Tommy took in the picture for a minute. There was simply no evidence to support Joey’s statement.
“How are you runnin’ away by diggin’ a hole in your back yard?”
“I’m goin’ to China.”
“Oh.” That made better sense.
“If I just run out of town, someone will see me and catch me and bring me back. If I go to China, no one’ll ever find me. And they’ve got fireworks all the time, and dragons.”
“The food’s yucky there,” Tommy said.
“No it isn’t! Egg rolls are good. Mom gets those at the grocery store, in the freezer. I like ’em. And the chow mein in the cans. I had an egg roll for lunch, and that’s what made me think of goin’ to China.”
“OK,” Tommy said, even though it wasn’t. “If it was me, though, I’d dig to Italy. They have pizza.”
“Nah, I gotta dig straight through the Earth. If I try to make a turn or something I could end up in the ocean. So I gotta go to China.”
“OK,” Tommy said again. “But won’t your folks just go through the hole to China and find you?”
Joey stopped digging long enough to glare at Tommy. “I’ll fill in the hole from the other side. Duuuuh.”
“Oh, right. That’d work.” Something nagged at Tommy though. “I don’t know how much food they have in China. Maybe a lot of it goes to the grocery store, because my folks are always telling me to clean my plate because there are a lot of starving kids in China who’d love to have my food.”
Joey looked up again; this was news. “Really?”
“Yeah. Like two nights ago when we had tuna noodle casserole, Mom said there are starving kids in China who’d give anything to have it so I shouldn’t waste any. So I hadta eat it, even though she puts mushrooms in it and those dry onion things on top.”
“Huh,” said Joey, considering. “I didn’t know that. Kids hungry enough to eat your mom’s tuna noodle casserole.” He shivered, and then he got mad. “Darnit! And this hole was going so good!” He was too little to use the big shovel, but his dad’s army surplus folding shovel had gotten him about two feet down so far.
“Of course…” Tommy began slowly. “They’d know you were an American kid and that American kids have to eat three times a day. So maybe they’d keep some of the food for you instead of sending it to the grocery store.”
“Yeah! Instead of eating it here I’d just be eating it there. Same difference.” And he took aim at the earth with the shovel and bit as deep as he could. “Man, this ground is hard.”
“How far do you think it is to China?” Tommy asked.
“I dunno. Maybe a couple miles.”
“Gonna take a long time to dig that far.”
“Yeah. Most of the afternoon, I bet.”
“I hope no one finds the hole before you can use it.”
“It should be OK. Dad’s at work and Mom don’t usually come out here behind the shed.”
“Y’know,” Tommy offered, “ground’s a lot easier to dig when it’s muddy. Maybe you should put some water in that hole.”
“Hey, yeah. That’s a good idea. But you go get it. I don’t want my mom to see me. There’s a bucket up by the water knob.”
Tommy kept low, creeping alongside the little metal shed, past the tall gas yard light, by the sandbox, and finally onto the flagstoned patio to the bucket. He filled it and made his way slowly back to Joey.
“Man! That’s heavy!” Tommy complained.
“We shouldn’t need much more,” Joey said soothingly. “Maybe a couple more trips.”
Tommy groaned and poured the water in the hole. The dry earth, which supported no grass, sucked it up greedily. After a minute, Joey used the shovel again and the moist soil did, indeed, move more easily.
“Yeah, this is better. Oof. It’s heavier, though.”
“So why you runnin’ away?” Tommy wondered.
“‘Cause I’m sick of it here. Always have to clean my room, take out the garbage, go to bed early. I can’t have a dog, just a dumb goldfish.” He stopped digging. “Dad’s always yellin’ at Mom and Mom’s always cryin’. Then Mom comes in when she thinks I’m asleep and whispers stuff like, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I couldn’t do it,’ and ‘You’re the only reason I have.’ So I figure I’ll leave so I’m not causing her trouble any more. Then maybe Dad’ll stop yelling at her.”
Tommy didn’t say anything. His dad yelled too, sometimes, but his mom just yelled right back.
The boys didn’t talk for a while as Joey got back to work. A couple of times, Tommy went on his daring mission to get more water. He didn’t try to fill the bucket again, though, as it was too heavy. And just for fun, he spelled Joey now and then at digging.
