Sunday, July 16, 2017

INVOKING FIRE by Guy Stewart

On the last day of Autumn, Na’Rodney Jones Castillo-Vargas Daylight Hatshepsut lost his only friend. Sitting beside Great Uncle Bruce’s body, gently holding the cool hand, he said softly, “This isn’t what I meant when I said I wanted things to change.”
There was a heavy knock at the door downstairs.
He bolted to his feet and shouted, “Don’t answer the door, Payne!” He dashed out of the bedroom and took the steps down the narrow staircase six at a time, using the rails like parallel bars, swinging his feet down. He heard the door unbolt and cursed.
Payne screamed but stopped abruptly. Na’Rodney landed at the bottom of the stairs. Two women dressed in black suits, white shirts with black ties and sunglasses held Payne between them.
Then someone clotheslined him with a forearm, knocking him backwards and partway up the stairs where his head slammed against the edge of a step and he blacked out.

When he woke up, his head throbbed and his ears rang.
The farmhouse was an inferno and black suits were using flamethrowers on the well-kept, red painted barn, the old Quonset hut storage shed, the slat-sided corn crib and the new garage.
Another man and women stood near him. He couldn’t see Payne.
Na’Rodney scrambled to his feet, fell back to his hands and knees and threw up.
“You should take it easy there, kid. You have a concussion,” said the woman.
“Who are you?” Na’Rodney said, lifting his head.
“Doesn’t matter,” said the man.
“What about G’Uncle Bruce’s books? They matter!” He flexed his fingers, digging into the cold soil.
“They’re burning,” the man said.
“What are you going to do with Payne?”
The man laughed, “Nosy kid, aren’t you?”
The woman’s voice was a cold counterpoint to the waves of heat from the fire. “We’re making your uncle disappear.”
“He’s my great uncle,” Na’Rodney muttered as he surged to his feet, launching himself forward and hitting her at the knees. She hit the ground as the man punched him in the head and Na’Rodney went down again. The man said as the woman kicked him in the head and Na’Rodney blacked out, “He’s as stubborn as the old man.”

When Na’Rodney woke up a second time, we was sore all over. Especially his ribs. Something jingled as he rolled to his side then rolled back. When he patted his belly, he found a pair of cold metal disks. He picked them up and held them to his eyes, vision blurry for a bit until he recognized them as maglev train tokens. He threw them as far as he could. He wasn’t leaving until he found Payne. The nearest train was in Duluth which was being torn to bits by giant deconstruct and recovery robots – “dearr” – reprocessing pavement, brick buildings and concrete rebar into raw materials to be shipped south for the construction of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village. He would be refusing their oblique invitation.
Besides, Duluth was over a hundred and forty klicks away.
He shivered. From his EMT classes, he knew he was shocky and possibly had a concussion. He also knew had to find his cousin, Payne. The sun was setting. He rolled to his hands and knees, gagged and tried to throw up his insides. Nothing came out but a thin trickle of nose-burning hydrochloric acid. By the time he could move, it was dark and the Minnesota December night breathed frigid at his back.
Blue flames still wandered over what was left of the house, flaring sometimes into orange fire. The ground was frozen hard but he crawled like a baby until he could feel heat. Fuzzy thoughts were starting to jump out at him with startling clarity.
Payne. He had to find his cousin before he got hurt. He’d spent his life protecting Payne from town bullies the way G’Uncle Bruce had spent his life protecting both of them from bigger bullies. As a retired president of InterPol he’d called in favors if anyone powerful chose to bother him or his un-adopted sons.
Na’Rodney knew he couldn’t protect Payne or Angelique. The most powerful person he knew now was professor Manaar Minix who ran the Coleraine Minerals Research Laboratory. He had little education. Less power.
His breath formed a cloud in front of his face. He wasn’t going anywhere tonight. He’d die of exposure if he let himself curl up on the bare ground too far from the house. Besides, him and G’Uncle Bruce and Payne had slept out under the stars plenty of times. Of course they made sure Payne was tight in his bag so he wouldn’t wriggle free and wander around. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder had whittled him down from a smart, sassy pre-adolescent to a twelve-year-old-sized toddler.
Suddenly he felt dizzy and said loudly, “This is a post-hypnotic suggestion, Rod. Go to the split rock cache for further instructions.” Slapping his hands over his mouth, Na’Rodney silently cursed as he lay down. He wasn’t going anywhere tonight.
He crawled to the foundation of the burning house until the ground felt hot then laid down, parallel to the wall. Heat radiated from the ground. He was on the back side of the house, so anyone coming up the driveway wouldn’t be able to see him.
Not that anyone would be coming. Most everything outside of the Vertical Villages had been shut down. Squinting into the night he caught the flicker of firelight from the white wind turbine a quarter mile from the house as it turned slowly in the wind. He watched the rhythmic whirl while his back warmed up, then rolled over again to warm his front. Something banged and he jumped. A plume of sparks swirled into the night air. With that image, Na’Rodney drifted off to sleep. His last thought was that anyone who thought he’d die in his sleep was crazy.

He opened his eyes on starry darkness. He sat up stiffly and stretched. He could still feel heat from the coals when a breeze blew, but it was over. He let a wave of dizziness pass before he tried to get to his knees, then stood up all the way, swaying a bit. Shadowy lumps lit by fire flares were all that was left of the four outbuildings. Only the chimney remained of the house, the lower third buried with blackened debris. The charred ruin of a CHEAPALIN converted Jeep Cherokee sat in the pile of garage charcoal. And under the house’s charcoal? An incinerated library and G’Uncle Bruce’s bones.
Na’Rodney’s eyes teared up and he turned away, heading for the trail to the back forty. He’d hiked it hundreds of times and picked his way along the familiar path even in the moonless darkness. The horizon was starting to glow with sunrise.
It was going to be the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter.

