So here they were again, for the fourth consecutive day, tramping through the game preserve. They were well off of the trail. Dicky disdained trails. The wet underbrush had soaked Lars’s black jeans from the knees down. His feet were wet too, but that was primarily from failing to clear the stream in one leap. The air was so thick and hot that it seemed almost visible, like a pale green aura that emanated from everything.
Dicky, a head shorter than Lars and still adjusting to a mouthful of braces, wore a backpack stuffed with survival supplies, but never opened it. Lars was not curious about the backpack’s contents. He gathered that Dicky wanted him to ask, but Lars didn’t want to give Dicky that pleasure. It was a tiny, secret act of defiance that made Lars feel as if he didn’t give Dicky everything he wanted.
Twenty yards ahead of Lars, in a low, weed-choked dip in the forest floor, Dicky stopped hiking and looked down at his feet, a walking stick in his left hand and his right hand on his hip. “What is it?” asked Lars. He had no walking stick. Dicky had found and offered Lars at least a dozen walking sticks, but Lars had refused them all.
Dicky didn’t answer. He struck the ground under his feet with his stick and both boys heard the deep, hollow thumps that resulted. Lars walked the rest of the way to Dicky, breathing heavily through his nose and wishing he’d brought something to drink. He wondered if Dicky had water in his backpack. He didn’t want to ask, but maybe if he looked thirsty enough, Dicky would offer. Lars’s soaked shoelaces were covered with brown and green burs.
“Help me clear these weeds and vines away,” said Dicky. He stepped back and started jabbing at the spot where he’d been standing with the end of his stick. Lars just watched.
As Dicky cleared away the plants and dug into the dirt, he grew visibly more excited. “There’s wood here,” said Dicky, looking at Lars with pure delight. “I found something!”
“It looks like there’s some white paint on it,” said Lars.
“I know,” said Dicky. “Help me!”
He knelt and continued to clear the damp earth away from the wood with his walking stick, though at this point Lars thought it was obvious that using his hands would have been faster. After a few more minutes of labor, Dicky had exposed a large, wooden disk on the forest floor. It was around five feet in diameter, beginning to succumb to rot, and someone had painted these words on it: “Wanna Trade? 1 for 1.”
Dicky jumped up and down next to the disk, his backpack bouncing, an idiotic grin on his face. Lars was excited too. He couldn’t help it.
“What does it mean?” asked Dicky. “What does it mean? What does it mean?”
“I think it’s a lid,” said Lars. “We know there’s something under it, right? You heard that echoey sound it made when you hit it.”
“Yeah!” said Dicky. “Help me lift it!”
Before Lars could help, Dicky crouched next to the disk, hooked his fingers under the edge, and flipped it over, uncovering a deep, black hole almost as wide as the disk itself. Lars and Dicky stood at the edge of the hole and looked down. The hole was lined with stone as far down as the boys could see. On one side of the hole, an iron spike had been driven into the stone and there, tied to the spike, was a thick, sturdy rope hanging down into the blackness.
It seemed obvious that the boys should stoop down next to the hole, take hold of the rope, and pull it up, hand over hand, until they found out what was on the other end, which turned out to be an empty wooden bucket. The bucket was heavy and the rope was close to twenty feet long.
“Now what?” asked Lars. He had ideas, but it was customary for him to defer to Dicky in situations like this, though admittedly they’d never really been in a situation like this before.
Dicky frowned. “It’s empty. I thought there was gonna be something cool. This sucks.”
He stood up, shifting the straps of his backpack forward on his shoulders.
“Wait,” said Lars. “What are you doing?”
“We should keep moving,” said Dicky.
“But don’t you want to explore this more?” asked Lars.
“It’s just an old well,” said Dicky. “Who cares?”
Lars couldn’t believe how fast Dicky’s enthusiasm had dissipated. It was uncanny.“What about the words?” asked Lars. “Don’t you think we should investigate more?”
“How?” asked Dicky. He looked skeptical.
“Do you have a flashlight in your bag?” asked Lars. “We could turn it on, put it in the bucket, lower it down the hole, and try to see something down there.”
Dicky frowned. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” said Lars. “Let’s just try it.”
Dicky hesitated, clearly not thrilled to be spending time on an idea that wasn’t his. Then, feigning weariness, he removed his backpack and set it on the ground, kneeling and rifling through it before extracting a small, red flashlight. He turned it on and placed it inside the bucket. “I’ll lower it,” he said.
