The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Twelve: The Hedge Maze
If you were to look up the word villain in a dictionary, not only would you see a picture of Damien Cartwright, you'd also get his date of birth, height and weight, and social security number.
Damien Cartwright was public enemy number one, as far as the Wildwood Gang was concerned. He was a wiry fellow who spent his time tormenting other people, with a knack for targeting those who were younger, smaller, and weaker, and less likely to put up a fight. For those worthier opponents, he made sure he was accompanied by a pair of thugs from his goon patrol, and if necessary, had them fight in his place.
Damien was a year older than Jeff and his friends. When he was at Dixon, he had been a real jerk to Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they did not shed a tear when Damien moved on to the middle school.
Essentially, Damien was a career bully. But like most bullies, he had a streak of cowardice running along his backside, and there were certain people he preferred not to mess with, one of which was a member of the Wildwood Gang. Care to wager a guess?
Anyway, Damien swaggered over to the Wildwood Gang flanked by two muscle-bound meatheads named Link and Ash. He wore a wide grin and held aloft two white paper lunch bags, allowing the sweet aromatics of the cinnamon-sugary goodness inside to permeate the nostrils of his adversaries.
"What's up, Wildwood chumps?" Damien said. "Apple picking, I see."
"Wow, you're bloody brilliant," Ethan quipped.
Damien snarled as his internal targeting computer slapped crosshairs across the lot of them. "Who's the new guy?" he said, gesturing to Ben.
"I'm Ben," Ben said.
"Nobody cares," Damien fired back, followed by a chuckle from Link and Ash.
"Tell me something, Damien," Sofie countered. "What's someone like you doing in a civilized place like this?"
"Oooh," Damien hissed as his forked tongue flickered between his teeth. "I bet you think you're really smart, don't ya?" He made a move toward Sofie but Ben stepped in front of her. Damien threw his head back and laughed. "Alright, alright. Points for bravery."
"What do you want?" Drew growled, clearly in no mood for Damien's antics.
"I just came over to say hello," Damien fibbed. "We cut the line for cider donuts and snagged two bags and now here we are. And I see you have apples, which I assume are for Markham's mother. She's making pies for the festival, right?"
Jeff nodded without a word.
"Yeah, I know all about those pies," Damien continued. "Everybody does. And you know something? Your mother's pies are the worst! They make me want to gag!"
Drew exploded off the bike rack and went nose to nose with Damien. "Well your ugly mug makes me want to gag!" he yelled back.
To Damien's credit, he didn't budge, but that was because his knees buckled and he couldn't move. Drew's hostile reaction took everyone by surprise, especially Damien. Even Link and Ash held their positions, much to Damien's chagrin. Most goon-squad enforcers would've jumped in and neutralized the threat against their leader. But when it came to Drew, guys like Link and Ash were merely window dressing. They knew Drew was not to be messed with. Damien knew that, and everyone knew that. Drew was like a rattlesnake and could strike without warning, and I don't know anyone who'd purposely antagonize a rattlesnake.
After regaining the strength in his legs, Damien recoiled and put his hands up in a gesture of peace. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow your roll, Drew m'man. No need to get feisty. Maybe you care to partake in a little gentlemen's bet?"
Drew exhaled heavily through his nose and eyed Damien suspiciously. "What did you have in mind?"
"The hedge maze," Damien said. "Your apples against my donuts. Winner take all."
Jeff's conscience immediately went to 'Red Alert,' and while his inner monologue began rattling off a million-and-one reasons why this was not a good idea, a decision was made before any of his objections could reach his mouth.
"You're on," Drew said, answering Damien's challenge.
"But Drew!" Jeff said, finally getting the words out. "My mother needs those apples!"
Damien curled his upper lip and mimicked Jeff's words, mocking him in a whiny, nasally tone.
"Don't worry about it," Drew said. "We got this."
"But what we don't got is money," Sofie reminded him. "Can't buy tickets for the maze."
Jeff's anxiety quickly morphed into elation, while Drew's spirit for competition deflated like a whoopee cushion. Even Damien was overcome with utter disappointment, prompting him to step up and keep his mischievous scheme alive.
"I tell you what," he said. "I'll pay for your tickets. It'll be worth it to take those apples off your hands. What do you say, Markham?"
Again, Jeff stumbled in voicing his disapproval, and again, Drew answered for him and the rest of the group.
"We're in," Drew stated emphatically.
"Good," Damien said, wedging his acceptance between Drew and his reluctant comrades. "We'll meet you down there." He gestured to Link and Ash and they bid their farewell, but Damien turned back and stared at Jeff with a devilish grin that stretched across his face and curled at both ends like Rollie Fingers' mustache.