Na’Rodney turned off the main path on a deer trail that meandered through low underbrush. He kept his head down as the morning light grew stronger and the sky to the east bled red. That usually meant, “Snow. Crap,” he said. His stomach rumbled, too.
The glacial terrain of this part of North America was strewn with boulders of every size. Another rough kilometer off the main trail, Na’Rodney stopped in front of the house-sized rock he’d been looking for. The hike had kept him warm after leaving G’Uncle’s pyre but he wouldn’t stay that way long in his thin blue sweater. His feet would be freezing soon in the gray canvas Converse® tennis shoes. Turning sideways, he slipped into an inverted V-shaped cave. Half-way in, the crack widened to a hollow, almost as if the thing had once been a massive geode.
In the dark, he reached for a ledge where they kept an LED flashlight.
He touched flesh instead and staggered backward, falling on his butt.
The flashlight flared to life in his face, blinding him. A female voice said, “Oh, it’s you.”
He recognized the voice and replied, “What the hell are you doing here?” as he got up from the cold ground, careful to keep his head down. He’d cracked it more times than he cared to remember. “This was G’Uncle’s and my secret.”
“Bruce said I was supposed to come here if anything drastic happened to the farm,” the voice replied. The female attached to the voice turned off the flashlight, plunging them into the dark again.
“Why would he want the housekeeper to come here?” Na’Rodney snapped. Angelique Mary Ozaawindib had been a pain in the neck since she started working for them two years ago. Her parents had died in a car crash, though she’d declared her independence from them when she was sixteen because they were, in her own words, “failed crack-chemists and everything that that implied”. No matter what kind of people Angelique’s parents been, he hated that she’d just dumped them. He’d have given anything to still have his whole family – Mom and brother dying by a Toronto terrorist’s bomb; unable to deal with it, Dad left him in G’Uncle’s care two months later.
Angelique was saying, “...same reason he wanted his unadopted great-nephew and retarded nephew to come here.”
“Take that...” He froze, motionless. All he needed was to make his concussion worse and he’d never be able to find Payne. He rubbed his forehead, then thumb and middle finger rubbed his temples. “Just shut up.”
In the darkness, Angelique relented, “I meant that everyone he drug into his orbit looked like something the cat ate and threw up.” She paused, “Where’s Payne?”
A heavy silence fell then Na’Rodney said, “G’Uncle Bruce didn’t care about you.”
“Was that why he was tutoring me in differential equations and made sure I learned jujutsu from the only Master in Duluth?” Angelique snapped. “Now where is Payne? You didn’t leave him back at the house, did you?”
Jealous, he ignored the second question and said, “He let you do that?” Na’Rodney turned away from the voice. “He said I couldn’t.”
Angelique had the grace to remain silent. A moment later, the flashlight came back on, this time aimed at the roof of the cave. “You still haven’t told me where Payne is.” She was sitting on the floor, on a thick mat, her legs crossed. She held out an envelope. “This is addressed to you.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t read it already.” He reached for the envelope.
She pulled it back a bit, “I said it was addressed to you. Where’s Payne?”
“Why would that stop you?” he tried to snap the envelope with his fingers.
She pulled it away. “Because I loved your great-uncle Bruce.”
Na’Rodney swallowed hard then took the envelope. The flashlight reversed as she illuminated herself. He grunted and tore it open, shaking. If she hadn’t been such a pain, and if G’Uncle Bruce had ever given him time to do anything but chores, study and teach Payne, he might have gone for her.
He took the light then the letter. Holding the light in his teeth, he unfolded the paper. It was one sentence in G’Uncle’s tight handwriting, though the hand was steadier than it had been in years. He folded it, put it in his back pocket and said, “There’s a door in the floor here that leads to a secret chamber where he has stuff stored for us. By the way, the people who burned the farm down and immolated G’Uncle Bruce’s body kidnapped Payne.”
Shaking his head, he pointed the light at the floor and said, “You’re gonna have to move your butt if I’m gonna open the door.”
“No! What about Bruce? What about Payne?”
Poking in her direction to get her to scoot off the door, Na’Rodney explained the death, folks in black and Payne’s disappearance. He bent over, moved the mat aside and scooped his fingers under a recessed handle.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting – maybe an underground redoubt stocked with a furnace and air conditioner, food, computers, a library and entertainment systems in order to survive a nuclear winter. What he found was a ladder leading down to a concrete floor two meters below.
“Well, at least he left us something.”
“Let’s find out,” he said and climbed down the ladder. Dim lights came up showing a room walled with unfinished concrete blocks and shelves. He turned off the flashlight. On the shelves were stacks of clothing for various seasons, labeled packets of freeze-dried and dry foods and two external frame backpacks, a red one half full, a green one empty. They sat beneath a shelf jammed with camping gear appropriate to different seasons.
Angelique climbed down after him and he moved aside. On one of the shelves, sitting by itself, was a clipboard. He felt Angelique beside him. It was a single page, but when he was done, he sniffed and handed it to her. She said faintly, “He pretty much knew this was going to happen, didn’t he?”
Na’Rodney squeezed his nose, wiped his fingers on his blue jeans then said, “He was smart.” He turned the flashlight on again and strode to the half full pack, put the light in his mouth and aimed it inside. He reached in and began to take out books, turned to lay them out on the floor in a semi-circle around him. He swiveled around on his knees and aimed the light, reading, “CARRIE, by Stephen King; DUNE, by Frank Herbert; PHILOSOPHI AE NATURALIS PRINCIPIA by Sir Isaac Newton; ORIGIN OF SPECIES by Charles Darwin; and a German Bible, probably a GUTENBERG.” All five were sealed in plastic bags that had inflated sides, holding each book in a transparent bubble. At the bottom was another envelope addressed to Angelique. Na’Rodney took it out and handed it back to her.
She tore it open and read it under the dim light. She said, “Each one of these is worth a lot of money – the King is a first edition, signed copy. Bruce says that if we approach any of the people on his list, we should be able to sell it for market value.” She paused and choked.
“The Gutenberg?”
“When he wrote this, the copy he has there he got from someone he knew at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s worth somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty million dollars.”
His mouth opened and he squeaked. “Excuse me?”
Angelique ignored the squeak and added, “The buyer he lists here lives in Augsburg, Germany.”
“How are we supposed to get there?”
She held up the letter, “The first buyers – the ones that might be interested in CARRIE, are in or near Duluth.”
“The copy of DUNE has a buyer in Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village.”
Na’Rodney gulped, the sound audible in the hidden underground room. He managed, “Then?”
“The one by Sir Isaac Newton? We’re supposed to sell that for ninety-five thousand dollars in Chicago Vertical Village.”
“Does he say what we’re supposed to use the money for?”
“He says we’re supposed to bribe people then pay for passage in whatever way we can to cross the country, the Atlantic and Europe.”
“Where are we going?”
“The Erg of Bilma?”
“Which is where?”
“I think it’s in Niger – it’s a part of the Sahara.” He didn’t respond. He went back to the pack and replaced the books in the order in which he’d taken them out. He leaned the pack against the wall, crossed over to the ladder and climbed up. “Where are you going?” Angelique asked.
“Home,” he said back down. “You can go to the Erg of Bilma for whatever crazy reason G’Uncle Bruce is sending you. I’m going to go find Payne. I don’t think his kidnapping was part of G’Uncle’s plan. Have a nice trip.” He turned, climbed and left the cave behind. Reaching the main trail, on impulse, he ran back to the house. He was kicking through the foundation debris which were still hot, cursing and crying when Angelique caught up with him.
She called from the side, “I brought you a winter coat, a change of clothes and boots.”
He walked out of the charred ruins and took the coat, sat down, flipped off his tennis shoes and put the boots on, lacing them tight. They were his, well-broken in and they fit like warm gloves. He’d wondered where they’d disappeared to. She handed him mittens when he stood up.
She was wearing the red pack. He studied her until she said, “I packed as much food as I could get in there. Layered the clothes, and added the tent,” she turned showing him the tent and a slender, rolled sleeping back on top.
“You’re going to the Erg of Bilma, then?” he asked. She nodded. “Why?”
She shrugged, “There’s nothing for me around here anymore. Coleraine will be shut down in another year – there’s already talk of one of the dearrs making its way along US 2, eating deserted towns. It’ll get here. Then what could I do, become a driver for the robot dearr? A farmer?” She paused, shrugging her shoulders hard enough to toss the pack up and settle on her shoulders better. She belted it around her middle.
“Why does he want us to go there?”
