?"
"Okay, okay! I'm sorry I accused you without absolute proof, Duncan."
"You really think I'd push you on purpose?"
"Well—" he began, but then saw Dad looking at him. "No."
"All right," said Dad. "Now shake hands, and let's all be friends again."
Don't do it, Dexter! It's a trick!
I don't have a choice, do I? Unless I want to go sit in the hot car for an hour.
Duncan's grip was firm, but fortunately not crushing. At least Dexter came out of it without feeling that all the bones in his hand had been pulverized. It was only because Dad was watching; otherwise, it would have been business as usual.
"Now let's go for a swim!"
Great. Shoulda stayed in the water.
Oh, don't be so negative, Dex! You'll get him back! Hold his head under the water for a minute or so!
I can't! I mean, I literally can't! He's bigger than me!
Then let me do it!
I prefer to bide my time, and wait for the right moment.
Right moment? How do you know there IS a right moment? What if the right moment never comes? What do you do then?
Well . . . he's older than me. With any luck, he'll die first.
Dexter, ever self-conscious about his scrawny body, ducked into the tent to change into his swimsuit. "Stupid Duncan," he muttered as he yanked his T-shirt off over his head. "Why do they always take his side?"
Aw, don't be upset, Dex!
Why shouldn't I? Your stupid plan failed miserably!
Hey, so we lost the battle. So what? The war is far from over!
No, but it's not looking good for our side. They always choose him over me! What's fair about that?
"Dexter!" Dad called. "You coming, or was one dip in the lake enough?"
"Ha, ha," Dexter muttered. "Yeah, I'm coming!" he shouted, tugged his swim trunks into place, and crawled out of the tent.
The water was much nicer when he chose to enter it, rather than being taken by surprise. It was cool, but not freezing cold. It felt really nice on such a hot day.
You watch out for alligators, now!
Alligators? There are no alligators in Lake Wachewanna!
HA! Gotcha! Seriously, though, there might be a few snapping turtles around.
Just be careful, Dex. You're important to me, you know.
Dexter swam out about ten yards, and then changed direction to swim parallel to the shore, back and forth across the water, barely making a splash as he did so. He tried to stay away from the boats that zipped along the water a little further out, but they were so fast that he was afraid they'd run him over. After the third one went zooming by barely a foot from his face, he swam in a bit so that he wouldn't be in their way.
Not in their way? They should stay out of YOUR way!
You try telling them that!
Let me out and I will!
I'll bet you will.
You haven't let me have any fun all weekend! What's up with that?
Freak, we talked about this! We don't want to blow our cover! My family can't know the truth!
THEY CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Nice. I like it when you do impressions.
Who should I do next?
How about Marcel Marceau?
But he's a-oh, I get it. Lip-zipping time.
Please. Oh, here comes another boat. I think this one's aiming for me!
This looks like a job for . . . well, are you gonna let me out, or not?
I guess so. "Oh . . . FREAK OUT!"
Dexter's small body spun around wildly, and even though there was a clear blue sky above, lightning flashed as he transformed. Freakazoid, when he appeared, was wearing a Harbor Patrol uniform, complete with whistle, which he blew several times.
"You! In the water!" He pointed to the offending speedboat. "Pull over, now!"
The driver of the boat complied. Freakazoid splashed over in the shallow water and glared at the four teenagers who were looking up at him. They looked like college kids, on summer break.
"Going a little fast, weren't you? And close to the swimmers!" He pulled out a ticket book and began doodling.
"We're sorry, Officer," said the boy next to the driver. He was built like a moose, but he seemed nice enough. "We'll try to stay further out from now on."
"You're not drinking, are you?" Freakazoid inspected the interior of the boat for open containers. "What's that there?"
The girl holding a clear plastic bottle of golden liquid looked at it as if she'd never seen it before. "This? It's Mountain Dew."
"Could I have some?" Freakazoid asked eagerly.
What are you doing? Dexter demanded.
It's a little warm out here, in case you haven't noticed! I could use some refreshment!
Okay, then. Let them go.
Freakazoid accepted the offered bottle and said, "Now behave yourselves, kids! And watch out for the pirhanas!"
