Cody knew he was in trouble when Mrs. Miller assigned the homework. “You are to write a short essay about a trip that you took during summer vacation,” she announced, “and read it to the class tomorrow.”

Cody knew that Jim Green would be delighted. He had been all the way to Florida.

When class let out, Jim was waiting for Cody at the door. “Hold on,” he said, smirking and blocking Cody’s way. “What are you going to write about?”

Cody didn’t say anything. He just did a neat sidestep around Jim, resisting an urge to push him aside.

“Hey, Cody! Tell us about your trip to Grover’s store,” Jim yelled after Cody as Cody ran to catch his bus, his ears blazing almost as red as his hair.

Grover’s store was a small country store near Cody’s home. Cody wasn’t ashamed of it, and Jim’s poking fun at it—and him—really made him burn.

As he rode home on the bus, Cody wondered why Mrs. Miller would do this to him. She knew that since his dad had died two years ago, he and his mother were hard-pressed to run the farm and had no money for trips. He had always thought that Mrs. Miller was OK—sort of strict sometimes, but always fair. He’d thought Mrs. Miller was his friend.

The days after his dad died had been hard on Cody. At first he’d had something to hold onto: Besides being a good student, he was the best athlete for his age in the neighborhood, and he took pride in leading his community league track team and in being quarterback on the league football team.

Then Jim had moved into town when his father bought the hardware store, and everything had changed. Jim was in his class at school, and being tops was a lot harder to come by.

Cody remembered his first meeting with Jim. Cody was practicing for the 100-yard dash, getting ready for the field meet. He was breezing along, confident that nobody could catch him, when suddenly this black-haired kid was matching him stride for stride.

So the competition between the two boys had begun. And it was so keen that Cody found himself having to stretch to stay even with Jim. But stay even he had managed to do, although sports ceased to be as pleasant. After tomorrow and the essay reading, school would be unbearable too.

That night at supper Mom asked, “Did something happen at school today, Cody? You seem down.”

“Yeah, I guess I am.” Cody pushed his food around on his plate. “I have to write an essay for tomorrow’s English class. It’s supposed to be about a trip I took during summer vacation.”

“And, of course, you didn’t take a trip.”

“You’ve got it, Mom. And tomorrow everybody will know it. Jim Green will never let me live it down.”

“So it’s Jim Green again.” Mom’s brows knitted over dark blue eyes. “I wish you boys would at least try to be friends. You might like each other.”

“Fat chance!” Cody snorted. “The only thing I have that Jim wants is my position on the football team.”

“You never can tell, Cody. You might have a lot in common if you gave each other a chance.”

“Ha!” Cody pushed his chair back, got up, and started clearing the table.

“What are you going to do about the essay, Cody?” Mom wanted to know.

“Make up something, I guess.”

“You know that won’t do, Cody. It wouldn’t be right.” Mom was thoughtful for a moment, then asked, “Can’t you think of a special place around here to use for a subject?”

Cody remembered Jim’s taunt about Grover’s store. Even though it really was a special place, he decided against using it for a subject. There’s a shortcut to the creek that nobody knows about but me, he thought. It isn’t a trip, but it’s all I have. I’ll probably be laughed right out of school.

The next day Cody listened as the others read their essays. A few of the kids had been to Disneyland, and a couple of them had gone to the Smokies—wonderful places that Cody could only dream about. When Jim read about his trip to Florida, Cody could almost see the white sand and feel himself swimming in the warm water.

The closer the time came for him to read his essay, the farther Cody scrunched down in his seat. Maybe Mrs. Miller wouldn’t notice him, wouldn’t call on him to read his silly paper. Or maybe they would run out of time, and he could hand his paper in unread. But just as he checked his watch to see how much class time was left, Mrs. Miller called, “Cody, it’s your turn.”

Cody rose on legs he hoped nobody saw were trembling. Then he got the same feeling he got when he crouched at the starting line of the 100-yard dash. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. I’ll give it my best shot, he thought.

He read: “I didn’t take a regular trip on my vacation, so I’ll tell you about a special place I visited almost every day. It’s a shortcut through the woods to my secret swimming hole. If you go by the main road, the creek is two miles away, but by taking the shortcut behind my house, it’s only about a half mile.

“One day last summer I left the house just as the sun rose over the pasture cedars. I walked across the pasture, looking at the many tiny spiderwebs decorating the grass to where the path enters the woods. Deep in the woods the trees are tall, and everything was still. Arrows of sunshine came down through the trees. As I walked along the hill, I was on the lookout for squirrels and birds.

“Across the hollow I could see the cave where some folks claim Indians once held powwows and where I’ve found a few arrowheads and bits of flint. It’s also been said that an old man dug enough gold out of that cave to make a ring. I’ve looked, but so far I haven’t found any gold. Anyway, that day the entrance to the cave was occupied by a mother skunk and her three kittens. Soon I reached a mossy ledge above the creek. The water is deep at this spot, so the ledge is a perfect place for diving into the creek—”

The bell rang. Cody handed his paper to Mrs. Miller, who was smiling broadly. “Good work, Cody,” she said. “I knew you’d come up with something.”

As Cody ran for his bus, somebody pounded along beside him. He knew without looking that it was Jim. Cody pulled up short, spun around, and looked Jim square in the eye. Instead of the challenging grin he hated, he saw a friendly, smiling face.

“Hey, Cody,” Jim said, “those woods of yours sound pretty neat.”

“So?” Cody was distrustful.

“So maybe sometime you’d let me go exploring with you.”

“When?” Cody asked, still hesitant.

“How about Saturday morning?”

“OK,” Cody said over his shoulder as he boarded his bus.

Cody spent the whole trip home wondering how a simple thing like a shortcut to the creek could make a friend out of Jim Green. Maybe Mom was right, he finally decided. If we give each other a chance, we might have a lot in common.

Illustrated by Mike Eagle