The Lost Boys

Gina Perry


After the sun had gone down, the boys raced one another from the swimming hole to their cabins. They were still jubilant from their win, fizzing with excitement, eager to get back and pass around their prize again, the handsome silver knives fanned out on a stiff cardboard stand. Will shouted ‘Told y’all!’ triumphantly when he reached the cabin first. Panting and laughing, he threw open the cabin door — and stopped dead. Mattresses hung drunkenly from the bunks; pillows and clothes and comic books spilled across the floor. The knives, which they’d put on a makeshift table by the window, were gone. He let his breath out in a rush, then turned and started running, pushing past the group of dismayed boys who had crowded in behind him.

Outside, the long twilight was fading, and the stone huts dotted through the park were disappearing into the dark. He heard the others calling to him to wait up, but he didn’t stop. He ran along the dusty track, feet pounding, and across the stream, his heart racing so hard he could hear his blood  thrumming in his ears. Behind him the others had almost caughthim up. The jumble of their voices quietened and the air was full of the sound of panting breaths. No need to stop and think, they just followed their instincts — an animal need to retrieve what was theirs. Will raced past the mess hall, where the sounds of a cowboy tune twanging on the radio and the clatter of dishes reminded him of home, of his parents’ heads bowed as they said grace over supper. But he ran faster, thrusting those images behind him. His parents couldn’t help him now. And prayers were no use here. But he wasn’t afraid — he was as fierce as the soldiers and the Indians whose spirits whispered in the trees. When he first came here, he tried not to think about what animals were moving through the dark. Now he bared his teeth as he ran. Tonight he wouldn’t be scared if a mountain lion stepped out of the shadows, or a bear climbed down from a tree. Behind him, the other boys rushed. They were a single panting pack, zigzagging in and out of trees, feet flying, crushing pine needles, startling birds.

He bashed on the cabin door with both fists. ‘Come on out and fight!’

At the edge of the clearing, man-sized shadows moved into the trees.

The biggest boy, who they called Red, sneered at them from the open doorway. ‘Look who it is! The babies!’ He swung the door open wide to reveal the boys inside the cabin, who huddled together, talking in low, urgent voices.

Will caught the glint of a knife in Red’s hand. ‘Give them back!’

‘Get on your belly and crawl,’ Red jeered, and pushed him hard in the chest.

Will staggered back. Behind him someone taunted, ‘Come out, yellow bellies!’

Will rushed forward, howling and punching the air, but Red shoved him with both hands, and Will sprawled in the dirt. As he got to his feet, Red slapped his face with an open palm. Will’s cheek stung and his eyes filled with water. The boys behind Will shrank back.

‘Crybaby!’ Red laughed.

‘Am not.’ Will used his head as a battering ram and threw himself at Red’s stomach. They both fell, rolling and grabbing at each other, punching and struggling. Some of the boys inside the cabin ran out. One threw a punch and it was game on: they shoved and spat at one another, their faces contorted with fear and rage. The air was filled with shrill, frightened cries.

Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, disguised as the camp caretaker, scribbled excitedly in his notebook, hardly able to tear his eyes away from the boys rolling and punching and kicking. Here was the proof for the theory that he’d been working on for years, that normally upstanding and fair-minded eleven-year-olds could turn into brutal savages. An observer coming across the scene, he later wrote proudly, would never have known that these ‘disturbed, vicious … wicked youngsters’ were actually boys who were ‘the “cream of the crop” in their communities’.

Will rolled on top of Red, but Red grabbed his hair and pulled hard. They were both howling, but neither would let go. Then hands were trying to pull them apart, and Will heard adult voices. Will tried to resist but the man had hold of his arm and pulled him to his feet. ‘Cut it out now, fellas,’ the man said. ‘Or someone’s gonna get hurt.’

Will was too busy trying to take a swing at Red to notice how pleased the man sounded.

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The Lost Boys Gina Perry