The boys stood side by side next to the hole and looked down as Dicky lowered the bucket into its depths. The feeble gleam of the flashlight got smaller and dimmer. Dicky crouched and reached down into the hole to let the last of the slack out of the rope without jarring the flashlight. Though it was only twenty feet down, Lars could barely make out the light, just a yellow pinprick in the blackness.
Neither boy said anything. Insects buzzed in the underbrush. Then Dicky spoke. “What was this supposed to prove?”
“I thought we might see something,” said Lars, feeling foolish.
“Like what?” asked Dicky. “Dirt? Rocks?”
“The light just went out,” said Lars.
Dicky squinted down into the hole. “Did it? I can barely tell.”
“There’s no light down there,” said Lars.
“That’s weird,” said Dicky. “That flashlight’s got brand new batteries in it.”
“Maybe the switch got bumped,” said Lars.
“By what?” asked Dicky. He reached down to grab the rope again, and began to haul the bucket back up.
Lars watched the rope glide up out of the darkness. Then the shadowy shape of the bucket became visible in the gloom. Lars gasped, his heart leaping. “Dicky!” he said. “The flashlight’s gone! There’s something else in the bucket!”
“I see!” said Dicky, and he pulled the rope faster, the bucket swiftly climbing the last few feet to his hands.
“What is it?” asked Lars, crowding close as Dicky set the bucket on the ground and crouched next to it. He reached inside and pulled out a pair of sewing scissors. They were in good condition.
“Sewing scissors?” said Dicky.
“It traded with you!” said Lars, clapping his hands. “That’s what the words meant. ‘Wanna trade? 1 for 1.’ We gave it a flashlight and it gave us sewing scissors!”
“But I don’t want sewing scissors,” said Dicky. “I want my flashlight back.”
“Try to trade back,” said Lars. “Put the scissors back in the bucket and lower it down.”
Dicky frowned. “This better work.” He placed the scissors in the bottom of the bucket and lowered it back down the hole. “Hey,” he shouted, when the bucket again reached the bottom. “Gimme me flashlight back, OK?” He paused.
“Pull it up,” said Lars, his hands shaking with anticipation. “Let’s see, let’s see.”
Dicky pulled the bucket back out of the hole. The flashlight was not in it. Instead, there was a grubby paperback horror novel called Bodies of Work. “What is this?” asked Dicky, flipping through the pages of the book in disgust. “This is even worse.”
“You don’t know that,” said Lars. “You’ve never read it.”
Dicky flung the book back into the bucket and lowered the bucket into the hole again, letting the rope slide quickly through his hands until the bucket struck bottom. “My flashlight!” shouted Dicky, his voice reverberating in the hole. He hauled the bucket back to the surface. It had a sparkling gold necklace in it. “Whoa!” he said, taken aback by his good fortune. “I’m keeping this!” He held it up in front of his face and looked pleased.
“Can I see it?” asked Lars.
“No,” said Dicky. “I want to keep it safe.” He stuffed it into the top of his backpack.
“What else can we trade?” asked Lars, fighting the urge to run in a giddy circle around the mouth of the hole. “We have to figure out how it works!”
“What do you mean?” asked Dicky.
“We have to figure out how to get the good stuff,” said Lars. “We have to figure out what the hole wants.”
“I’m not trading anymore of my stuff,” said Dicky. “I need to keep everything else I’ve got.”
“No you don’t,” said Lars. “Come on, Dicky, we have to trade more. This is amazing!”
“No,” said Dicky. “Trade with your stuff if you’re so excited about it.”
“I didn’t bring anything,” said Lars.
Dicky shrugged. “Not my fault. Let’s keep walking.”
Lars couldn’t believe how nonchalant Dicky was acting. “Dicky, what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing!” shouted Dicky. “We tried it out, I got some jewelry, and now I’m ready to move on.”
“But what if it can give us more?” said Lars.
“Like what?” asked Dicky. “More necklaces?”
“No,” said Lars. “More. Stuff we’d really want. I don’t know.” He really didn’t. Or maybe he did, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Well, I’m going,” said Dicky. He hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders and set off through the underbrush.
Lars watched him go. Dicky didn’t look back. Eventually he disappeared from sight among the trees. When he was gone, Lars walked back to the hole and stared down into it. “Hello?” he called. “It’s just me now. Lars.”
