Excerpt for The King Tree by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The King Tree

By Cate Polacek

Published by Cate Polacek at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 by Catharine Polacek

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Cover illustration: Big Stock Photo. Used with permission.

For CF, who was with me in the adventure

Some of this story is true.

Chapter 1

Lucinda wished her dad would stop looking at her in the rearview mirror.

He drove the old blue car through the main and side streets of the town. The peach-colored early morning sunlight made its way slowly across trees, sidewalks, and buildings.

Lucinda sat in the back seat reading a book – The Wind in the Willows. She tucked a lock of her chin-length dark hair behind her ears. Her new denim jumper dress felt stiff and heavy over the green top she wore under it. Her white tennis shoes were a little dirty and faded, but comfortable. She knew she’d be walking a lot that day.

Her dad was talking to her about her field trip, but Lucinda wasn’t really listening. She was too interested in her book. Mole had wandered into the Wild Wood and was lost and scared.

"Lucinda, will you get your nose out of that book for five seconds and pay attention?” her dad complained, running a hand through his thinning gray hair. “How you can read while the car is moving, I don’t know. I always get carsick trying to read in car. And I hope you don’t plan on dragging that book with you today on your field trip," he added.

"Can’t I?" Lucinda asked, her heart sinking.

"No, you can’t," her dad replied. "First of all, it’s a library book, and you don’t want to get it dirty out there in the park. Second, the whole point of a field trip is to go somewhere and do something other than what you normally do. If you keep your head in that book the whole time, you might miss something. Everyone might go off without you."

Lucinda snorted. "No they wouldn’t," she said, and went back to reading.

A few minutes later, Lucinda’s dad pulled the car up to the curb in front of the school. He turned around to look at Lucinda.

"Hand it over," he said.

Slowly, Lucinda closed the book and gave it to her dad.

"Don’t worry," he said, taking the book and putting it on the front seat next to his briefcase. "It’ll still be here when you get back." He noticed the book title. “Wind in the Willows, eh? Like it?"

"Yes!" Lucinda said happily. "I love all the talking animals! I wish animals could talk."

"Well, they don’t," her dad said. "Now, make sure to listen to the teachers’ instructions. Have a good time, and I’ll pick you up this afternoon."

Lucinda leaned forward to kiss her dad on the cheek, just above the line of his beard, as she always did to avoid the scratchiness of his bristles. She climbed out of the car and straightened her dress.

"Bye, Dad!" She slammed the car door shut and walked into the crowd of kids to find her friends.

Alex’s mom drove a shiny sedan. Alex sat in the back seat, barely buckled in, looking out his side window, and then the front window, and then his side window again as they passed houses and parks and shopping centers. One of his new red and white tennis shoes was untied, and his dark blue T-shirt was untucked from his jeans.

"Mom! Can’t you go any faster?" Alex asked.

"Alex, just once, will you sit still and be quiet?" his mom replied as she stopped the car at the stoplight. "We’ll get there, don’t worry. The buses won’t leave without you."

"If we don’t get there in time, they’ll make me sit and do schoolwork all day!" Alex whined. "I’ve been waiting for this field trip forever! No schoolwork for a whole day!" He wiggled in his seat with excitement.

His mom sighed. "Maybe you can get some of that energy out and give your teachers a break."

She pulled the car up in front of the school and turned around to look at Alex. He was already halfway out of the car.

"Alexander! Come back here, young man!" she barked.

Alex rolled his eyes and got back in the car.

"Now, make sure you pay attention to the teachers’ instructions so you don’t miss out on anything. Have a good time, and I’ll pick you up this afternoon." She tried to smooth down a lock of his red hair that was sticking out.

Alex quickly kissed her on the cheek and then bolted out of the car again, slamming the door behind him. "Okay. Bye Mom!" he called over his shoulder.

He ran into the crowd of kids, nearly crashing into Lucinda as she walked toward her friends. He didn't stop to say he was sorry.