She dug the letter from her back pocket and handed it to him. “He says that a coalition of African nations is building something like the Ptolemaic Ancient Library of Alexandria. They are requesting copies of everything that’s ever been printed.”
Na’Rodney rolled his eyes skyward. “Another group that believes that ebooks are a bad thing?” He shook his head in disgust, “Just like G’Uncle Bruce.”
“You think ebooks are a good thing?”
He swung his arm around to take in the farm and then pointed at the house, “Look how far paper books got G’Uncle Bruce – his freakin’ funeral pyre!” He couldn’t stop the tears that welled up, but he’d be damned if he was going to wipe them away in front of her. “Of course paper books are stupid! Ereaders were the most profound revolution in the world! Paper rots, it’s heavy and impossible to keep for very long. Books take up space and they make you take care of them when you should be taking care of more important things!”
She glared at him. “Funny you should say ‘the world’ when what you meant was ‘for the wealthy’.”
“That’s not what I meant! Anyone can buy an ereader. They’re cheap and easy...”
Angelique held up a hand, saying, “This isn’t an argument we can finish in five minutes – or five hours. The only way we can do justice to the discussion is if you come with me.”
 “You’re going to the Erg of Bilma right now?”
“Coleraine for starters, then it seems to me Duluth would be next,” she said.
“I have to find Payne.”
“Can’t we do both? Coleraine’s an hour away by foot.”
He snorted and said, “Follow me.” Leading her around the concrete block foundation they scurried to the tree line, ducking into the half-leafless woods of mixed hardwood trees and pine. He stopped at another pile of glacial till boulders. Kneeling, he moved a flat stone to one side.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking out my skateboard.”
He pulled a hunter’s orange body board from a small cave under the rocks. “What good’s that going to do us?”
He stood up and tapped the surface of the board. It changed color from orange to a rippling copy of the dry brush underneath it. Tucking it under one arm, he said, “It’s not going to do us any good until we get to US 2. It and 169 were coated with CHEAPALIN years ago.” He flipped it over. The bottom was coated with a thick, black, asphalt-like substance. “This has CHEAPALIN, too.”
“You’re kidding!”
He snorted, “Yeah, G’Uncle Bruce didn’t know about it ‘cause he’d have screamed his head off about me risking my life road surfing.” He shrugged. “Now THAT was fun.” He led the way to the power line clearing right-of-way and turned east to follow it to Swenson Road about one kilometer further. Once they reached that and had hiked another klick or so, they took Scenic Highway, staying to the side of the road while Angie muttered, “No idea why this stupid road ever got such a stupid name,” and ready to duck into the ditch if anyone else was out. She said, “So we get to Coleraine and you find Payne. How are we supposed to get to Duluth? Walking will take forever.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Na’Rodney said, setting off for town.
Muttering to herself, Angelique said, “There aren’t any bridges in northern Minnesota.”
There’d also been no large towns north of Coleraine even when Na’Rodney had joined G’Uncle Bruce on the farm. There’d never been much traffic. There was less now since the Consolidation and Recovery of the Wild had spawned the dearrs and their harvest of building materials for the four-kilometer-tall Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village.
When they heard the whine of an electric Polaris Ranger XL ATV with the loud, gravel-crushing noise of fat tires on the road behind them, they panicked at first, rolling into the ditch after tripping each other. The vehicle was covered by a complete, metal cab in the same camouflage green as the body with the Coleraine Minerals Research Lab logo stenciled in white on the side.
Na’Rodney jumped up, “Doctor Minix! Doctor Minix!” The ATV’s whine faded and the vehicle rolled to a stop then backed up.
A thin, graying woman with a large hair bun pinned at the base of her neck opened the door and leaned out and exclaimed, “Na’Rodney! Why are you hiding in a ditch?” Na’Rodney signaled to Angelique, hurrying to the ATV, relating what had happened. Dr. Minix gestured to the two of them, saying, “Get in. Put my mineral samples on the seat and get down on the floor.”
“There’s not much room...” Angelique said.
“Place the backpack in the boot. We’re not going far. Na’Rodney, toss the board in the front seat.”
Settled, she started the ATV rolling again, saying, “That explains the sky last night. I was hoping it wasn’t going to come to this.”
“Come to what?”
“Your great uncle has espoused some pretty radical ideas to the technophiles in Washington.”
“Like his book love?”
“He was a highly vocal Paper. He also believed that regular people should be able to check up on anyone in authority over them.” She paused, adding, “Though I dare say he made plenty of enemies when he worked for Interpol. I take it he never made it clear why he opposed ebooks, did he?”
“Information fluidity, he called it,” Angelique spoke up.
“He was a misanthrope,” Na’Rodney exclaimed at the same time. “He didn’t trust anyone to leave the written word alone. He said it changed often enough when people had to do it by hand – like when scribes or typesetters shortened things for convenience or if they didn’t think a word or two were necessary. He figured there would be nothing stopping anyone making whatever changes they wanted to make...”
“Shut up and get down,” Doctor Minix breathed sharply. She tossed the body board into the back seat. Na’Rodney pulled it over them and tapped it to life. “I’m taking the railroad bed trail back into Coleraine. I don’t think there’ll be anything on 169, but we best not take the chance.” They drove for twenty minutes, then the ATV slowed and came to a stop, Dr. Minix spoke with someone for a few moments, then drove on. She breathed again, “I see your cousin.”
Na’Rodney tried to sit up. Angelique held his arm while Dr. Minix pressed down from above. She said, “Not now. He’s with two men, drinking a can of soda.”
Na’Rodney squirmed harder, “What kind is it? Artificial color or artificial flavor or preservatives can set him off! If they gave him the wrong kind…”
Angelique whispered, “Stay down! If they see you, they’ll just beat you up worse than yesterday then arrest Dr. Minix and me.”
Dr. Minix cursed then said, “They’ve got a CHEAPALIN car, probably armored, but something far worse.”
“What?” Na’Rodney tried to sit up again.
“It looks like they’ve called up a dearr. I can see it from here.” Dr. Minix kept driving, turning right then left twice. The ATV rolled to a stop as she said, “You can look now.”
Na’Rodney and Angelique peeked over the front seats. To their right was the dearr, an asphalt grinding milling machine and concrete crusher with an earth-mover trailer behind it. Fifty meters long, it was as wide as the highway. Silent now, it hulked, steaming and buzzing at the edge of town. Angelique whispered, “Bruce said they wouldn’t get here until the town closed down!”
Dr. Minix drew a deep breath and said, “Looks like the town is about to get closed down. Starting with your farm.”
“They can’t do that!” Na’Rodney exclaimed.
“Earth Government can do anything it wants to as long as they say it’s in the name of technological advancement, Humanity’s best interest. When they’re done, the Vertical Villages will be humanity’s greatest achievement since space travel,” she murmured.
“What about your job?”
She snorted, “We still need iron, copper, nickel, tungsten and sulfides – and we need people to supervise the High Energy Physics Lab at the Soudan Mine. I’ll be here for a long time.” She paused. “As long as I don’t get arrested helping you.” She looked back up the highway to where the folks in black were standing beside the car. She said, “We have to get your brother back and then send you on your way.”
“My cousin,” Na’Rodney said. “Payne is my cousin.”
“Whatever,” Angelique and Dr. Minix said at the same time. The doctor stepped into the intersection. She signaled for them to follow, saying, “Bring your things. This is where I have to leave you off.”
“What?” Na’Rodney exclaimed.
Angelique stopped with the backpack half on then jerked her chin at Na’Rodney. “Listen, I have an idea. You have to take the pack.”
“I’m not gonna take that thing! It must weigh a ton!”
“It doesn’t weigh a ton! Now get over here and take it before the folks in black see us and pack Payne into the car and leave town!”
Na’Rodney huffed, walked over and took the pack. It was lighter than he’d expected. He settled it on his hips and belted it without thinking. He said, “I think what we should do...”
“What we’re going to do is this...” Angelique began.
“There’s nothing for it but to...” said Dr. Minix.
From the edge of town, the dearr roared to life, lowering the massive blade and rumbling forward, pushing up a wave of worn asphalt, grinding it and spewing it into the trailer behind it. In the distance, a yellow blob moved. “There’s another scraper bowl coming up from behind,” shouted Angelique.
Dr. Minix pushed them back to the ATV and shouted over the noise of the dearr, “You’re going to have to rescue Payne, get past the dearr then take Itasca County 10 south until you can intersect with US 2. Even then, you’ll need to travel at night.”
“Why can’t we just beat up the folks in black and take their car?” Na’Rodney asked. Both women stared at him then shook their heads in unison.
Dr. Minix shouted, “We need a distraction...”