The hole was silent. Lars peeled his sweat-soaked t-shirt over his head, placed it in the bucket, and lowered the bucket into the hole. After the bucket hit bottom, Lars counted to ten, and then pulled it back up, deliberately avoiding looking into the bucket until it was in his hands. Then he looked up at the tree tops, took a deep breath, and looked into the bucket. It contained a mushy pear. “Thank you,” Lars called into the hole, trying not to sound disappointed.
He considered trading his shoes or his jeans, but he still had to walk back out of the woods and then ride his bike home, and he didn’t want to do that barefoot and pantsless. “I’ll be back,” Lars said to the hole. “I’ll bring stuff. Better stuff. Thanks again for the pear!” He put the wooden disk in place over the hole, and, holding the mushy pear by the stem, turned and hiked as fast as he could back through the woods in the direction of his bike.
Lars’s mom wouldn’t let him go back to the game preserve that evening. Lars argued, but he was hesitant to explain why he wanted to go back so badly, so in the end, he was defeated. He went back to his room, flung his backpack full of stuff on his bed, and flopped down next to it, lying on his back with one arm flung dramatically over his eyes.
His mind raced. The hole in the game preserve was all he could think about. Did other people know about it? Was there a limit to the amount of stuff it would trade? Was there a way to make sure you got the best stuff? How good was the best stuff? Did the hole have certain preferences? Were motives a factor? Or was it all just dumb luck? Did the size of the sacrifice on a personal level result in better trades? All Dicky had done to get the necklace was give the hole its own dumb book right back, but Lars doubted the necklace was real gold anyway.
Lars sat up and opened the backpack, taking out all of the stuff he’d packed into it and lining the items up on the bed, looking them over, tapping his chin with one finger. There were some old toys that he didn’t play with anymore. There were two trophies he’d received for perfect attendance in elementary school. There was a wristwatch that worked and another that did not. Lars took the wristwatch that didn’t work out of the lineup. He didn’t want the hole to think he was trying to pull a fast one on it, if the hole even cared, assuming the hole was even capable of perceiving that kind of thing, which it probably wasn’t, but who could be sure? There was also a video game console controller, a Peruvian coin Lars had received as a gift from a relative he’d only met once, two sweaters (even though the t-shirt hadn’t performed well), a five dollar bill, a pair of comfortable slippers, and a small picture frame.
It seemed like a good variety. Lars would keep track of all the transactions with the hole in a little memo book, and if nothing else, after tomorrow he’d at least have more information to work with when planning his next batch of items to trade. Lars returned the stuff to the backpack, moved the backpack to the floor, and went back to speculating about the hole until his mom called him to dinner.
The next day, with his backpack heavy on his shoulders, Lars left the house early, pedaling his bike out past the edge of Multioak to the game preserve. Lars knew that Dicky would eventually show up at his house looking for him, and he wanted to be well away by then. This no longer had anything to do with Dicky. He’d had his chance and he hadn’t respected it. This was now about Lars and the hole and whatever Lars could get out of the hole via trade.
It was only once Lars actually got out into the game preserve, dumped his bike on the edge of the dirt road, and followed the trail into the woods that he realized he might have some difficulty finding the hole again without Dicky. It took him a full hour. By the time he came across the wooden disk on the forest floor, Lars was again tired, sore, and soaked with sweat. His mood had bottomed out a half hour into his frustrated hunt for the hole, but as soon as he found it, the thrill came surging back to him. Lars took his backpack off, lifted the disk off of the hole, and pulled the empty bucket up to ground level. He opened his backpack, took out a scowling action figure with the anthropomorphized head of a fish, and placed it in the bucket. Then, kneeling in a posture of supplication at the edge of the hole, he lowered the bucket to the bottom, paused, and pulled it back up, telling himself over and over not to get his hopes up. But his hopes must have gotten up despite his caution, because when he saw the dirty fishing lure in the bottom of the bucket, he felt gravely disappointed. He just barely managed to say, “Thank you” into the hole. Lars marked the transaction down in his memo book as “action figure = fishing lure.”
Then, hope springing anew, he reached into the backpack, pulled out the video game controller, put it in the bucket, and lowered it into the hole. This time the trade yielded a pair of binoculars. And they were nice binoculars. They looked as if they’d never been used. Lars should have been happy at finally coming out ahead, but he wasn’t satisfied. He marked the transaction down and tried again, this time with one of the sweaters. The sweater got Lars a different sweater, except the new sweater was much too big for him. That had to mean something. Lars wrote it down.
