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Mushrooms on a Tree

After years of digging for artifacts from World War III, James finds something valuable

“Still nothing?” asks Peter, his nose pointed down at me like a beak. He has an aura of disdain floating around him. Peter is never happy because he’s having a hard time with cancer, and the doctor said that his days are numbered.

Leave me alone, I think to myself. I’ve been digging in this hot, dry dirt since five a.m. And I just want to go home. But I just say, “Yep, still nothing.”

I have a job at a dig site to find clues from a battle in World War III. My father said that it was one of the bloodiest events in history. He served as a ground soldier and when he came back, he was never the same. He started taking drugs and gambling to buy more drugs. He sold our house to buy more, and we went into poverty. My mother ran away with me when he had sold almost everything we had. She got a job and raised me by herself. And now I have a job at a dig site studying the war that drove my dad insane.

It has been a mystery for 18 years now what happened to the soldiers that were here. A storm came through and when it passed, all that was left was mud. The same mud that I am getting paid to dig through for the museum.

“You can go home now, James,” says Peter, his voice shocking me out of my thoughts. “Better luck next time.”

I walk to my car and drive down the empty streets to my house on the corner of 13th street. Thirteen, I think. People always said that 13 was unlucky. And I have not had any luck at the dig site.

“Welcome home, James,” says my wife, Betty.

“Daddy! Daddy!” scream my two children.

“Hello,” I say. “No luck again.”

“I’m sorry,” says Betty. She is pudgy and has a round, kind face.

“Come, let’s eat dinner. I hope you have better luck next time.”

The next day I get up at five a.m. again and drive down to the dig site. The dig site is a grassless stretch of desert. I work for about five hours without finding anything. Until—

For the first time, I strike on something other than dirt and mud. It’s a metal box. I have seen countless numbers of these in museums. It’s probably nothing. But I still feel excited. The box has a lock. It is rusted. With three strong hits with my shovel, the lock breaks. Inside is a little book that looks like a journal.

Could this really be from the battle? What if this has the answers to the mystery?

“I found something!” I yell.

Peter and a few other men come running over. “What is it?” asks Peter.

“I think it’s a journal,” says one man with a shovel.

“You men go back to work. James and I will look at this journal.”

And that is when my job at the dig site started to get interesting.

*          *          *

Peter and I walk briskly down the hall. Thoughts run through my head: Could this really be from the battle? What if this has the answers to the mystery? What if this could be the thing that gives me the money to send my kids to school? All of this crosses my mind while we walk down three flights of stairs and open a door. Peter flicks on the lights to illuminate a large desk at the end of an otherwise plain room.

“Let’s take a look at what you found,” says Peter.

He places the small book on the desk, and we both sit down. The suspense is killing me as he slowly, slowly moves his hands toward the book and opens it. Inside are thin yellow pages. At the top of the first page, it says:

General William’s Journal, June 26th

Peter and I look at each other in awe.

“Could this be the thing we have been looking for?” I say to Peter.

“Yes, yes. I think it is.”

June 26
This is the first time I have recorded. The fighting has been at a standstill. Both my side and the enemy’s are not getting anywhere. I am just about to go play cards with Tucker, Bartholomew, and Sam. After that, I am going to send a small scouting party to check on the enemy’s position. Tucker is going with the scouting party.

The end of day bell rings. The day went by so fast. I found a journal, and it has some answers.

“Tomorrow we’ll continue to look at this journal,” says Peter, and we walk out the door.

*          *          *

As I walk to my car, I think of the good news I can tell my wife and kids. For months, I had nothing good to tell them. Today, I would finally have something good to say to them as I came through the door.

When I drive into my driveway, I see the faces of my two little children peeking out at me, and I smile. They will go to school.

I walk through the door, and my children run at me.

“Did you find anything?” they ask.

“Yes, my darlings.” I say.

“Well, come on, sit down and tell us,” says Betty, and I do.

The next day, I meet Peter at the dig site. He says we should go look at the journal now so we could find out more. So we go down to the studying room and read some more.

June 27
The scouting party I sent was spotted and killed by the enemy. Tucker is dead. It is time I taught those scumbags a lesson. I am going to send a full attack on the enemy. We have the power—plus I am one of the greatest generals we have. I am sure that I can beat them.

The sadness of Tucker’s death is killing me. He only had two more months in the army.

The fort is in need of supplies. I think they are coming soon. I hope they are coming soon.

Peter taps me on my shoulder. “I think it’s time for lunch.”

*          *          *

I feel good with a ham-and-cheese sandwich in my belly, but as soon as I’m finished, it’s back to work.

June 30
The attack I sent failed, and we were massacred. Bartholomew is dead. I did not think I could lose so much so fast. I hope the supplies and new troops come soon. We are going to need them fast.

July 2
I got a message from the government. They said that we were a lost cause and that they were going to send supplies to the good forts. We have no help coming.

July 7
A huge storm has been going on for two days nonstop. The fort is almost buried in mud. Many have died. I don’t know what to do.

I imagine the screams, the wind, the rain. I wonder what it would be like to be in his position. The end-of-day bell jerks me out of my thoughts.

Peter looks up at me. “The museum is giving you a raise for finding the book,” he says, “and lots of money for publishing it.”

He walks out, leaving me with an astonished look on my face.

*          *          *

July 16
We are going to lose this. The enemy is not affected by the mud because they are on higher and sturdier ground. They are starving us out. But I am going to go out fighting for the friends I have lost.

July 18
I have rallied the troops and they are ready. I started so high and have been brought so low. But I will go down fighting.

Peter and I stare at each other for a full minute.

“That was beautiful,” I say.

*          *          *

And so I published William’s journal and got rich, but I will never forget his story. My grandchildren look up at me with their big eyes, and I smile.

“Grandpa, can we go to the battlefield where you found the book?” asks my oldest grandson.

“Yes. How about right now?” I say.

So we get in the car and drive to my old job.

I get out and everything looks exactly the way it did when I worked there. People are still working in the dry dirt. There is still no grass, the land is covered in holes and trenches, and the familiar smell of dust and dirt is comforting. It’s not like I miss the job—it was hard—but it reminds me of when I was younger.

I can almost see the general and I think, That man lost so much and I gained so much. Is it fair? No. I never did anything that brave, but he did. Life rewarded the wrong person. I owe William for everything I have, and I will never be able to repay my debt to him.

Eli Spaulding
Eli Spaulding, 11
Newark, DE

Sophia Torres
Sophia Torres, 12
Chicago, IL