Na’Rodney shook his head. G’Uncle Bruce often decried his great-nephew’s impulsive behaviors. He tossed the road board to the surface of US 169. CHEAPALIN on the road reacted with the board’s CHEAPALIN. It was a bioengineered DNA patchwork of cellulose, heme, eel, ameba, peat moss, alfalfa, leukocytes, iron and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells, more commonly known by its acronym CHEAPALIN. The entire network of asphalt roads in North America had been converted into living organisms and the two identical magnetic fields repelled each other. He felt like he was sliding on resurfaced ice with newly-sharpened ice skate blades. The advantage was that he could push off from rough asphalt because his foot wasn’t magnetic and wouldn’t slip. From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw someone, but ignored it. He was accelerating toward the folks in black like he was on a frictionless skateboard! None of them was paying attention to him as he slipped toward them, shoving as fast as he could. Terminal velocity – he couldn’t push himself any faster – so he crouched, leaning forward to tilt the board. The extra mass of the pack allowed him to accelerate “downhill”.
When they noticed all they did was stare. Neither one drew a gun. Or a flame thrower.
Payne dropped his can of soda and cried, “Na! Na!”
They went for whatever weapons they carried concealed.
He was ready to stand, bracing himself to grab Payne, just as Angelique streaked from behind a house, leaped into the air and kicked first one, then the other folk in black, laying both out in the road and then landing on her feet, crouching, facing the two unconscious agents.
Na’Rodney grabbed his cousin in a trick they’d practiced several times when supposedly out sleeping under the stars. Na’Rodney swung his cousin up. The younger boy wrapped his legs around him from the side, under the backpack, crooning, “Na. Na. Na.”
Na’Rodney spun the board under his feet, reversing its direction so it would slow down, then dropped to his feet, Payne still clinging to him. He looked at Angelique and said, “G’Uncle was right, you’re downright scary.” She opened her mouth to reply, but one of the folks in black groaned. “We should get moving,” he said. “Should we take the car?”
“Only if we want them to track us from the air and pick us up any time they want to.” She looked around and said, “The Doc said we should hike down 10 then pick up 2. Sounds like a good plan to me.”
“Yeah, but they’ll expect that.”
“What else can we do?”
“Blue Bill Bay Road to its end then cut through the marsh to Rydberg Road...”
She closed her eyes. “Trout Lake shoreline to what, Blackberry?”
He tilted his head sideways. “That’s what I was thinking.”
“Sixteen klicks; a day of hard walking, maybe three for us. Cold,” she said.
“You have a tent, there’s three of us, shouldn’t be a problem. We should take our time. We can camp out in one of the old places on the lake.”
“I didn’t pack much food.”
“Should be able to forage.”
“When we get to US 2?”
“Take it south to Duluth.”
Payne smiled and said, “Doof!” Na’Rodney ruffled the boy’s hair and nodded.
“We can’t all ride on your road board,” Angelique said.
“We’ll keep an eye out for a POS and cannibalize it.” He held up the board, “That’s how I built this.”
“What about Payne?” The female folk in black lifted her head, looking blearily at them. Angelique kicked her in the face.
Angelique shrugged. “Your G’Uncle did things he regretted too so he could protect you guys. Like killing people who found out too much about you and paying people off who found out too much out about me.” She paused, lips thinning and added before Na’Rodney was able to, “Both of us owe it to him to deliver the coordinates of the Last Paper Library in the US to the Library of the Information Apocalypse.”
“The what?” Na’Rodney said, prying Payne from his side and walking east toward the 169-County 10 split. They still had to get past the dearr and any potential human occupant.
Angelique kicked the other folk in black in the head just in case. Na’Rodney said, “Search their pockets. See if you can find something like a magic wand,” he held up his hands indicating length, “Maybe about this long.”
She searched then pulled something free from the male’s back pocket. “This it?”
“Yup. Point it at the car and trigger it.”
“Don’t know. Fiddle with the thing...”
Fire leaped from the end, engulfing the car. She kept it on long enough for the fire to continue on its own then ran to join him and Payne. “Now we need to get going.” They crossed the highway and kept walking, watching the dearr. It had continued to tear up the road unabated. It didn’t slow down as they approached it. “There’s a cab in the middle,” she said. “For a human occupant.”
The asphalt scraper led the dearr, in the middle was a concrete grinder, crunching curbing when it came up. At the end, it towed a scraper bowl into which crushed concrete and broken asphalt poured from a conveyer belt. Between the grinder and the bowl was a small, caboose-like cabin with a cupola jutting above and wrapped in windows. On the very top...
“Machine gun,” Na’Rodney said, unconsciously crouching and pulling Payne into a crouch as well. His cousin giggled, going along with the game.
“Or laser cannon,” Angelique said.
“Nah – too dangerous to leave with a computerized destruction machine. Same with no missile launcher. Besides, a machine gun can tear up a human or a car easy as a laser and more cheaply.”
They scurried past as the dearr clanked along. Once they reached the intersection, Na’Rodney said, “Looks like they’ve decided not to put humans in the...”
Gunshot sounded from the approaching replacement bowl. “Who is that?”
He scooped up Payne again and ran. Alongside him, he got the clear impression that Angelique was holding back. Frozen ground jumped up in a puff after another gunshot rang out. “Rifle!” he shouted as they ran alongside 169 then ducked into the trees and brush and kept running.
“The dearr will follow us!” Angelique cried.
“It’s a robot!”
“What about the extra bowl with the human in it?”
“It’s a robot, too! He can’t drive it anywhere – it’s programmed to replace the full one that’s headed into town!”
“You’d better hope you’re right!” They ran until they came to Blue Bill Bay road, running deeper into the woods. Panting, they stopped at a rectangular, empty hole in the ground, an exhausted Payne now on Na’Rodney’s back.
Once they’d caught their breath, Na’Rodney said, “We have to keep walking. At least until nightfall.”
Angelique nodded and they kept on in silence until Na’Rodney said, “The Papers and the Library of the Information Apocalypse?”
“Bruce was a Paper. The African nations building the Library are Papers.”
“Why would anyone want to be a Paper?”
Angelique shook her head. “We can’t understand it very well here, but once the developed countries stopped making paper books, they stopped sending the used ones to developing countries and the information flow stopped.”
“They can get e-readers.” Na’Rodney exclaimed, throwing his arms into the air and with them the backpack, tossing him off balance.
Angelique caught him and shoved him forward. “They can get them but can’t maintain them. The Library is intended to be a place anyone can come, whether they have technology or not, and read. They’ll send out trucks full of books as well – that way, anyone, anywhere can borrow a book whether they live in powerless foxhole in the middle of the Great Plains or at the pinnacle of Nairobi Vertical Village.”
“Why would they need books?” Na’Rodney exclaimed.
Angelique shook her head. “Take out your phone.”
“Your phone. Take it out. Call up a copy of Stephen King’s CARRIE.”
“Just do it,” she snapped, then stepped behind him and unzipped the backpack.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting the real copy of CARRIE.”
“What,” Na’Rodney began. Angelique cut him off by forcing him to his knees. “Hey!”
She pulled the wrapped book free, popped the plastic and took it from the bag.
Scrambling to his feet, Na’Rodney spun around. “You can’t do that! G’Uncle Bruce sealed those for us to...”
“You won’t believe me until you see it with your own eyes. Read the first paragraph of your online copy of CARRIE.”
“Just do it!” she snarled, waving the hardcover book. He looked down at the screen. “Shut your mouth and follow along while I read from the original. ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.’”
“Mine doesn’t say that,” said Na’Rodney softly. “This is what mine says, ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She knelt down and touched Carrie gently on the shoulder. She hardly would have admitted how much this poor girl needed a guiding hand in her life. The daughter of a religion-crazed bigot, her mother regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, Miss Desjardin believed that all children were good.’”
Na’Rodney blinked and said, “Again.” He read his passage, eyes on his phone as she read the paper copy out loud. He looked up, “They’re different.”
“That’s what your great uncle and the rest of the Papers are worried about. If someone, somewhere went to the trouble of changing an electronic work of fiction, how many works of nonfiction will be changed?”
Na’Rodney took a deep breath and blew it out. Turning away and taking Payne’s hand, he started walking. The noise of the dearr had faded behind them. All they could hear now was the sound of themselves walking, or in Payne’s case stumbling, through the woods. “We have to keep moving.” He paused, throwing her a look, “If we want to make it to the Erg of Bilma before we all die of old age.”
Anger flashed on Angelique’s face and said, “Good plan. Besides, you have an argument to lose with me.” Pushing roughly past Na’Rodney, she led the way through the woods as the sun fell quickly to the horizon on the first full day of Winter.

