Ratsy pointed at the white caps poking out of the ground. “Hey look, it’s some of those big mushrooms. The ones Potts likes so much.”
Bug joined him by the perimeter fence and peaked out through the chain links at the small, damp clearing. “Are you sure those’re the right ones?” He pushed his unruly hair back out of his face.
“They’re big, white and mushrooms, what else could they be?”
“Come on!” Ratsy cuffed his friend on the arm and jogged off along the fence towards the gate. There was no-one guarding it. Going outside the fence wasn’t forbidden, it was just kind of stupid. There were bears out there, wolves too, maybe. Since the End, even twelve-year-olds like Ratsy and Bug didn’t take stupid risks for no reason.
Today, however, there were mushrooms.
Ratsy lifted the latch carefully so it wouldn’t squeak and draw attention. The two of them slipped out into the surrounding forest and followed the fence along towards the white treasure.
“Here,” Ratsy, said, pulling out his sweater to make a basket. “You grab em.”
Bug crouched and pulled up the first mushroom. He tossed it to Ratsy and collected another. By the time the patch was clear, Ratsy could hardly wrap the sweater over them.
“Come on, let’s go!” Bug beckoned Ratsy from the gate while he waddled along the fence, trying to keep the mushrooms from falling out.
“Hey look, I’m having a mushroom baby.”
“Come on!” Bug bounced next the gate. They slipped back through and he closed it quietly behind them.
Bug led the way across the grass. He ran forward a bit then stopped to wait for Ratsy to catch up, then ran forward again. They made their way across the main yard to the rear door to the kitchen. The kitchen joined onto the main hall and some store rooms but the rear door lead straight out to the yard. Bug disappeared inside before Ratsy could catch up with him and by the time he did, Bug was back with Potts.
Potts was one of the oldest boys at camp. He’d been seventeen at the End and now he was nearly twenty. Vicky had put him in charge of the kitchens and that’s why everyone called him Potts. He always wore a stained white apron over his clothes and kept his long black hair tied back in a ponytail.
“See,” Bug said, tugging Potts’ sleeve. “Told you there was loads.”
Ratsy peeled back the top of his sweater to reveal the bundle of mushrooms.
“Alright! They’ll go great in tonight’s soup. Stick em on the side by the sink.”
Bug grabbed Ratsy’s arm and nearly made him drop the mushrooms.
“Hold up!” Ratsy said as Bug practically dragged him into the kitchen. He disgorged the mushrooms onto the draining board. One tried to roll away but he caught it and added it back to the top of the pile. They were kind of slippery now, the broken stems sticky.
“Bug, maybe these aren’t—”
“Look what Potts gave us!” Bug said behind him.
Ratsy turned and found his friend holding out a butterfinger bar. The yellow wrapper crinkled in his hand. Ratsy grinned so hard his cheeks hurt. “No way!”
“Should we eat it now, or save it?”
Ratsy hadn’t tasted chocolate in three months. Vicky said food that had lots of energy and kept a long time had to be saved for emergencies, but Potts had control of the stores now and gave things out every now and then as treats, prizes. Ratsy was pretty sure Vicky let him because it kept them all trying hard. Not that she would give out rewards herself, though, because that might make it look like she had favourites.
“Let’s take it back to the cabin!”
Bug held the chocolate protectively close. “Hey, we shouldn’t have to share it. We found the mushrooms!”
“No, I mean, cause everyone else went off to help with clearing North Field, didn’t they. There won’t be anyone there.”
Bug grinned. “Race you there!”
Ratsy followed him across the rear yard towards their cabin; Ninja Headquarters. They shared with six other boys, all of whom had been in the youngest age group at camp before the End. They were all eleven or twelve now. Ratsy was the second oldest. Bug was fifth.
All of the cabins had names now. Ninja Headquarters was sandwiched between Badass Bunkhouse and Golden Lilies two cabins with older kids in, so there was someone nearby to keep an eye on the Ninjas.
Bug pounded up the steps on the narrow porch and ploughed through the door. Ratsy followed him at a run. Inside, Bug already sat on Ratsy’s bunk, the bunk below his own.
Ratsy stopped short. “Wait.”
Bug looked up from opening the chocolate bar. “What?”
“Look at your hands, dude. Did that come off the wrapper?”
Bug set the butterfinger on his knee and held his hands out. They were both covered in yellow.
“What the?” He picked up the bar again and wiped it on his forearm. No yellow came off. “It’s not the wrapper,” he said. Then he looked up at Ratsy. “Look at your sweater!”
Ratsy looked down. Yellow stains dappled his top. “It must be…”
They looked at each other. “From the mushrooms!”
Bug leapt up and the chocolate fell to the floor. He held his hands out as far as possible and stared at them like they were about to explode. “That means they’re the bad kind.”
“Wash it off!” Ratsy dragged Bug outside and across to the water point in the middle of the back yard. He shoved Bug’s hands under and turned on the tap. The pipework gurgled for a few moments before it spat cold water. Ratsy found some soap on a string dangling from the post and pressed it into Bugs hands. “Come on, wash it off.”
“It’s not coming off,” Bug wined.
“Use more soap. It’ll be okay they’re only poisonous if you eat them.”
Bug froze and slowly looked up, and the real problem suddenly dawned on Ratsy. “Oh no!”
Ratsy and Bug peeked around the door to the kitchen. Potts stood at the stove, stirring a massive vat full of something, which steamed. There was no sign of the mushrooms beside the sink.