"Pirhanas?" the boy behind the driver quavered.
"He's kidding," said the moose. "Pirhanas don't live in waters this cold."
They sped off, more carefully this time, and Freakazoid waved until they were out of sight. "Bu-bye, kids! Have fun! But not too much fun!"
Well done, Freak.
Thanks! What can we do now?
Can we just go back to camp?
Now? But I'm just getting started! Hey, there's Duncan! Watch this!
You never let me have any fun! I promise I won't do anything to permanently maim him.
O . . .kay. I think.
Duncan was climbing up on the dock, in preparation for the mother of all cannonballs. He looked out over the water, and spotted his worst nightmare.
"Help!" he cried, scrambling up the ladder. "It's the blue guy! Dad! Help!"
"It's like this, Dumb-can," Freakazoid said. "You need to treat your brother nicer. Or else I'ma have to get rough with you!"
"No! Please!" Duncan started to run, but the dock was wet and slippery. Freakazoid stuck out an arm as Duncan went past, knocking him into the water.
HA! Revenge is sweet!
"Oops!" he said, mockingly. "Sorry bout that! It was an accident!"
Duncan, bobbing in and out of the water, began to cry. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I won't do it no more! Tell Dexter I'm sorry!"
He doesn't mean it. The moment you're gone, it'll all start again.
I think I can take care of that.
"And just in case you were thinking about going after him again when I leave . . . know this: I see everything, I know everything. I will know if you're mean to your brother, and I'll come back!"
"I won't! I won't! I promise!"
Where the heck is Dad? Dexter wondered. Wasn't he just here?
Probably in the bushes.
Maybe we should go, before he gets back.
"I'm going now!" he announced. "But remember what I said: be nice to Dexter, or I'll be back!"
And he zoomed off, down the dock and into the woods.
Boy, that felt good!
See? I told you! You just need to stand up to him once in a while! I did it for you this time, but next time, you gotta step up and defend yourself!
Yeah, like he'd listen to me.
Well, MAKE him listen to you! Next time he hits you, hit him back!
I don't think I can . . .
Of course you can! I'm with you, always! We are part of each other, and you've got to tap that part of you that is me . . . I mean, part of me in you . . . what was I saying?
I don't know, but Freak? Where are we?
Freakazoid looked up and saw nothing but trees all around them. What? We should be near the campsite! Don't worry, it should be around here somewhere!
You don't know where?
No, but I think I have a pretty good idea!
He blundered around for a while before being forced to give up and admit that yes, they were lost.
It's too bad you can't fly. You could get an aerial view of the whole forest.
Yeah, well . . . HEY! I just thought of something! I DO know someone who can help us!
Yeah! Now where did I put that horn?
Freakazoid reached into his pockets, which were conveniently only there when he needed them, and pulled out a yo-yo, a paddle ball, a length of rope attached to a rhinoceros (How the heck did that get in there?), a handful of jacks (so that's where that pain in my lower back came from!), and various other odds and ends. They formed a tall pile on the ground in front of him.
Where is it, WHERE IS IT?! Oh, wait a minute! Here it is!
Freakazoid held up a golden curly horn with FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY written along the side. He took a deep breath, and blew into the horn.
At first, only dust emerged. He tried again, and this time a fanfare sounded, loud enough to be heard throughout the whole forest.
Now what? Dexter asked.
Now we just have to wait for him! I hope he's not busy. What am I talking about? He's never busy!
The Huntsman, of course! He lives in the forest! Here he comes now!
There was a huge rushing sound, like a mighty wind tearing through the trees. Freakazoid could see a green streak approaching: Huntsman, at full speed, was nearly as fast as Freakazoid himself. Not that they'd ever raced or anything. Actually, that might be a fun thing to do. For charity, maybe. Who do we call to set that-
The green streak slowed, and came to a stop a few feet away. "You called, Freakazoid?"
"Yeah, hi, Huntsman. I'm . . . kinda lost."
"Lost? How did that happen? Didn't you mark your trail so you could find your way back?"
"I guess I got distracted. Sorry."
"Where were you before you got lost?"
