By Erin Schallmoser
Noah’s family went to the same church as mine, and his parents had dropped him off for the afternoon. Noah wasn’t my friend, but he was ten years old like I was, and so my mother passed him off to me to provide entertainment. I wasn’t so good at making conversation, but I hoped this afternoon might lead to a real friendship between us, so I took him to my favorite place—the woods.
The woods, as the neighborhood kids called it, was a thin gathering of trees, and a portion of it was stuck in between my backyard and a cow pasture. A slim creek ran through its middle. Maybe it wouldn’t be impressive to a kid from the real country, but it was good enough for those of us trapped in suburbia.
When we found the crawdad wedged in between some tree roots that were half in the creek water and half out, it wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t much alive. What I noticed first was a rusty brown antenna, narrow like a needle, but curved. Then, a pair of pincers and a small crustacean body. There was a crack in the shell in the shape of a rainbow. The creature’s tail curled in an unnatural way.
Noah leaned closer. “It’s a crawdad, Miranda, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Noah had never spoken to me before today, but his curiosity made conversation easy.
He grinned. “I’ve never seen one before,” he said.
As I reached out to trace the crack in the shell with my finger, the crawdad swiped its right pincer towards me. I gasped.
“What do you think happened to it?”
“It got hurt somehow.” I looked around, as if the mud and branches and rocks held clues, but nature gave nothing away.
“What should we do?”
“I—I don’t think there’s anything to do. Just leave it be, I guess.”
“Don’t you want to study it?” he asked.
I shrugged. “What about finding a snake?”
I’d heard the older neighborhood boys talk about finding copperhead skins down here before, so I knew it was possible.
Noah scoffed. “Guarantee that won’t happen. You don’t find a crawdad and a snake in one afternoon. Too lucky.”
“Maybe not. You never know.”
Noah thought for a moment. Then he grinned as he crouched down to the creek rocks. He looked, then pulled up a shimmering purple stone. It fit snugly in his palm and had a rough edge on one side.
“Maybe the best thing to do for the crawdad,” he said, holding the rock out in front of his chest, “would be to put it out of its misery.”
He raised his hand, and my entire body froze. A surge of heat ran down my spine. Imagining what might happen if that rough purple rock came into contact with the crawdad’s pinched, triangular red head, I squatted and scooped up some of the thick mud at my feet and flung it at Noah. He dropped the rock, spitting and sputtering.
“I never said it was going to die soon,” I said. “I just said there was nothing we could do.” My heart pounded in my chest. I wasn’t used to putting that many words together at one time.
Noah knelt down to the creek and cupped his hands to gather up some of the fresh cold water. Then he spun around and dug his fingers into the mud. He snapped his hands up towards me. I shrieked and lunged as gobs of mud whizzed past me.
“That’s what you get.”
“Crawdad killer!” I snarled.
“I haven’t killed him yet!”
“You were going to!”
“I just want to take it up to the patio and study it.”
He dropped the purple rock as if to prove he’d just been putting on a show. I’ve never liked being tricked.
I exhaled. “Study it?”
“You want to take it to the patio? Fine.”
I stepped back as Noah claimed the crawdad. He pressed his pointer and middle fingers together and used them to scoop up the crawdad. It looked like a piece of wet wrinkled leather in his hands.
When we arrived at the patio, Noah dropped the crawdad in a corner near an upturned wheelbarrow. Then he dug into his jeans pocket and pulled out a small spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen. He went back and forth between watching the crawdad and jotting down sentences in the notebook. From what I could see looking over his shoulder, his letters were eager and frantic, just like him.
After some time had passed, my mother hollered for us out the back door. Noah’s parents had returned from running their errands.
Noah looked at me, and then down at his feet. “Thank you, Miranda.”
There was no promise of friendship, no apology for his tricks, just the two words his parents had taught him to say. But I wasn’t sure I wanted him as a friend anymore.
I nodded and smiled, the way my parents had taught me. I said goodbye to him at the edge of the patio. Then I raced back to the woods alone.
I scrambled to where the creek was wide and shallow, where we’d found the crawdad. Then I straddled a fallen log, pretending it was a horse, and looked down into the moving water. I saw water-glider bugs skiing across the water’s surface. I saw tiny minnows, slick frogs, and crabs no bigger than my thumbnail. I didn’t want to study nature. I just wanted to watch.
I counted to one hundred. I made wishes on each fallen oak leaf that floated by. When I went back up to the patio, the crawdad was gone.