The lovely early summer afternoon went by unnoticed and the sun began to slip behind the tallest trees as the children kept at their task and got another foot down toward China.
Joey put the point of the little shovel in the middle of the hole and pushed it into the wet ground with his foot. It had barely gone in when it hit something and stopped.
“Musta hit another rock,” Tommy said.
“Didn’t sound like a rock,” Joey said, and he pulled the shovel up and drove it down hard. A louder metal-on-metal noise came from the hole.
“You think that’s China?” Tommy asked.
Joey hesitated. “Nah. It’s gotta be farther than that. I think we’re only halfway.” He used his hands to scrape away the dirt and saw metal. Tommy couldn’t help as the hole was only one boy wide. Joey excavated as best he could, using his hands and also scuffing at it with his shoes, and then climbed out of the hole to peer down. Tommy bent over at the same time and their heads hit.
“Ow!” Joey yelled. “Watch it!”
“Sorry,” Tommy said, but not all that meekly. His head hurt too. They were more careful on their second attempt to examine the object.
“Think it’s a treasure chest?” Tommy asked.
“That’d be neat,” Joey allowed. “Doesn’t really look like one though.”
“Looks more like a pipe.” He stood up and snuck a look around the corner of the shed. “Looks like it’d go straight to that light in the middle of your yard.”
“Wonder what for?” Joey took up the little shovel again and put it down in the hole. The sharp point just reached the top of the pipe. Joey banged on the pipe a few times, testing it.
“It looks like there’s some writing on that pipe,” Joey said. “But I can’t read it. We need a flashlight.”
“Or a match,” Tommy said. “I could go home and get some. If my mom doesn’t catch me.”
Joey considered for moment, then demurred. “Nah. If she saw you, she wouldn’t let you come back. Doesn’t matter what it says.”
“What’cha gonna do about the pipe? It’s right in your way.”
Joey thought for a long moment. “Maybe I could break it and throw the pieces out of the hole.”
Tommy shook his head. “There’s gotta be somethin’ in that pipe. Like water. Or oil. They don’t put a pipe in the ground for nothin’. If you break it, it’ll leak out. It’ll fill your hole and you’ll get in trouble and won’t be able to finish digging to China.”
Joey looked at the pipe and grudgingly admitted the merit of Tommy’s point. “Yeah, I guess. Darnit! Why’d they have to put a pipe in the best place to dig?”
“Maybe that’s what it’s there for: to keep you from running away to China.”
“Prob’ly,” Joey agreed sourly.
The boys stared forlornly at the pipe in the hole for a few minutes.
“Better put the dirt back in so no one knows I tried and their darn ol’ pipe worked,” Joey groused.
The dirt went in the hole more easily than it came out, and the boys patted it down when they were done.
“Maybe you’ll think of some other way to run away,” Tommy said, hoping to console his friend.
“Yeah,” Joey said, unconvinced. “This was such a good idea, though.”
“Sure was,” Tommy agreed. “I better go home.”
“OK. See you tomorrow.”
“Bye.” And Tommy ran off.
Joey’s dad had been home a few minutes. He was hugging Joey’s mom and she seemed to be happy for a change.
“Your mom says you and Tommy have been digging a hole behind the shed.”
Joey was stunned. He hadn’t seen his mom all afternoon. How had she known? “Yeah. But we filled it in again.”
Dad nodded. “That’s good. We don’t really need a tiger trap out back.”
Daring greatly, Joey went fishing for information.
“Tommy says there’s pipes under the ground in some yards.”
“There’s one under our yard,” Dad admitted. “It supplies natural gas to the yard light and the furnace.”
“So … it burns?”
“Yep. If the pipe were to break, the gas could even explode. But the pipe’s far enough down that’s not a problem.”
Joey felt queasy. “Pretty far down, huh?”
“Yep.” Dad gave Joey a rare grin. “About halfway to China, I’d guess.” And that made Mom laugh a little.
In bed that night, Joey consoled himself that at least his parents were happy tonight, and that he’d been right in his calculations of how far it was to China. Just wait ’til he told Tommy how close they’d come to going to the moon instead.