First appeared in PERIHELION SCIENCE FICTION, June 2013 
Copyright © 2013, Guy Stewart

Sunday, October 9, 2016

SNAPDRAGON by Guy Stewart

“You brought a toy to summer school?” growled Austin “Brutus” Loeb.

“It’s a model, stupid!” snapped Drew Kust. Peeking out from behind Drew’s right ear was a stuffed miniature dragon named Flamer. Made of shiny bronze material, his wire tail was wrapped around Drew’s neck and held him there.

“I ain’t stupid!” Brutus snarled, pushing up the sleeves of his T-shirt past bulging biceps.

Austin! Andrew!” bellowed Mr. Gjerde. “Recess is over! Back inside.” The teacher towered over both boys, fists on his hips. “Save your energy for class. Austin, your snack is on my desk. Eat it as soon as you get in.”

Brutus growled, “I hate having…”

“You want me to call your mother?” Mr. Gjerde said. Brutus went in, grumbling.

Drew said, “I could be home…”

“You chose to fail sixth grade,” Mr. Gjerde snapped. “Now you make it up.”

Drew grabbed the dragon’s tail. He hated Brutus and summer school. He held Flamer’s head and said, “I really wish you were alive.”

At the bus stop, after teasing Brutus all the way, Drew sprinted for his house. He was fast enough to leave Brutus behind. Almost home, he turned around, running backwards and shouted, “Too fat to catch me!”

Brutus roared.

Drew spun to run and suddenly there wasn’t any ground under his feet. Flying over the edge of the sidewalk, he fell into a ditch of yellow snapdragons.
Brutus laughed from the sidewalk, “That’ll teach you!”
“You…you…you,” Drew shouted. Flamer hung at a crazy angle around his neck. He fixed the dragon. He muttered, “I really, really wish you were real so you’d take care of Brutus.” Climbing from the ditch, he trudged home.

Cleaned up, he tossed his fat orange pillow on the living room floor. Picking up markers and paper, he lay down, hanging his head over the pillow, studying an upside down world.

A yellow snapdragon rolled over his nose. It looked like a dragon’s head. Squeezing the sides made the two parts spread like an opening mouth. “Cool.” He touched Flamer’s nose three times, saying, “I really, really, really wish you were real.” Studying the upside-down stereo that was off limits until he passed summer school, he fell asleep.

A squeaky said, “Wake up, ya lazy bum! We got people ta get even with!”
“What?” A tiny paw grabbed his chin and turned Drew’s head. Blazing green eyes in a bronze dragon’s body glared at him upside down. “Flamer?”
“You wished three timesss on a sssnapdragon, touched my nose. Poof! I’m real,” Flamer said.
“You’re real?” Drew said as he sat up.

Flamer clung to his shoulder and said, “You wished me to life. Everyone who wantsss to dessstroy Brutusss, sssay aye!”
“No, ‘aye’,” Flamer said, hooting. “You want me to bite hisss ankle?”

“I could hide in hisss underwear drawer. When he opensss it, I jump out!” Flamer hissed.

Drew didn’t know what to say.
Flamer nodded and said, “OK! That’sss the plan!”
“What are you talking about?”
Flamer tweaked his nose. “You’ve been wishing that I’d come to life ever sssince your mom made me! Now here I am. Ta da!” When Drew stared at him, Flamer said, “What? Isss that sssnapdragon ssstuck in my teeth?”
“I just want you to make Brutus stop being mean to me!”
“How am I sssupposed to do that?”
The doorbell rang. Drew ran and peeked through the side window. “It’s him!”

Flamer crawled up Drew’s leg, saying, “Don’t jussst ssstand there. Open the door.”
Drew opened it a crack and said, “What do you want?”
Brutus blinked and said, “What?” He was shivering and drops of sweat spotted his upper lip and forehead.
“What do you want?”
“Uh…I need…something.”
Drew whispered, “What should I do, Flamer?” The dragon was a model again. Drew opened the door wider. “You look sick.”
“I…am,” said Brutus.
“Did you tell your mom?”
“She’s, um…working,” he said slowly. “Can I get…” he shivered.
Flamer’s tail tightened around Drew’s neck. The dragon whispered, “Say: ‘What did Mr. Gjerde asssk you about?’”
Drew whispered, “No!” Flamer tweaked his ear. Drew yelped but said, “What did Mr. Gjerde asssk…uh…ask you about?”
Then Drew remembered, “That snack thing. Did you eat it?”
Flamer whispered, “Now’s your chance to get even!”
“What?” said Drew.
“Brutusss isss diabetic! If you don’t help him, he’ll passs out. Call the policccce and they’ll arressst him for tressspasssing!”
“He’s sick!”
“You sssaid you hate Brutusss. Now’sss the time to get even with him!”
“I’d never do that!”
“Sure you would. You’re alwaysss mean to Brutusss.”
“He’sss…he’s mean to me!”
“Ssso, you’re mean to him. He’sss mean to you. Then you’re mean to him. Get the point, Drew?”
“Stop it,” said Drew, reaching out and shutting Flamer’s mouth. He opened the door all the way. “What should I get for you?”
“Orange juiccce,” hissed Flamer, tickling his ear.
“Orange juice?” asked Drew.
Drew ran to the kitchen, poured a glass of orange juice, added sugar and brought it back. Brutus was sitting. He took the glass and drank it all in one gulp. They waited
Finally Brutus swallowed hard and whispered, “Thanks. I’ll be OK. Can I use your cell?”
Drew handed it to him.
Brutus dialed. “Mom? Me. I got locked outta the house,” pause. “Nah. I’m at a…friend’s house,” pause. “Drew Kust,” pause. “Nah, we’re friends now.” Flamer tightened his tail around Drew’s neck just a bit, but Drew nodded anyway. Brutus said, “Yeah. I’ll stay until you get home. Bye.” He handed the cell back and said, “Can I use your bathroom?”

“Sure. Over there.”

When Brutus was gone, Flamer butted Drew’s cheek and said, “Niccce job!”

Drew grinned, saying, “How long are you going to be alive?” Flamer didn’t say anything. Drew unwound his tail and held him out at arm’s length. “Flamer?” He shook the toy. He put the shiny bronze tail around his neck as Brutus came back.

