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!”
           
“Uh…”
           
“No, ‘aye’,” Flamer said, hooting. “You want me to bite hisss ankle?”
           
“No!”

“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?”
           
“What?”
           
Then Drew remembered, “That snack thing. Did you eat it?”
           
“Um…no.”
           
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.
           
“With…sugar.”
           
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.
Crap.
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.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: Emerald of Earth -- Chapter 1 and 2


HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: Emerald of Earth

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

IN THE JUNGLE

 

Emerald Anastasia Nhia Okon Marcillon wanted to scream. Near the center of the Chicxulub impact crater, the compound where she and her parents lived had been overrun by soldiers pretending to be professors and college students.

All ten of them strutted as if the land was theirs. The four elders directed everyone, including Mom and Dad. Emerald bristled, hunkering down in the underbrush looking up at their research station. No one bossed her parents around! Dad hated the military and so did Mom sometimes. There’d been plenty of soldiers at the station. They were nosy, paranoid and ignored her ‘cause she was a kid. Academic types ignored all of them, intent on their own research. She took a deep breath – salty, humid scent of rotting jungle; manure smell from an old-fashioned cattle ranch not too far away; semi-sweet stench of boiling sugarcane; hint of chemical smell from a portable latrine.

Calm down. Listen. Don’t make a mistake.

This group of soldiers was doing worse than ignoring her – they were watching her. One or two touched their chests like they had concealed guns. All of them were in better shape than the usual wingnuts visiting the compound.

 “THE most buff professors the world has ever seen,” Emerald set her ipik to record mode and spoke in Portuguese. “There’s something really strange about all of them.” She turned it off. She fingered the necklace of tektites Mom and Dad had given her on her twelfth birthday. Beads of meteorite impact-melted glass strung on Mexican silver wire, the twelve black teardrops clicked as she moved. Ducking down behind a stump her father had cut with his own axe when they’d established the research station, she listened as two of the ‘professors’ passed.

The older one was saying in English, “Whoever gave them clearance to do this research was insane!”

The younger one, a woman, snorted then replied in Spanish, “Everyone thought it was insane when they were slapped with a Confidential security clearance, Colonel .”

“The only reason EGov granted it was because he’s Vice-Captain Marcillon’s nephew. Though I heard she wanted to make their whole song and dance Sensitive Compartmented Information,” said the Colonel. He muttered something about military intelligence being an oxymoron. Then they were gone, heading down the path that led to the highway between Progresso and Telchac Puerto. They weren’t acting like the haughty professors, adamant researchers, internet news fact-checkers, save-the-world college students and other wingnuts who usually showed up at the research compound. There were still three or four of those as well. One was digging holes looking for roots that would cure Alzheimer’s, another was searching for some Lost City of the Mayans, and a cryptozoologist wanted to find a link between chupacabra and the coatimundi common in the Yucatan jungle. She sighed. Those she could handle.

The soldiers were eerily quiet, disciplined and listened carefully when Mom – Dr. Nhia Marcillon – lectured on her and Dad’s Shattered Spheres Theory of the Solar System.

Emerald liked to think that she believed her mother, but so many other people thought Mom and Dad were crazy. Now that she was practically thirteen, she had to make up her own mind. When she was ten, eleven, and twelve, there was nothing more fascinating than the possibility that alien intelligences on Venus had conquered the Solar System! The possibility that they’d been colonizing the other planets sixty-five million years ago made it sound boring at first. But when she accessed Mom’s 3D scenarios...

That was one of the problems. Dad had blocked her access to the Shattered Spheres file. Not that that had stopped Emerald. But Dad had given up on the Shattered Spheres Theory.

Emerald shook her head. She’d ask questions if she could, but she never really, really wanted to. High functioning autism made her hesitate before talking to anyone about anything, and she’d been this way all her life. Most days, she felt like she was one of Mom and Dad’s alien People. She more or less got what the rest of the world was talking about – though sometimes not. She knew she was supposed to chat with people and understanding languages wasn’t any trouble. Spanish, English, French, Chinese, Portuguese, and Italian were pretty easy if she could listen to people speak it for a while. But she never seemed to get the hang of saying the right thing at the right time. Or doing the right thing at the right time. She was an alien on the worst days, a permanent tourist on the best.

She stood up and looped back into the jungle, picking up the trail that headed back toward the trailer to the adjacent giant silver tent the Combined Forces people had put up when they arrived. Made of solar cells, the dirt underneath had been razed of plant life, pounded flat, sealed with a resin and was swept clean every morning by minibots. There were chairs, tables, big solar fans that ran all day and most of the night and a half dozen computer stations. There were always people sleeping on the tables beneath tipis of mosquito netting. Cliques of young soldiers would circle their chairs, lean back and then text each other for hours, the only sound beside jungle life and wind was the click of keys and bursts of laughter. Then people would glance at each other, smile then bend over their ipiks again.

At first they acted like she was a regular kid and that the files regarding her autism were a cover story so she could spy on them. They’d talk at her, smile, offer her candy and little trinkets. But Emerald would only glance at them and move away. Not too far away, because she was able to intercept a few of their texts. They had some kind of encryption whose code kept randomly changing, but she’d break it, read then repeat the process each time it changed.