Chapter 2

A large group of kids hung around outside the main entrance to the school, while other kids looked at them with envy as they walked into the school to their classes. Several buses waited in the parking lot, their engines running. Teachers shouted and tried to get the kids organized.

Lucinda stood near a pine tree with her friends, Tracy, a tall, dark-haired girl in a T-shirt and shorts, and Claudia, a short, blond girl in a pale blue sundress.

Alex ran past them several times yelling and bumping into other kids.

"Are they going to let us on the bus soon?" Lucinda asked.

"I don’t know," Claudia said. "I can’t hear a thing."

"Stop worrying," Tracy said. "It’s not like we’ll miss the bus. We’ll get on when everyone else gets on."

"No book today, Lucinda?" Claudia asked.

Lucinda shrugged. "No. I’d have to carry it around all day," she said, "and there won’t be any place to put it at the park. But if I’d known we’d have to stand out here this long, maybe I would’ve brought something to read anyway."

Claudia laughed. "You mean your dad wouldn’t let you bring a book, right?"

Lucinda’s face turned pink at this.

"What ARE you reading now?" Tracy asked.

"The Wind in the Willows," Lucinda said.

"That’s got talking animals in it, right?" Tracy asked. "How dumb is that? There’s no such thing as talking animals."

Lucinda smiled. "Maybe not. It’s just someone using their imagination, and it's fun to read," she said. "Anything can happen in books."

Suddenly, Alex ran past the girls again. He bumped into Claudia, and almost knocked her over. He didn't stop to see if she was all right, but dived back into the crowd of kids.

"Does he ever stand still?" Tracy asked, annoyed.

Finally, the kids were let onto the buses, which were quickly filled with the sound of their noisy talking and laughing. The buses rumbled out of the parking lot in a caravan – one behind the other. Soon, the scenery began to change from city to suburbs to farms and fields.

Alex sat a few feet away from Lucinda and her friends. He squirmed in his seat and shouted to kids in all parts of the bus. He saw Lucinda and asked, "What? No book today, Lucinda?"

"No," she said.

"I bet you must be bored then," Alex said. "What are you going to do without one?"

"I do other things besides read, you know," she said.

"Really?" Alex asked in mock surprise. "It's all I ever see you do."

One of the teachers on the bus tried to talk over the din of the students. They quieted down only a little.

"Everyone, we need to be back on the buses by two o’clock," the teacher announced.

"So what else do you do besides read?" Alex asked, ignoring the teacher.

"Lots of stuff," Lucinda said. "I play with my dog, I help my parents with the gardening, I play soccer with my brothers…"

"…we need to leave on time from the park, so we can beat traffic on the way home…," the teacher continued.

"Soccer? You? I don’t believe it," Alex said.

"Yes, me," Lucinda said. "And I don’t believe you do anything else but run around and yell."

Tracy and Claudia laughed at this.

"You sound like my mom," Alex said. "She says I have too much energy."

"She’s right," Lucinda said.

Alex shrugged and turned his attention back to the rest of the bus. He yelled across to one of his friends several rows up.

Chapter 3

Once the group arrived at the state park, the teachers put the kids into groups for activities. Lucinda and Alex were in the same group for a nature walk. Tracy and Claudia were in a different group. Claudia and Tracy tried to protest this.

"Can’t Lucinda be in our group?" Claudia asked.

"No, she’s fine where she is," the teacher said. "We’ll all be together for lunch, so don’t worry, you’ll see her again."

Alex was once again playing tag with one of his friends, running around the group.

Tracy watched him and put a hand on Lucinda's shoulder. "Good luck." she said.

"Thanks," Lucinda said. "At least he has someone else to pick on."

Lucinda's group began walking along the trail, stopping to look at plants and birds and read trail signs. Alex kept running ahead and hiding behind trees, popping out suddenly to scare people. Lucinda tried to avoid him, but he managed to duck behind a tree when she wasn't looking and jump out from behind it, startling her. She yelped.

The teacher leading the group, a tall, skinny, man with a buzz cut and glasses, spun around and glared at Lucinda.