“We’re too late,” whispered Bug.
“We have to do something; the whole camp could be poisoned!”
Bug fidgeted on the spot. “But if we say something, they’ll know. They’ll know what we did.” Everyone would know how stupid they’d been.
Ratsy eyed up the pan. “Yeah, and they’ll take our chocolate away. So, we have to fix it without them knowing.”
“Simple. We sabotage the soup.”
Bug edged back from the door. “I don’t know. That’s a lot of food.”
Ratsy turned to him. “It’s ruined already, stupid. We just have to get rid of it before anyone figures that out.”
“Okay, so what do we do?”
Potts moved away down the kitchen leaving the pan unguarded, but he was still too close. Ratsy thought for a moment and then patted Bug on the shoulder. “You get the pan. I’ll take care of Potts. Just wait for the right moment.”
He started along the building to the hall at the other end.
“Wait,” hissed Bug. “How do I know the right moment?”
“Just use your brain,” Ratsy said, tapping the side of his head.
He left Bug by the rear entrance to the kitchen and walked around to the front. He walked to give himself enough time to figure out what he was going to say or do to get Potts’ attention. By the time he reached the other end of the hall, he had a plan. He just needed one thing first.
Bug waited by the door, twisting his fingers into a knot. Where was Ratsy? He’d been gone for ages. What if they took the soup away to eat it! Potts moved back and forth around the kitchen, never quite far enough for him to risk going in. Ratsy had better do something soon!
Someone shrieked at the other end of the kitchen and Potts looked up. One of the girls from Ice Maidens, the cabin three down from the Ninjas, ran through and grabbed Potts’ arm. “There’s a frog. A big fat one.”
“What?” said Potts. “Where?”
“In the veg store. There might be more. You have to come look. What if it was eating the food?”
She dragged him away. Bug inched around the door. At the far end of the kitchen, Ratsy leaned through the serving hatch with a massive grin, and gave him a thumbs up. Bug’s heart leapt into his throat and he darted into the kitchen. His hands shook as he grabbed a dish cloth and folded it up to protect himself. Then he grabbed the hot pan handles and tried to lift the vat. He dragged it to the side of the stove and inched it towards the edge. As soon as it was more than half way over, he lost his grip and the pan tipped towards him. He let out a yelp and jumped backwards as several gallons of boiling soup splashed to the floor. Some of it splashed up and stung against his legs.
Potts skidded round the corner at the other end of the kitchen. He looked at Bug stood next to a spreading pool of watery soup. Bug froze. But only for a second. As soon as his legs unfroze he bolted for the door.
“Hey!” yelled Potts.
Bug ran through the door and straight into Ratsy who was coming the other way. Their heads collided with a painful crack and Bug staggered back. Potts caught him by the collar of his sweatshirt and then grabbed a dazed Ratsy by the arm. He marched them down the outside of the hall and through to Vicky’s office. He kicked the door.
A moment later Vicky opened it and Potts released Bug and Ratsy. They both stood sheepishly in front of Vicky.
Potts shoved them forwards. “These two little rats just wrecked the soup I was making. It’s everywhere.”
Ratsy and Bug both muttered some version of sorry while looking intensely at their own shoes.
“Why would you do something like that?” Vicky asked in her most reasonable tone. The one which made kids feel deeply disappointed in themselves.
Bug nudged Ratsy who glared at him.
“Come on, I want an explanation,” Vicky said, more sternly.
Bug cracked first under her glare. “We didn’t mean to, but there was mushrooms, and we thought they were the good kind but then my hands went yellow and it wasn’t the wrapper, and Ratsy said we’d lose the chocolate if we said anything—”
Ratsy kicked him.
“Well you did!”
“Hold up. You tipped the soup on the floor because you thought it had poisonous mushrooms in it?”
They both nodded vigorously.
“But it wasn’t supposed to go on the floor,” Bug muttered.
Vicky exchanged a look with Potts and folded her arms. “Did you think to check whether the mushrooms had actually gone in the soup?”
Bug looked at Ratsy, who shrugged, guiltily.
“I’m sure you boys are aware how important food is. We don’t have enough to waste any of it.”
“Sorry,” they muttered.
“If you’d have talked to Potts you’d have known he didn’t put the mushrooms in the soup. He recognised them and didn’t use them.”
Tears brimmed in Bug’s eyes. “We’re really sorry, we didn’t know.”
“Yeah,” muttered Ratsy. “Sorry.”
Vicky leaned back on her desk. “The good news is that what you tipped on the floor wasn’t actually the soup.”
Bug and Ratsy’s heads snapped up and they both said, “what?”
Potts put a hand on each of their shoulders. “I knew you two would try something. You always do. You spilled the decoy.”
Ratsy frowned at him. “Decoy?”
“Yeah, some hot water and peelings I boiled up just for you.”
“And now, you get to clean up the mess. Fun times.” He steered them away from the office door.
“Next time, please just say something,” Vicky called after them as Potts herded them across the hall.
Potts set them up with mops and buckets. He extracted a second huge vat from one of the ovens and set it back on the stove. The delicious smell set Bug’s mouth-watering and he found himself wishing he’d eaten the chocolate earlier when he’d had the chance.
“Hey Ratsy,” he whispered after Potts was out of range.
“We still have the chocolate.”
Ratsy grinned at him and wrung his mop into the bucket.