Brutus said, “Can you watch TV?”

“Nah. I’m grounded from everything until I pass summer school.”

“Me, too.”

“You draw?”

“Sure.” Brutus sniffed, “At least now we can hang out until we pass summer school. You, me and the dragon model.”

Drew smiled back, handed Brutus the sketch pad and said, “Sounds good…Austin.”

Friday, January 1, 2016

VICTORY OF FISTS -- Chapter 1 and Chapter 2

ROUND 1: Outdoor Basketball Court

“Hey, smartass!”
There were three of them and one of him on the dark, outdoor basketball court of J. E. Carter High School.
“I ain’t a ass,” Langston Jones said. “But I do got really big hands.” He held up his hands then knelt down, setting his scuffed basketball to one side. Tightening the laces on one basketball shoe, his big hands trembled with anger and excitement. “Poetry’s more powerful than bigotry or murder,” he breathed. Sort of like a mantra, only it wasn’t helping. The words made a cold cloud by his mouth.
He stood up at the free throw line. The three of them had lined up under the basket. The shortest one laughed, the tallest one said, “Gonna be FIGHT CLUB for boys.” The guy in-between didn’t say anything. With their hands stuffed in the pockets of their hooded sweatshirts and faces invisible in shadow, Langston figured they were probably a bunch of thugs sent by his ex-friend Thorn.
Picking up his basketball, Langston’s breath glowed in the headlights of a car driving past as he said, “More like a poetry slam.” The lights cut through the shadows hitting two black chins – the short one and the tall one – and a white chin in the middle. The fog of their breath looked like ghosts floating near their faces. When the car was gone, their faces disappeared while across the court and across the parking lot, near the school wall and mostly in shadow, a different shadow moved.
The middle boy said, “We’re here to kick your ass, white boy.”
Langston nodded. “I ain’t a ass and I ain’t white. I’m biracial.” He flashed a mouthful of perfect teeth. “My momma’s black and my daddy’s white, but I ain’t seen him since I was five.”
“Dumbass,” said the tallest boy, stepping once toward him.
“I thought you said I was a smartass?” Langston said then closed his mouth, offering a sick, toothless grin. He gripped the basketball fiercely with one hand and shoved the other hand in his pocket.
What did they want with him? He was wearing a thrift-store jacket, his basketball was scuffed and dirty, and he had nothing worth stealing. But he knew the answer was that Langston Jones had a big mouth, few friends and lived not quite in the poor part of town behind the hospital. Thorn – aka Stanley Conyers – had been his best friend since kindergarten. Even when Langston laid Thorn out over something Thorn said – that was the summer between seventh and eighth grade they pretty much stayed friends. But in ninth grade, a girl, a basketball team, and living on opposite sides of town suddenly split them.
Since that week, they’d hated each other, and Langston gave up the rest of the few friends he had so it would never happen again. Now he’d have to stop fighting altogether or he’d lose his future.
The middle one glanced at his friends then popped a white fist into a white hand. “Gonna kick your white ass,” he said.
“I don’t have a white ass,” Langston said. “It’s kinda dark ‘cause dad was white but Mom was black. I realized they were different races when I was little. When people’d say stuff, I’d get mad and fight. Dad would spank me but I never shut up about it no matter what he said. I do the same thing still, especially when people think they’re about to grind me into a pulp. You know, I ain’t never lost a fight, neither. Not since Ben Pequot beat me up when I was four, but that doesn’t exactly count...”
He couldn’t stop fighting today. He was still talking when they rushed him and didn’t stop talking. He didn’t do anything fancy like martial arts. He just hit ‘em and hurt ‘em any way he could and always in the worst places.
It didn’t take long.
It never did.
The short black guy went down first. Softly Langston sang, “Ashes, ashes, they all fall down!” and laid him out with a single punch to the face. He added, “I hate fighting, actually. I got these big hands, see, and they hurt afterward ‘cause your chin – it’s actually called the maxilla – is made up of two bones that are fused into one bone by the end of your first year.” The hood of the boy’s sweatshirt fell back and Langston saw a face. “It’s a helluvalot stronger than my finger bones, even when I make a fist.” Another car passed by. Langston saw the blood spattered on the boy’s forehead.
The shadow on the wall paced back and forth, back and forth. Someone was watching. Langston knew it without really noticing as he kept hitting the boys. Langston whispered, “He talks a great deal/and brags indeed-y/Of a muscular punch that's incredibly speed-y.”
The other boy laid still, moaning, beads of blood on his forehead. Then he started rolling back and forth like he couldn’t quite make it to his side.
The white guy was next. Langston swept his legs out from under him and shoved him backward at the same time. He was pretty sure the guy landed a punch, but Langston was too busy saying, “You know that old saying, the bigger they are, the harder they fall? It’s actually true.” The boy’s head bounced off the pavement and Langston drove his elbow into his gut. Langston kept talking, “Your head has farther to fall so it has more time to let gravity pull it down, increasing the acceleration. Your own personal head is moving faster when it hits the ground than your short friend’s head over there.” The white boy’s supper spewed from his mouth and Langston shoved him on his side so he wouldn’t choke to death on his own barf. Leaping from the ground, he raced after the tall, running black dude.
This dude was fast and better than the other two, but Langston was faster. Langston tried to tackle him, but he stiff-armed Langston like an offensive guard, swerving into the tennis court.
Langston followed, saying, “You know, if you was chasing me, I’d cut across the fields. I might think I could outrun you there and if I was really fast, you might not think it was worth chasing me very far. You’d have to hurt your hands beating me up. You might give up and let me go. But it’s stupid to go into this tennis court ‘cause,” Langston grabbed the boy’s sweatshirt, swung him around and slammed him into the pole holding up the cyclone fence. The dude staggered backwards. “You just caged yourself and it’s easier to take you down. You know, like Wolverine when he was in that cage match in the bar in Canada?”
The dude screamed obscenities and flailed, terrified, panicked. He connected a half dozen times, ringing Langston’s left ear. Once he connected with Langston’s nose and he started bleeding, too. The panicked boy tried four times to knee Langston in the nads, but hit him in the thigh instead. Langston said, “I’m gonna have a really nasty charley horse when we’re done.”
The dude screamed, grabbing Langston’s hair.
“Okay, enough of this,” Langston said, “I gotta get to the library before it closes.” He lifted the dude by the neck of his sweatshirt and then slammed him down on the asphalt, driving his elbow into the other’s chest. The dude’s hand sprang open and his hood fell back when Langston lifted him again. His eyes were wide. Langston slammed his head into the asphalt again. Again. The dude tried to squirm free, grabbing weakly at Langston’s hands.
Langston slammed his head against the ground one more time.
The dude stopped moving.
Panting, Langston stood up and looked around. For the first time he clearly saw a shadow against the orange bricks of the school as it moved back and forth, clearly, obviously pacing. Someone had watched the whole thing. He debated running after it but in the distance, he heard a siren. He wiped blood from his chin slowly, touching the split lip.
The boys he’d laid out first were gone. He shook out his hand. Hitting a guy in the face always screwed it up. He hated getting hurt, but fighting felt good. He’d like it if everyone just left him alone, but he’d hate not having the adrenaline rush. He liked the rage, he loved the thrill adrenaline gave. He hated the downward spiral back into routine. He’d once read, “We need to learn who we are, REALLY are, before we can truly make a try at self-improvement.” He only felt he was really himself when he was fighting or doing his one other, secret vice.
He took a deep breath, sprinted back to the basketball court and picked up his backpack and his ball. Looking up at the school, he heard the siren bouncing from the bricks and touched his lip again. Fingers steady, the fighting thrill that made them tremble faded back to peace.
Across the lawn, but with a voice as clear as if it were a meter away, a boy’s voice called from the shadows. It said, “Two core one two seven, L. I’m yours.” Then the shadow moved across the wall and disappeared around a corner.
Langston scowled, shaking his head, squinting and said, “What does that mean?”
The siren drew nearer and he imagined the squad car coming down 40th and taking a left onto Hematite. He ran through two baseball fields and vaulted the low fence at the edge of the school’s property, along Hematite. He crossed as the flashing lights of the squad car entered the intersection. He flew down the alley. It wasn’t a smelly city alley, rather an orderly suburban one; trash cans neatly closed and side-by-side, decent cars parked outside, a few of the garages even had flowers on the alley side. Clean. Tidy. Quiet.
He jogged up to Iolite, turned right for a half block, then left into the alley between 36th and 37th and three blocks to Lapis Lazuli where he took a right. Miner’s Park Library was an easy jog of five blocks. The maple, oak, ancient elms, and other, newer, stranger trees were in full leaf and street lights made wild shadows on the sidewalk.
Miner’s Park Library was a low rectangle of maroon brick that made a giant, square letter “O” and had ground-to-roof windows on three sides. The terrarium-like courtyard in the center had pine trees, benches, tulips and a rocky trail. Outside the rectangle, restored prairie and a pond embraced the library on three sides. The west side with no windows was where the main entrance and offices were, facing a parking lot edged with huge lilac bushes.
Langston liked seeing people at the tables, bright light pouring from the windows like molten gold cooling with the night.
He stopped at the turnstile door that led into the library and turned slowly around. Was someone watching him? He wasn’t paranoid. Thorn or his thugs or their Thugmobiles were always on him. He had no doubt the little fight tonight would connect back to Thorn somehow.
He just didn’t know exactly how. He dabbed his lip, winced, and went inside.