"Lucinda!" he barked.

"I’m sorry," Lucinda said. "Alex jumped out at me and scared me."

"Alex!" the teacher barked again.

Alex shrugged. "Well, someone had to liven up this boring walk. Looking at trees and birds? Reading signs? This is what we came all the way out here for? Come on! We can read about birds and trees in a classroom. Why do we have to come out here and LOOK at them?"

"Alex, field trips are not just about getting out of doing schoolwork," the teacher said. "They can be educational as well."

"Yeah, well, I need a break from education," Alex shot back.

"Excuse me?" the teacher asked, taking a step toward him.

Alex knew he’d gone too far. "Sorry," he said quickly. "I’m just bored, that’s all."

"That's because you're looking at things the wrong way," the teacher said.

"What does that mean?" Alex asked.

"Think about it," the teacher said. "Figure it out for yourself."

He turned and started walking, the rest of the group following quietly behind him, with Lucinda and Alex at the back.

Alex asked Lucinda, "What does he mean?"

Lucinda shrugged. "I can’t believe you just sassed the teacher."

"I’m just trying to make things interesting," he said.

Chapter 4

The activity groups reunited for lunch in the picnic area. The sun blazed high overhead. It was going to be a hot afternoon.

Lucinda found Claudia and Tracy and sat with them under the shade of a tree to eat. Lucinda looked upset.

"I guess you had tons of fun with Alex," Tracy said.

Lucinda huffed. "He was hiding behind trees and jumping out and scaring people, and then when the teacher told him to stop, he talked back to him because he thinks this field trip is boring."

Claudia laughed. "You should have been in our group. Sharon walked right into a patch of poison ivy, and when Mrs. Bain told her what she was standing in, she started crying and wouldn’t move, so the teacher had to go into the poison ivy to get Sharon to come out."

Tracy nodded in Sharon and the teacher’s direction. "They’re both starting to scratch already. I feel bad for them, but it IS funny."

Lucinda looked around and saw a plump, gray-haired woman and a small, freckle-faced girl both scratching at their legs.

Alex sat with his friends, Peter and Jeff, eating lunch. Peter, scrawny and short, fussed over his corduroys, which were dirty with dust and grass stains. "My mom's going to kill me," he whined.

Jeff, who was the tallest of the three, told him to shut up. "Just tell her you fell while walking on the trail," he suggested.

"I didn't fall," Peter said. "You pushed me."

"You were walking too slow," Jeff said.

Alex sighed. "This is the most boring field trip in history – walking on a bunch of boring old trails looking a bunch of boring old nature stuff."

Jeff agreed. "It almost isn’t worth getting out of school for."

"What do you mean 'almost?'" Alex asked.

Peter piped up. "We could be in school doing work," he explained.

Alex shuddered. "Even a boring field trip is better than that."

He noticed Lucinda sitting with her friends.

"There ARE some people who are probably missing their books and can’t wait to go back," he said.

"Like who?" Jeff asked.

Alex pointed to Lucinda. "She reads too much. No fun at all. She says she plays soccer, but I’ve never seen her."

"Probably lying," Peter said with a mouthful of sandwich.

Jeff snorted. "Can’t play soccer while you’re reading a book, can you?"

All three boys laugh loudly.

The teachers were tired – dusty, sweaty, one scratching her leg where a poison ivy rash was starting. They didn't have any more energy to organize afternoon activities for the kids. They huddled together for a quick meeting, and then Mrs. Bain turned to the kids:

"All right!" she said. "You have the rest of the afternoon free before we go home. We’re staying in the picnic area until two. We brought along some soccer balls and baseballs and bats you can play with."

Cheers went up all around. Some kids got up and scrambled for the balls and bats.

"Good. No more trail walks," Tracy said.

"Anyone want to go into the woods and explore?" Lucinda asked.

"No thanks," Claudia said, as she lay back on the grass. "It’s too hot. I’m not moving."

"We’ve seen enough trees for today," Tracy added.

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