When Damien and his lackeys were out of earshot, Jeff and Sofie lit into Drew for his reckless decision-making.
"We can totally take these guys," Drew said. "What are you worried about?"
"Damien doesn't play fair!" Jeff said. "We just spent forty dollars on apples. Forty dollars of my mother's money! And what do you think will happen if I go home without any apples? Oh, sorry, Mom. We lost them in a bet."
"Your problem is, you always think the worst," Drew said. "I can beat this guy!"
"It's not all about you, Drew!" Sofie interjected. "The Wildwood Gang is a team and we make decisions together!"
"So what do you expect us to do?" Drew said. "Put our tails between our legs and run? If we do that, he'll never leave us alone."
"Who cares about him?" Sofie said. "He's a jerk! He doesn't matter!"
"Exactly!" Drew countered. "Which is why we have to do this! We can make him matter even less."
Sofie rolled her eyes and sighed. "No. We don't."
Jeff calmly extracted himself from the discussion and walked over to his bike. He leaned over and entered the combination for his bike chain and unlocked it, and then slipped the chain out from under the cross bars and coiled it against his own. Then taking his bike by the handlebars, he pulled it out of the rack.
"Where are you going?" Drew asked.
"The hedge maze," Jeff said dejectedly. "Let's get this over with."
Sofie noticed Drew was fighting hard to suppress a grin, and she shook her head in disgust. She watched Jeff ride off alone, and then she and the others retrieved their bikes and followed him.
They took a shortcut up a steep, rocky hill past the hayride's farm store depot, and then coasted along a dirt path leading to a cluster of Honeycrisp trees that had been picked clean. They skirted past another hayride depot near the main access road and followed the crosswalk into a wide field where the hedge maze resided.
To the right was the parking lot, which was so crowded it looked more like a junkyard with the cars stacked vertically. To the left was the hedge maze, and despite the eight-foot-high wall of perfectly manicured shrubbery that enclosed the perimeter, didn't look all that terrifying, especially with families running across the wooden lookout bridges protruding into the sky.
Between the maze and the scrapyard, uh, parking lot, lay a small grassy field where those less willing to face the trials of the hedge maze could frolic through the daisies and sing Kumbaya. Or throw half-eaten apples at each other.
The Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, parked their bikes near the ticket booth at the entrance to the maze and waited for Damien and his backup singers to arrive. The kids had just enough time to bicker some more over Drew's bullheadedness when they spotted Damien, Link, and Ash cross the street. The bad guys dipped down into the field, and upon their approach, Damien locked his eyes on Ben.
"So where you from, Bob?" Damien inquired.
"It's Ben," Ben said.
"Whatever," Damien huffed. "Where you from?"
"Westbridge," Ben replied.
Damien laughed. "Westbridge? That place is a dump! There's only one good thing that comes out of Westbridge. You know what that is?"
"What?" Ben said.
"Nothing!" Damien yelled.
Link and Ash laughed aloud. The Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, did not. Although Drew did crack a smile, and when Sofie saw this, she gave him a dirty look. Drew replied with a short eye-roll, but then quickly wiped the smirk from his face.
"Alright," Damien said, "let's go over the rules. It's simple. There's three of us and three of you. Whoever gets out of the maze first wins."
"I assume you mean the proper exit," Sofie said, trying to eliminate any trickery on Damien's part.
"Of course the proper exit," Damien answered.
"Does the whole team need to get out or just one?" Drew asked.
"Just one," Damien replied. "Doesn't matter who. Now pick your three."
"Jeff, Ethan, and me," Drew said before there could be any discussion.
"Me?" Ethan said with surprise. "Shouldn't you take Ben? I mean, he's an obvious choice."
"I want you where I can see you," Drew told Ethan. "I don't trust you with the donuts."
"No offense to Ethan," Jeff said, "but we should definitely take Ben. He's a good athlete. He can climb and run and I think he'll help us win."
Sofie agreed. "Ben's soccer team won the Tournament of Champions," she said. "He scored the winning goal. You should definitely take him." Her words forced a brief interruption in Drew's agenda. He paused briefly and looked at Sofie, and then Ben, and then back at Sofie.
"He's not part of the team," Drew said. "It's me, Jeff, and Ethan. You two watch the apples."
Damien chuckled. "You sure about that, Drew? I mean, Tournament of Champions, c'mon! The kid upsets Castleton and you want to leave him on the bench?"
Drew tossed an inquisitive look at Damien. But he stuck to his guns and confirmed his lineup. Damien nodded and smiled, and, after surrendering the donuts to Ben, walked up to the booth and bought the tickets. Within a couple of minutes, the six contestants (sans maze maps) entered the hedge maze to compete for orchard supremacy.