ROUND 2: Langston

I couldn’t go into the library bleeding. Fighters never hung out in libraries even though I did.
I wiped my face as best I could, shoved one hand in my pocket and backed into the revolving door. I wrapped my arm over my basketball and hid my hand so Phoebe, the assistant librarian, wouldn’t see my bloody knuckles. If she noticed, she’d ask questions. I didn’t want to lie to her, but I couldn’t exactly say, “Oh, I got bloody knuckles while I was beating the shit out of three guys who jumped me back at school.”
I didn’t cuss in the library. The Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda said, “Rudeness, yelling, anger and swearing are a weak man's imitation of strength.” I got three of the four mastered: I wasn’t rude most of the time, I didn’t yell, and usually the only person that heard me swear is me. Besides, if Mrs. Urthan, the head librarian, heard me cuss, she’d kick me out and wouldn’t let me back in for a month. With finals coming up, I needed the library to chill in. The anger thing is something I’d been trying to control for seven years. It’s my fourth job after homework, family, and school.
Phoebe helped a little kid find a book and wasn’t looking at the doors. I cut right and slipped into the bathroom. I locked the door, set down the ball and backpack, then went to the mirror.
“Ugh.” My lip was split all right, and it was puffed up, too. There was dried blood smeared on my cheek from my nose and a single spot on the neck of my orange Carter hooded sweatshirt. I chewed the inside of my cheek, then ran the water until it was as cold as it was gonna get. I couldn’t wash out blood with hot water ‘cause it cooked the proteins in the blood and left a permanent stain. I took a paper towel, soaked it, then soaked the spot.
A couple minutes later, I was cleaned up. I unlocked the bathroom door real quiet-like and peeked. Phoebe was still looking the other way, so I slipped out to the east side of the library. I took my usual desk, which was as close to the window as I could get. I stared.
For a while, all I could see was my reflection: a tall, skinny, biracial kid with hands that were way too big, cornrows, in an orange sweatshirt, with jeans and almost-new basketball shoes. After a few minutes, I could see past myself to the world outside.
I took the maroon notebook with a big gold M on it out of my backpack. My hands started to shake, just like they did before I got into a fight. I know it’s strange, but my hands always shook when I took care of my anger. Either punch someone or write. I could choose to redirect it.
Sometimes I wrote poems; not flowery poetry or stuff that talked about how depressed I was. I wrote about the thing I knew best – me. I wrote it ‘cause if I didn’t, the stupid anger that lived in me would force me to really, truly kill someone.
I opened the book and thumbed through the pages I’d already written on. There were all kinds of poems, in all kinds of forms. I never did the same form the same year. I tried different kinds because different forms could say different things at different times.
Did that make any sense?
Somebody belched real loud over by the computers. I looked up and a bunch of high school twits busted out laughing. I hadn’t noticed them when I came in. They were all from Carter.
I loaded my stuff up again, ducked into the stacks and headed for the farthest corner. I stopped for a second and looked back. At the edge of the twits was a girl who stood by a kid in a wheelchair. I’d seen her before and I was pretty sure she was a senior. Wearing black pants, black T-shirt and black sequined tennis shoes, she bent over the wheelchair kid.
Sequins? Wasn’t that a bit flashy for a gothgirl?
She looked up suddenly and our eyes did burr and fastener – like Velcro® – and they stuck. We studied each other for a while and I wondered if I we’d met before. I fled back into the stacks of books and hid in the corner. She looked great. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend plus I didn’t want anybody to see me with a smacked up face.
I plopped down on the floor and looked at the numbers facing me. They were all 800 something. I picked one at random and pulled it out. The spine of the book read something like NATURE POETRY OF JAPAN: HAIKU.
The only thing I remembered about haiku from ninth
 grade English was 5-7-5. We’d had a student teacher who’d grown up in Japan. She was crazy about the stuff. I didn’t care, then. I’d really been into free verse, sonnets, and odes. At least, that’s what was mostly in my journals.
I did haiku for two weeks solid because I had to. I hadn’t done it since.
Maybe it was time I did.
I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. Sitting next to a floor vent, warm air puffed up and past me. My fingers were cold by then, so the heat felt good.
In my imagination, I slid away from the world and the ache in my hand faded. The skin on my lip that had felt like it was stretched too tight eased into the rhythm of pumping blood. The world’s touch went away and pretty soon, all that was left was the thrill of the fight. The victory of fists smashing opponents swelled like my lip until it was all thought of.
I opened my eyes, took out the notebook, and turned to a blank page. I fingered the white rubber grip I added to all my cheap, round pens. I leaned forward, took a deep breath, then wrote:
victory of fists
deflecting words and laughter
like leaves, turn spring rain