This went on until Lars had traded each item he’d brought for something else, every trade playing havoc with his fragile emotions. In the end, though, all Lars had to show for all the trading was a backpack full of stuff he didn’t really want, albeit different stuff than he’d brought with him. The binoculars were nice, and he’d also gotten a pair of sunglasses and a ring of keys that intrigued him, but he’d hoped for something better. Maybe not something life-changing, but on the other hand, why not something life-changing? If the hole had convinced Lars of one thing, it was that he was missing something. There was a vacancy in his life, so clear that he could almost point to it, but how to fill it if he didn’t know what belonged in it? All he could do was keep trading and hope that eventually he would pull the bucket up out of the hole and there it would be, whatever it was, and he would recognize it and take it and own it and be complete.
When Lars got home, Dicky was playing with a black puppy in his front yard. “Hey,” called Dicky as Lars steered his bike into the driveway. “Where’ve you been, Lars?”
“Riding my bike,” said Lars.
Dicky jogged over, the puppy nipping at the laces of his sneakers. “I got a new puppy,” said Dicky. “My dad got it for me as a surprise. He doesn’t have a name yet ‘cause it has to be perfect. You can pet him whenever you want as long as you ask permission first.”
“All right,” said Lars. “Well, I have to eat lunch now.”
“You can pet him now,” said Dicky. “You don’t have to ask permission if I give you permission first.”
Lars looked down at the puppy, then turned and walked up the steps to his front door. “Wait,” said Dicky. “What are you doing after you eat? Want to help me teach my puppy to bite trespassers in their Achilles tendons?”
“No,” said Lars. “I’m busy for the rest of the day.” He went inside and closed the door behind him.
Upstairs in his room, Lars took all of his new stuff out of his backpack and arranged it on his bed in the order he’d received it. He got out his memo book and studied it, pacing back and forth, pausing occasionally to handle one of the items, searching for any clues that may have evaded his notice out in the woods. He could not make sense of any of it. The only connection between what he’d given and what he’d received was that he didn’t really care about any of it. Was that the key?
Lars sat down in his desk chair and looked out at the oak tree that had grown so close to the house that the branches actually touched his window. What if, in order to get something important, he had to give up something important? But what did he have that he cared about? None of his possessions meant much to him. The only thing that he really might be hesitant to part with was his laptop computer. He looked at the laptop on his desk. Did he really care about it? He tried to imagine what it would be like to lose it and yes, he did feel a pang of regret. That was all he needed.
Two minutes later, having eaten nothing at all for lunch, Lars was back on his bike, his laptop in his backpack, whizzing past Dicky and his puppy as they frolicked on the lawn. Lars heard Dicky shout, “Where are you going?” but he didn’t look back.
This time, Lars found the hole without any trouble. He removed the disk, pulled up the empty bucket, and loaded his laptop into it without any hesitation, hoping that his confidence would somehow positively affect the outcome. Then he lowered the bucket back into the hole. When the bucket touched the bottom, Lars let it sit for a full minute. Then another. Then another. He realized that he was afraid to pull the bucket back up, afraid to see what he had received in exchange for the laptop. What if it wasn’t what he wanted? What would he do then? What else could he trade? He’d have to get a job and start saving money so he could eventually buy something worth trading. Or he’d have to master a skill that he could eventually use to win a prize that might be worth trading. Or he’d have to turn to a life of crime and start stealing things that were worth trading. Life would be so much easier if the hole would just give him what he wanted in exchange for the laptop right now.
Lars pulled the bucket up out of the hole. Inside the bucket was an autographed football. Lars couldn’t read the autograph. It was possible that this football was some kind of collector’s item that was worth a lot of money, but even if it was, it was not what Lars wanted. He turned and flung the football into the woods. It bounced off the trunk of a dead tree and landed in a thicket of thorns. Then Lars sat down with his legs dangling down over the edge of the hole and tried not to cry. “Why?” he asked the hole, his voice quavering. “I really liked that laptop.”
The hole gave no answer, but Lars didn’t blame it. Hearing his own words, he realized how weak they sounded, how half-hearted and selfish. Even the laptop wasn’t a real sacrifice. There was no risk in giving up the laptop. He could always get another one. It might take him a while to come up with enough money, but there would always be more laptops available. He needed something one-of-a-kind to trade, something that cost more than money, something that would truly hurt. As long as he kept trading objects, all Lars was going to get in return were objects, and what object could possibly ease his mounting dissatisfaction with everything?