Drew, Jeff, and Ethan chased Damien and his thugs along the main pathway that led them into the heart of the maze. They stayed at their heels for quite a run, and it wasn't until the path began to fork at consecutive points that the contestants began to peel off on separate tracks.
The hedge maze was certainly more intimidating from the inside. The narrow pathways barely allowed for two people to pass at a single point, making the eight-foot walls seem even taller, and prompting long shadows to seal the tops of the hedges like a giant canopy of cling wrap, suffocating those trapped within.
A multitude of avenues branched off in a network of loops and dead-ends, and in less than two minutes, Jeff and Ethan had lost sight of the rest. They stood alone in the middle of the path wondering where Drew had disappeared to, but all was quiet in their section of the maze. They couldn't even hear the pathetic grunts of Link and Ash.
"What do we do?" Ethan asked.
Jeff tried to peer through the hedges on either side, but they were so dense he couldn't see anything. The only saving grace was a narrow gap between mulch mounds at the base of the hedges, and if you were lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a sneaker or two scurrying along the opposite side.
"We keep moving," Jeff said, and he started running down the next path with Ethan close behind. The path forked left and so did the boys, aware that the exit was on the far left. But as they soon learned, going left took them right, and going right took them left, and pretty soon they were all mixed up.
They argued repeatedly whether they had come this way or that way, having lost total sense of direction. They continued running, trying to find a road they had yet to travel. Occasionally they would pass by other participants, but they were all strangers. No sign of Drew or Damien.
But their persistence paid off, and Jeff discovered the stairs to one of the lookout bridges, a twelve-foot long wooden plank bridge with chest-high rail walls. He hurried to the top, and Ethan too, and together they scanned the massive maze for a way out. In the distance they could only see the tops of the hedges, but in their immediate vicinity they could see straight down to the ground. And that's where they happened to spy Damien Cartwright.
He was on his hands and knees, and then he dropped to his belly and wriggled under the hedges to the next pathway. This was a definite no-no in the spirit of hedge maze competition. For starters, it damaged the hedges, which sent the groundskeeper into a fury. And second, it was blatant cheating, and Ethan held no reservations in calling him out on it.
"Cheater!" Ethan cried as he pointed to Damien's legs protruding from beneath the hedges. The cry caught the attention of most everyone in the maze, and they stared up at the man-boy on the lookout bridge wondering what on earth he was talking about.
Jeff blew past Ethan, darted down the stairs, and hurried to Damien's exit point. With his mother's apples at stake, there was no way he could let Damien win, and cheating to do so would've been the ultimate insult.
Damien's sneakers had just vanished from sight as Jeff arrived, sending a jolt of pure terror through Jeff's body. He collapsed to the ground and peered underneath the hedges to find Damien attempting the same maneuver at the next wall.
Despite his upstanding citizenship and desire to obey the rules, Jeff dived under the hedges in pursuit of his enemy, showing little care for the art of precision pruning. Even if he had, it wouldn't have made a difference, because once Jeff had extracted himself, Ethan came barreling through the narrow gap, destroying everything in his path.
That narrow gap was now wide enough to drive a tank through, and Jeff felt a little guilty. But that guilt was fleeting, and he spun around to see Damien's legs slithering along the ground. Jeff pounced on them and clung tight to Damien's pants, trying desperately to prevent his escape.
Ethan had barely gotten to his feet when Damien channeled his inner Karate Kid and went to town on Jeff. His foot caught Jeff in the side of the head, but young Markham refused to relinquish his grasp. But the second, third, and fourth blows did the job, and by the time Ethan lunged for Damien's spastic leg, the jackhammering of Jeff's face had granted Damien his release.
But the pain could be dealt with later, and Jeff was under the hedges in no time. There was no way Damien would claim his apples, and when he jumped to his feet, he looked to his left and saw Damien running down the long path toward the exit. And victory.
Jeff sprinted after him, moving as fast as his legs would carry him. He thought he might be closing the gap, but Damien possessed a longer inseam, and adrenaline alone could not overtake him.
Despair saturated every fiber of Jeff's body as he watched Damien run through the exit to glory. But that despair turned to anger and then to hatred, and Jeff was overwhelmed with the burning desire to throttle Damien Cartwright until he could be throttled no more.
"You cheated!" Jeff yelled upon exiting the hedge maze.
"I did not! I won fair and square!" Damien fired back, defending his victory with vigor.
"You crawled under the hedges!" Jeff cried, his voice quivering.
"That's true!" Ethan said as he ran out of the maze. His panting was so heavy he could've blown out birthday candles from a mile away. He doubled over with his hands on his knees and gasped for air.