I stared at it for a while, then frowned.
Something was wrong. I grabbed my lower lip with my left thumb and finger. I squeezed and teared up instantly. I’d forgotten my split lip. I raised my eyebrows. I hummed. Something...
I didn’t erase – I never erased. Grams told me I’d lose an important lesson if I pretended my mistakes never happened. I wrote it again with two changes:

victory of fists
deflecting words and laughter
as leaves turn spring rain

“Yep,” I said. That was what I wanted. I whispered it, and tested the words in the regular air instead of the air of my imagination. I still liked the way they hung. I stood up, grabbed the pack, went to the end of the row, and peeked around the corner. She was gone. So were most of the others. They must have talked to all their friends on rLife and got bored. I’d been the first person I knew who’d made the move from Facebook to rLife, and skipped the obnoxiously commercial sites everyone else leaped to after Facebook died. Now everybody was on and I didn’t have the time or energy for lots of friends.
Not that I had lots of friends. I didn’t.
I went out the other way, crossed the library away from the computers, and stopped at an empty table. I unzipped and rummaged around in my backpack to make sure I had what I needed.
“Crap,” I said, though I’d rather have said something else, but Phoebe was standing four meters away and she’d have heard me for sure. I’d forgotten my Precalc book at school and I had to have it to do the homework.
I needed to pass everything with flying colors so the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology couldn’t find any reason to revoke my tentative acceptance.
Did you know they could UNaccept you if you did a Senior Slide second semester rather than kept up your grades? I needed the final letter – the one that said I was in for sure. That wouldn’t happen for five more weeks, after Carter sent my final transcript. Until then, I was on self-probation. I had to be perfect. Grams’s voice was the one inside my head, and she always said, “Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college.” She was the reason I had to get there. I had to help save her life.
My own voice added, “Don’t get caught fighting. Don’t get caught fighting. Don’t get caught fighting.”
Should be easy.
With the pack slung over my shoulder, I waved to Phoebe and headed out the door.
It was cold and still, the brightest stars shone clear even through the city lights. Almost like fall. I took a deep breath, let it out, and coughed ‘cause of the cold air in warm lungs.
I slipped my free arm through the other strap, settled it on my back, and headed back to Carter. I ran a block north to 33rd then turned left, ran west for four blocks to Hematite and took it all the way to Carter – six blocks. I had to go to the back door, where the night janitors had their smoke break. I knew ‘em all: Josh, Mary, Eric, and Jody, the boss. They started at 3:00 right after we got out of school, then worked ‘til 11:30. It was only 9:30, so I caught them right at the end of their cigarettes – they’d probably be happy.
I jumped the fence and sprinted across the baseball diamonds and into the Community Gym parking lot. It was pretty much deserted. Josh, Mary, and Jody stood up high on the loading dock, around one of the dumpsters, and talked beneath a cloud of smoke.
I stopped at the bottom and looked up. I said, “Hey!” Nobody smiled and at first, I thought something had happened.
Then Jody busted into a grin and said, “Langston!” She frowned at me, “You forget your books again?”
I looked down at my feet, really embarrassed. Jody had a little name, but she was a big woman. She was everyone’s mama at Carter. What she said, everyone did. She’d done a bit in Iraq during the war as a Marine. Nobody messed with her. I looked up and said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am. It’s just...senioritis.”
She grunted, took a long drag, blew the smoke high and fast, and said, “Get in. Get out, or it’s my ass in a sling.” She crushed it and lit another one. So did everybody else. She was the boss and she’d just said that break wasn’t over yet.
I nodded, pulled myself up on the dock, and ran into the school. Nice thing about after school hours is that no one tells you to slow down. I sprinted to my locker, grabbed the book, and got back before they finished their cigarettes. “Thanks a lot! Mr. Welfare thanks you, too!” I called as I jumped off the loading dock.
She waved, stubbed out her cigarette, and turned to go back to work. Everybody else followed her and the big metal door banged shut on the night.
I ran over the fields, took a right on Hematite, and ran straight south. I counted the blocks as I snugged the pack tighter on my back, made it quit bouncing, and started counting streets. Hematite split around Sandfish Lake six blocks later and I took East Sandfish Lake Drive. Curving wide around the lake, it passed huge houses, recessed gold lights, and fantastic gardens that spilled spring flowers over sculpted rock walls like living waterfalls.
East joined with West Sandfish Lake Drive and made Hematite again. When I reached 28th, I turned left. One block to Jasper, I turned left again then right into my own, familiar alley between 29th and 28th. It was just another suburban alley that wasn’t as nice as the one a mile north. Four blocks to Nephrite and I was home.
Our little post-WWII one-and-a-half-story house was dark except for the deck window of the living room. I slowed down and walked around the yard for a while, and caught my breath. I was in good shape, but I’d just done a two-mile run from school.
Once I caught my breath, I went into the house through the deck door. Grams was watching TV and reading a book.
“Hey, Grams.” Grams was mom’s mom and black as midnight with hair blue-white as a snow on a clear, frozen day. She usually had a book in her lap and the TV on low, doing both like she always did. She wasn’t one of them old people who got lost in TV. Sure, she’d had a heart attack a couple years ago and she was diabetic, too. Doctors said the attack damaged her heart some, and then they found she had congestive heart failure. She took insulin pills to keep her blood sugars steady. She was almost a bionic grandma.
Someone would figure out how to cure Grams. Maybe that someone would be me. Biomechanics was what I’d be doing in college. I might be part of the team that figured out a way to repair CHF. Maybe we would make an electric pancreas. All I was sure of is that they’d do it faster when I was there. The doctors told us that Grams had had a small stroke, even though that hadn’t affected her reading at all. In fact, when Grams couldn’t get a book in large type, she made me or Jazzy get ‘em on CD.
Jasmine – we called her Jazzy – was my eight-year-old cousin. Mom’s sister gave her to us when she was three and she’d lived here ever since.
“How was your day, Langston?” Grams asked.
I stayed out of the light of her reading lamp. I didn’t want her to see the split lip I’d got in the fight, and I said as normal as possible, “Good. I gotta do a bunch of Precalc homework.”
She smiled and shook her head. “A math genius and a good boy to boot,” she sighed. “The good Lord’s blessed you beyond measure, Langston. Beyond measure.”
As I passed by, I gave her a peck of a kiss on her head and winced as the spray-stiff hairs pressed my split lip. I said, “G’night Grams.”
“Don’t you stay up all night! I can hear you creaking around up there when you don’t sleep! You’re graduating in thirty days, Langston. Study hard. Get good grades.”
I grinned then said, “Okay! Okay, Grams!” I took the steep, narrow steps up to my room two-by-two and hooked left which left my head level with the old, brown carpet. I kept three piles – one with dirty boxers and jeans, one with socks, and one with T-shirts and shirts. A pile of books was stacked by my bed, too. My bookshelves had mostly Clancy, Ludlum, Asimov, and Brin. One shelf was medical stuff: Gray’s Anatomy, Textbook of Human Physiology, STIFF (about life in a morgue – ha ha ha) plus other stuff I found at used bookstores and garage sales. I used to have poetry books. Then I found out the ones I used to have, came from my dad. I dumped them. I kept ten Dr. Seuss books from when I was little and five by Shel Silverstein: Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giving Tree, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, The Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. I scribbled out dad’s name inside those covers. I had a CD of Silverstein’s music I’d bought with my own money. I loved it even though Silverstein didn’t bother using punctuation when he wrote the title, The Best of Shel Silverstein: His Words His Songs His Friends.
I didn’t have posters. No women, no basketball, no football. I hated sports. They’re stupid. I played when I was a kid. I never watched. I tossed the backpack on my desk, turned on the desk light and turned off the ceiling light.
I guess I sorta lied: I had one poster. University of Minnesota, some basketball player I’d never heard of in gold A-top and shorts. I crouched down and slugged him in the face but laid my hand over the U of M logo. That was where I wanted to go more than anywhere else in the world. Institute of Technology, the Department of Biomedical Engineering is the program I applied for. I asked Mr. Lamprecht, my physics teacher, to write a recommendation for me ‘cause even though he’s crabby, he’d been around forever, and the U knew who he was. Except for him, me, and mom, nobody else knew that’s where I wanted to go. Not even Grams, and she’s the reason I want it.
I pulled off my sweatshirt, dropped it in a pile, and untied my basketball shoes while I hopped around on one foot. My backpack was already on my desk, so I sat down, opened it, and got to work.