Walking the dike - Where is the tree?
Susan backed away from the door until she hit the rear wall. The sound of the man's breathing grew closer with each passing second. The smell of rancid meat was everywhere. Searching for something she could use to defend herself, she brushed her hand against the broken towel dispenser. She grabbed the roll of paper towel out of the dispenser and threw it at the stranger. She heard the roll hit the door on the far side of the room. How could she miss? There was no room in the small washroom for the man to evade it. Listening, she noticed that the breathing was softer and farther away.
Suddenly, the room filled with light as the washroom door was flung open. "Who's in here?" Ms. Kennedy, the gym teacher, was framed in the doorway. The light behind her white blouse and short, light brown hair made her look like an angel. "Susan, what are you doing sitting in the dark?"
Susan slumped against the wall and looked around the room. Where had the man gone? There was nowhere for him to hide. A flash of black caught her eye, and she saw the cat run out of the room.
"What is a cat doing in the washroom?" Ms. Kennedy looked down the hallway, then turned to Susan. "Is it yours?"
"No, I . . . I saw it run in here." Susan's hands started to shake, and she felt cold all over. Who was that man and why was he in the girl's washroom? She did not want to think about what might have happened if her gym teacher had not shown up.
"Are you all right?" Ms. Kennedy turned on the lights and walked over to Susan. "Did the cat attack you?"
"No." Susan examined the corners of the room. "There was a man in here, but I don't know where he went."
"A man? Did you get a good look at him?" Ms. Kennedy helped Susan to stand and walked her to a bench in the hallway.
"He . . . had a lot of hair. I only saw him for a second."
"You look pretty shaken up. You should go home and rest. If you hurry, you might still catch your bus." Ms. Kennedy helped gather Susan's things together and walked with her out to the parking lot.
"There's my bus." Susan could see Jill looking at her through the bus's window.
Ms. Kennedy waved to the bus driver, who had closed the door and was about to drive away. "Hurry up, Susan. The driver is not going to wait all day." She handed Susan her backpack as she stepped into the bus. "Have a safe trip. I'll see you tomorrow."
Susan moved toward the rear of the bus and sat next to Jill.
"Why are you taking the bus? Did something happen?" Jill moved closer to the window to give Susan some room.
"I don't know. I thought I saw somebody." Susan placed her pack on the floor and stared at it. After a moment, she looked up at Jill. "I hate this. Will you get off the bus and walk with me? I really need someone to talk to." Susan knew Jill didn't like walking with her because she had a hard time keeping up.
"I don't know. My mother will worry if I'm late getting home." Jill looked down and adjusted the book bag on her lap.
"You can tell her I really needed a friend to lean on today."
Jill looked at her hands for a few seconds and then looked up at Susan. "Okay, I'll go. I'd like to know what's keeping you so on edge."
"Great!" Susan got out of her seat and moved toward the front of the bus.
"You shouldn't be walking around while the bus is moving," said the driver.
"Could you let me and my friend off at the next corner?" Susan asked.
"Fine. Now please sit down."
The bus soon stopped and the two girls got off. A cold October wind cooled their hands and faces. "Come on Jill. The dike walk is this way." They walked along the side of the road until they came to a bridge. Near the end of the bridge was a small, unpaved parking area. On a nearby sign was written, in bold lettering, "Acadia Dike Lands."
Jill walked closer and read the small print. "It says here that the dikes were built around 1760 by the local farmers who wanted to gain more farmland to grow crops and to raise cattle."
"That's right, and it also says that the dikes are made from large mounds of stones covered by gravel and topped with soil and grass. The grass keeps the water from eroding the gravel away." Susan walked over to the railing and looked into the channel. "The tide is low right now, but during high tides the water comes right up to that line of grass." Susan pointed to the place where the grass stopped and the red, iron-rich mud of the Minus Basin began.
Jill looked down at the river of water flowing far below and immediately moved back from the rail. "Maybe we should head home. I'll be late as it is."
Susan moved away from the railing and headed toward the head of the trail. To her right was a hay field that had already been cleared. To her left were the mud flats of the Minus Basin and, further out, the Atlantic Ocean. She stopped to take a deep breath. "Ah, just smell that salt air."
Susan noticed that Jill had her hands in the sleeves of her wind jacket and had wrapped her arms around herself. "Sorry Jill. I forgot you weren't dressed for walking on the dike. I'll trade my sweater for your jacket." She pulled off her sweater and handed it to Jill.
Jill took a deep breath, took off her jacket and put on the sweater as fast as she could. The sleeves were so long that her hands were covered. "Thanks. This is a nice sweater. Is it wool?"
"I think so. My grandmother gave it to me last Christmas." Susan tried to put on Jill's jacket but it was too small.
"I hope you don't want your sweater back."
"No, don't worry about it. I don't find it cold." Susan tied the jacket around her shoulders and picked up her backpack. "Let's go."
They walked in silence for a while until Jill spotted a flock of birds standing in the mud. "What are they doing?" she asked.
"They're looking for fish trapped in the tidal pools. During high tides, you won't see a bird anywhere, but during low tides they come here by the thousands. It's getting colder now, so many of the birds have flown south but a few are still around."
Jill watched the bird for a while and began to notice sounds coming from the grass all around her. "What are those strange popping sounds?"
"That is the sound some grasshoppers make when they rub their legs together. I saw one once. It was as big as my hand and greenish-grey colored."
Jill backed away from the sound. "They don't bite, do they?"
"Don't be silly. They're grass eaters." Susan laughed. It felt good to laugh after what had happened at school today. She stopped laughing as a wave of nausea filled her. She could still smell the stench of the man's breath on her clothes.
"Are you still thinking about Fiona?" Jill took off her glasses and wiped them with the sleeve of the sweater.
"I wasn't until you mentioned it. You don't think she'd try to hurt me if I show up for the race?" Susan put her hands under her armpits. It is getting cold, she thought.
"I don't know. I don't think she'd want to get into trouble. Maybe you should try to let her win. If you come in second, you'll still make the team."
"I guess." Susan noticed that the sky was slowly taking on a rosy glow. "We better hurry. It's getting late."
The two girls strode along the dike. After a while, Susan slowed to let Jill catch up. "Hurry up. There's something I want to show you before we head home."
"Okay, but make it quick. My mother must be worried sick by now." Jill was breathing heavily as she ran up to Susan's side.
Susan looked down the path toward the old farming road that led from the dikes to the street near her house. A cow pasture used to run along the side of the road, but now the area was all dug up to make way for a new experimental tidal power station that was being built.
"That's strange. Where is it?" She was still some distance from the turnoff, but she was sure she should be able to see what she was looking for by now.
"Where is what?" Jill looked down the path and spotted the construction site. "What's going on over there?"
"They are building a power plant and what I'm looking for is the old oak tree. I pass it every day on my way home but I don't see it today. Let's get closer."
Susan walked a little faster and suddenly she did see the tree. It was lying on its side with its roots pulled out of the ground. Some of the roots still grabbed at the earth in an attempt to stay alive. It looked so sad and crippled that Susan felt sorry for it.
Continued in "The Tree on the Dike - chapter 3"