"You cheated!" Jeff reiterated. "You broke the rules!"
Damien cranked the bully-factor to eleven and broke through the shields of Jeff's personal space. "How do you figure, Markham? The rules say that the one who exits the maze first wins! It doesn't say how. I won, you lost! Pay up!"
Normally, mild-mannered Jeff would've tried to find a diplomatic solution to his problem. But he was so angry, all he wanted to do was punch Damien right in the pie hole. However, fortune often favors those who do things the right way, and the need for violence proved to be unnecessary. For off to the side, there was a loud and over-dramatic clearing of the throat, and when Jeff, Ethan, and Damien turned their attention to the ticket booth, they saw Drew standing there.
"What took you so long?" Drew said with a smirk. He held up the two bags of cider donuts and taunted Damien.
Damien turned stark white. "Where'd you come from?"
Drew pointed to the exit. "First one out wins. I won, you lost. Pay up."
Damien's white complexion turned red, and then dark red, and as he stood there completely humiliated, he racked his brains for a loophole that would negate Drew's victory. But Damien could not think of a single thing, and when all hope seemed lost, he contemplated fighting his way out.
However, Damien was more coward than fighter, and with Link and Ash still lost in the maze, it was five against one. Not to mention, Drew alone could dismantle Damien, so reverting to a Butch and Sundance exit strategy was not wise.
Damien glared at the Wildwood Gang with a desire to unleash the most venomous tongue-lashing. But realizing he had been beaten at his own game, and beaten handedly, he thought it best to hide his shame and depart the hedge maze immediately.
Drew beamed with pride as he watched Damien disappear into the orchard, but Jeff had no interest and was already at his bike, stuffing a bag of apples into the metal basket. Jeff bordered on tears, upset at the whole thing. Upset with Damien, upset with Drew, upset with himself. He was upset that he did not take a stand, and upset that he had come unglued.
While the others carefully eyed Jeff, Ethan approached Drew and snatched a bag of donuts from his hand. Drew didn't seem to care, and when Ethan opened the bag, he buried his face inside and inhaled deeply.
"Mmm, mmm, mmm," Ethan sang through sealed lips, letting his nostrils do all the work. "Anyone for donuts?"
"I wouldn't eat those things," Drew said. "He probably spit on them."
Ethan's head and heart sank simultaneously. "You had to go and say that, didn't you?"
Drew shrugged. "Whatever, man. It's Damien. Proceed at your own risk."
Jeff's frustration had finally boiled over, prompting him to drop the kickstand on his bike and confront Drew. "So after all that," Jeff said, lashing out at him, "you're not even gonna have a donut?"
Drew shook his head. "No way."
"Then what was the point???" Jeff wailed. "Why put us through that?"
"Chill," Drew said, scrunching his forehead. "I had it under control."
"You gambled with my mother's money! Why do you keep doing this to me? First the cottage and now this!"
"I'm sick of Damien!" Drew snapped. "I'm sick of his bullying, and anytime I get the chance to put him in his place, I will!"
"It's always about you, isn't it?" Jeff said. "The rest of us don't matter. Only Drew matters."
"If you want to survive, you have to look out for number one," Drew said. "I know all about it. You guys don't. You have no idea what it's like!"
"But we are friends," Sofie said, coming to Jeff's aid. "We are supposed to help each other. To be there for each other. We are a team."
Drew paused and looked around at the others. For a moment all he saw were strangers. "I don't think I want to be part of this team anymore," he said, dropping the second bag of donuts at his feet. Then he made a direct line for his bike, lifted it from the ground, and climbed aboard. "I quit."
The others watched in total shock as Drew rode off without them. Without even a glance back, he tore across the field and over the embankment. When he reached the access road he pedaled fast and hard, shooting past the parking lot, and dodging cars at breakneck speed. He narrowly avoided more than one collision before descending onto the bike path and out of sight.
"Whoa," Ben said. "Didn't see that coming."
Jeff sighed heavily and looked at Sofie. "I think it's been coming for a while."
Sofie looked at him with sad eyes and nodded in agreement. She turned over her shoulder and stared out beyond the parking lot, her face sinking to a deeper shade of melancholy.
Ethan reached into his bag and removed a donut, then held it up and examined it carefully. Convinced it had not been contaminated by Damien Cartwright's saliva, he took a small sample, chewed it accordingly, and then popped the rest of it in his mouth. He offered some to the group, but they declined, so he dug in for a second, and then they gathered their bikes and set a course for Wildwood Farm.
Ethan reached down and picked the second bag off the ground and tucked it safely away in his bike basket. He followed his friends across the field to the access road and then on to the bike path, while back in the hedge maze, Link and Ash traveled in circles looking for their leader.
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.