Lars was mired so deeply in his thoughts that he didn’t notice Dicky’s puppy’s excited barking until it bounded out of the bushes and ran over to him, sniffing his hand, then gnawing on his fingers with its tiny teeth.
Somewhere well behind the puppy, Dicky was calling out for it. “Here!” shouted Dicky. “Come here, puppy!” Lars heard Dicky take another few noisy steps somewhere out in the woods, dry sticks cracking under his feet, and then stop to shout again. “Come to me, puppy! I’m your master, so come!”
Lars knew he had to act fast. He picked up the puppy and put it in the bucket. Then, as steadily and smoothly as he could, he lowered it into the hole. The puppy, nervous and whimpering, looked up at Lars until the darkness swallowed it. Then the bucket came to rest at the bottom of the hole and the whimpering stopped.
Dicky stumbled out of the bushes, red-faced and sweaty, just as Lars was hurling a family-sized bottle of mouthwash down into the hole, tears running down his cheeks.
“What’s going on?” asked Dicky. “Have you seen my puppy?”
Lars didn’t answer. Instead he hauled off and kicked the empty bucket into the hole.
“Lars,” said Dicky. “Did my puppy come this way?”
“What are you doing here?” asked Lars, turning to face Dicky. His face was ugly with a mixture of bewilderment and anger.
“I know this is where you’ve been coming without me,” said Dicky. “I wanted to see what you were up to. Me and the puppy were tracking you to spy on you, but then the puppy ran ahead. Have you seen him?”
“I traded him,” said Lars. “I needed something that was more than just a thing. I needed something that mattered to someone, and the puppy mattered to you, Dicky, so-”
“You traded him?” asked Dicky, his voice rising to a squeak. “You lowered him into the hole?”
Lars nodded. “And it only gave me mouthwash for him. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Maybe if it was my puppy? But it was still a sacrifice for me because I knew you’d hate me for it and you’re my only friend…”
“We have to get him back!” said Dicky. He paced around and around the hole, looking down with desperate eyes. “Puppy!” he shouted. He stopped walking and listened, his eyes narrowing. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “I heard something. I heard the puppy whining down there.”
“No, you didn’t,” said Lars. “You’re imagining it. The puppy’s gone. He’s been traded.”
“I’m going to get him,” said Dicky. “Give me your backpack.”
“You can’t get him,” said Lars. “How are you going to get him?”
“I’m going to climb down the rope and put him in the backpack and climb back up,” said Dicky. “I can do it.”
“How’re you going to see?” asked Lars.
“I won’t need to,” said Dicky. “When I get down there, the puppy will come to me, and I’ll load him into the backpack by feel and climb back up.”
Lars started to protest, then stopped. He composed his features so that they communicated nothing much at all. Then he picked up his empty backpack and handed it to Dicky. “Good luck,” he said.
Dicky donned the backpack and then, with bravery born of the single-mindedness of his purpose, he sat down on the edge of the hole and grabbed the rope with both hands. Without looking at Lars, he scooted off of the edge, and with surprising agility, twisted around so that he was leaning back with his feet planted against the stone sides of the hole.
“I’m coming, puppy,” said Dicky. Then he descended into the hole, keeping the rope pulled tight and his feet on the wall, walking himself down into the deepening shadow until Lars couldn’t see him at all.
“Dicky?” called Lars.
Dicky’s voice came back hollow and cold. “What?”
“Nothing,” said Lars. “Just making sure you’re OK.”
“I’m fine,” said Dicky. The rope creaked. A long moment passed. Then all the tension went out of the rope.
“Dicky?” called Lars. “Are you at the bottom? Can you see anything?”
There was no reply.
The rope went taut again, its coarse fibers constricting. Lars heard the scuff of shoes against stone. Lars crouched by the hole, ready to offer his hand in assistance. Someone was coming up. Was it a new, better best friend? Or a girlfriend, maybe? Or his brother, back from wherever he’d run away to? Or his dad, back from…from…? Well, Lars didn’t know what the hole was capable of. He tried not to expect too much. He tried not to let his hopes get too high. But as he waited, watching the rope and practicing a few possible greetings under his breath, his hopes went straight through the roof and into the blue sky above, soaring higher than they’d ever risen before.