"Our campsite's about ten yards from the lake. I thought it was that way, but someone disagrees!"
Don't blame this all on me! You're the one who wasn't paying attention to where we were going!
Why, I oughta-
"Did you step off the path?" Huntsman asked, interrupting the inner conversation.
"Huh? Oh, uh, I guess I did."
"Can you remember where you went off the path?"
"I think it was back that way." He pointed straight back behind him.
"All right. I know exactly where we are. If it's the campsite I think it is, it's back this way." He led Freakazoid off in a slight diagonal, to the east.
They reconnected with the path shortly, and followed it home.
"Gee, thanks, Huntsman," Freakazoid said. "If you ever need anything, call me. Here, use the Freakazoo." He handed the green-clad figure a red and blue object.
"Um, thanks, Freakazoid." Huntsman tucked the Freakazoo into one of the many pockets in his tunic. "Don't forget to mark your trail, and stay on the path!"
"Sure will! Bye now!"
At least he was nice. So, what do we do now?
Let's just sit for a moment. I'm tired after all that walking.
I did not panic! I knew exactly what to do.
Sure, you didn't. Whatever you say, Freak.
Let's go pick some berries! I'll show you which ones are safe, and which aren't. Don't get them confused.
You know, it is kinda nice out here.
That's what I've been telling you! Admit it, Dex: you've been having a good time out here after all.
Well . . . yeah.
I mean, if we don't count the bear.
I thought it wasn't a bear!
Whatever it was! And the boat that got a little too close-shouldn't have any problems with them anymore.
Okay, I get it-
And the strange noises in the middle of the night, that could be a mile away, or could be right next to-WHAT AM I DOING OUT HERE IN THE WOODS! IT'S CREEPY AND SCARY AND I WANNA GO HOME!
Take it easy, Freak! Everything's fine!
And then that uncanny howl sounded-only it was close by.
Fine? That's not fine! The evil wolf creature has found us! We're all gonna die!
There was a rustling in the brush. "Freak in!" Freakazoid, said, leaving Dexter to be the ritual sacrifice.
Oh, thanks, Freak.
It came closer . . . closer . . . and then it burst out of the bushes in front of him. Dexter knelt on the ground and curled up in a ball, his arms over his face.
He heard sniffing, and then felt something on his arm. It was . . . licking him?
He opened his eyes and looked down. A tiny brown ball of fur was eagerly licking his arm. It yapped when it saw him.
"Buster? Buster, where are you?" Suddenly a girl about Dexter's age emerged from the bushes. "Oh! I'm so sorry. I've had him on a leash all weekend, but he just got away from me all of a sudden."
"Buster?" Dexter looked down at the dog. "This is your dog?"
"I'm sorry if he was any trouble. He broke into someone else's camp last night and brought home a whole bunch of food."
"That was our food! You mean . . . it wasn't a bear?"
She giggled. "No, just Buster. Oh, I'm Kathleen Warner. My sister, my mom and I are camping about half a mile away. We usually don't bother other folks up here, but I guess Buster had other ideas."
"Oh. Well . . . Dad wanted us to live off the land, anyway, so it's all good."
"Sure." She stared at him, expectantly.
I think this is the part where you TELL HER YOUR NAME!
Okay, okay! "Um . . . I'm Dexter Douglas. I'm here with my dad and my brother. Last time I saw them, they were down by the lake."
"Here you are, Dexter! See, Dad, I toldja he wasn't lost!" Duncan blundered out of the brush like an angry bear. "Hey, cute dog!"
"Sorry if he's been a lot of trouble," Kathleen said. "He likes to howl at the moon when we're up here."
"So that's what that was. Dexter thought it was a wolf!" Duncan laughed as if it was all a big joke.
"Want to come up to our campsite and hang out? I brought my Game Boy."
"You play video games?" Dexter was amazed at this. "I've never met a girl who liked to play video games!"
"Oh, yeah! I'm Vice-President of my school's computer club, too!"
"Hey, Katie! Who're you talking to? Bigfoot?"
A tall, well-built young woman approached them. Her tiny shorts and midriff top left very little to the imagination. Duncan saw her and was mesmerized. Dexter could almost see the little hearts in his eyes.
"Well, hel-lo there!" He sidled up to her and flexed his biceps. Dexter just sighed.
"I'm gonna go tell Dad where we're going, okay?"
No response from the lovesick lug.
"Okay, then! Be right back!"
He started down the trail towards the lake, but then remembered to mark his trail. But with what?
What's in your pockets?
My pockets? I don't have any-wait a minute! There was a folded piece of paper in the bottom corner, and when he pulled it out to look at it, it was bright blue.
There! That should be visible enough! C'mon, let's go!
A girl who plays video games. Imagine that. And she's in the Computer Club!
She's VICE PRESIDENT of the Computer Club! She must be really good with computers!
She's not prettier than Steff, though.
Yeah, but Steff's not here. And it's not like she'll ever find out!
Ah, summer flings! Aren't they sweet?
That evening, after the sun went down, Dexter sat next to Kathleen at her family's campfire. They took turns playing with her Game Boy.
Duncan and Kathleen's sister, whose name was Josie, were sitting on the other side of the fire, whispering and giggling with each other.
Don't think I've ever seen the big guy so . . . schmoopy.
So what? Is that even a word?
Sure it is! It means all mushy and stuff! Didn't think he had it in him.
At least now, hopefully, he'll leave me alone.
Oh, he BETTER!
"You're awfully quiet, Dexter," Kathleen said. "What are you thinking about?"
"Huh? Oh, um, I was just thinking how nice it is to be here . . . I mean . . ."
"I know. It's always nice to have friends. We're here till Sunday night; you?"
"I think so, yeah. I wonder if Dad's coming to join us?"
"He's welcome if he does," said Kathleen's mother, who looked just like her-same dark hair, same bright green eyes, same petite bone structure . . .
Wipe the drool off your chin, Dex!
I'm not drooling!
You're getting all schmoopy, too! What am I gonna do with you?
I can take care of myself, Freak.
"So here you boys are!" Dad finally made an appearance at the edge of the clearing.
"I told you where we were going!" Dexter said, shaking his head. "Didn't you read the note?"
"Of course I did, but-" Dad broke off suddenly, staring at Kathleen's mother. "Suffering swamp gas! Jamie Malone, is that you?"
"I don't believe it! Doug-Doug! So nice, they named you twice!" She came over and gave him a big hug.
"Um," Dexter interrupted, "is there something we should know about?"
"Boys, this is my best friend from camp thirty years ago! Hardly seems like a day's gone by, does it?"
"Well, I can't say you look the same," she said, "but you look good. Come sit down. There's coffee if you want it."
"That'd be nice, thanks."
"Dad," Dexter said, "I know you've told us stories of your friend Jamie at camp, but . . . I kinda got the impression that Jamie was a boy. Was I totally wrong, or did you fib just a little?"
Dad laughed. "I might have left out a few pertinent details. We were ten years old! We didn't care about that stuff back then!"
"We used to compete to see who could catch the most frogs," Jamie reminisced. "I always made you let them go."
"Except for that one time! You waited until we were back in the dining hall, and then you set them free!"
"And we had a whole bunch of them, didn't we? Frogs ran everywhere! People were jumping up on tables and screaming! It took the head counselor and almost all the junior counselors to finally round them up and restore order, and by then we were long gone. We hid out behind the boat house until everything had calmed down."
"Wow," Dexter said. "My dad did that?"
Duncan looked up suddenly. "Dad did what?"
"Set a bunch of frogs loose at camp."
"Oh, little Dougie was quite a troublemaker!" said Jamie. "I thought they were going to send us home after the frog incident. And the food fights. And the lake monster prank . . ."
"Er, it was a long time ago," Dad said sheepishly. "I was bored, and I didn't want to be there, and I guess I got . . . creative."
"You're not kidding! The thing with the sheets and the tapioca pudding, that was pure genius!"
"Okay, this I gotta hear." Dexter leaned in closer, to hear all the juicy details.
Who knew your dad was such a wild child?
I guess everyone's got a secret past. You know, Freak . . . I think I like camping after all.
That's my boy!