They’d learned that they couldn’t make her talk and pretty much had given up on her. Everyone except that pushy one who kept talking to her but wouldn’t ever look at her like everyone else did. She wiped her forehead on her tan T-shirt sleeve then pulled the front of the shirt up to wipe her upper lip. She tied the material in a knot and hopped up on her stool in the corner.

Usually after a week like this, she’d become effectively invisible to the visitors. But this group still seemed to see her. Maybe sneaky precision and analytical thinking was something the professor-soldiers really liked. They old ones would pepper her with questions, but she wouldn’t respond. One or two of them realized that she was listening when they’d find her comments on their organic tablet computers – otabs – posted anonymously to their websites or on their RLife accounts.

Sometimes, it made her friends. With this group, the oldsters seemed to be getting more and more paranoid. The circle of old people in the tent leaned more tightly together as she settled herself, then they got up and walked away, following the other two in the direction of the road into Progresso.

She was pretty sure this group saw her as self-centered, aloof, pedantic, unable to sustain eye contact, rigid, lacking spontaneity in social interaction, completely uninterested in their interests, and obsessively concerned with her own.

The younger soldiers – the ones pretending to be college students – were both more flexible and less paranoid. The only thing that was important about her to them, was that she was a spectacular cook. Her authentic quesadillas, pizza Napoléon, and Brazilian feijoada, a hearty meat stew made from pork and black beans, had made her a few friends. She smiled as the elders left and the youngsters relaxed and started texting about music, Rlife, ‘casts, clothes, v-games, and only a little about aliens and space exploration. Sometimes they even spoke out loud.

One of the women who seemed very uncomfortable in her blue jeans and a yellow, buttoned, sleeveless shirt, the front halves tied together in a knot glanced at Emerald and smiled. Emerald loosened her own knot, not meaning to imitate Rashida Dewidar.

Rashida came over, turned and looked toward the ocean and said, “Hi, Em.”

Emerald looked away, wrinkling her nose. She hated that nickname.

“Oops, sorry,” said Rashida.

Emerald thought that the woman wasn’t sorry at all. She tried the same thing every day, like she was probing Emerald to find out if she really was autistic – high-functioning Asperger’s to be precise. Even though Emerald wasn’t very good at interacting with other people, she watched movies all the time. She knew how she was supposed to act. She’d seen enough fictional mysteries to know that Rashida suspected her of something, just not what.

Rashida said, “So, some of us are going to be shipping out in a day or two.”

Ha! Shipping out was a military term. She’d been right figuring them for soldiers. She still didn’t know what they were doing here. She looked at Rashida. The woman was the only one who’d even tried to talk to Emerald in the past two weeks. She seemed friendly. She was friendly with Dad, too. Mom didn’t like her, but Mom didn’t seem to like anyone lately.

Emerald pulled her opad out from where she tucked it in the small of her back and accessed a file she’d made on the soldiers. She’d rated each one to see which ones were smart and actually aware of what the elders were talking about and which ones were just doing their duty in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. Rashida was one of the ones who seemed to know what was going on. She tried to sneak a look at Emerald’s opad.

Emerald reached down to scratch her ankle, tipping the ‘pad forward to give Rashida a good look. Sitting up, Emerald smirked. A lot of good a peek did the older girl. Emerald was writing in Mayan today. She said, “Ba'ax ka wa'alik?”

“What?”

Emerald repeated herself and Rashida made a face and said, “Mosh fahmah.”

Without looking up, Emerald said, “I know you didn’t understand. I said it in Mayan. What do you want?”

Rashida blinked in surprise and said, “How do you know Egyptian?” Emerald shrugged and Rashida waited for more, didn’t get it and said, “Nothing.”

“No, that’s what I said to you in Mayan,” Emerald said, surfing for the internet page on the Combined Forces. “Ba'ax ka wa'alik means ‘what do you want?’” She held up the opad so Rashida could see, “Have a nice trip.” She hopped off the stool and headed into the house, feeling claustrophobic under the tent.

Rashida followed her. “Emerald, I want to talk to you.”

Emerald ignored her and hurried into the trailer.

Mom and Dad were arguing.

She needed to get away from everyone. She knew it wasn’t how her parents wanted her to behave. She knew it wasn’t how she wanted to behave. It was just that sometimes, she had to get away. She had to be by herself. Dad said, “We need to get out of this limelight, Nhia! It’s driving me crazy. It’s driving all of us crazy.”

“We can’t stop now. If the military will fund the research, we can validate the theory once and for all! We got the money because of your aunt!”

“Of course we did! But we can’t validate the theory if the military makes all of our data top-secret! I hate her for what she did! I hate her control over us!”

“She doesn’t control us and our research! They said they’re not interested in classifying our data – only verifying it.”

“And you believe them? Since when did you place your trust in the military-industrial-congressional complex?”

“Your aunt is your family! She’s been a soldier all her life and famous since she became the first woman to breathe the air of Mars! Since when did you start doubting all of them? We’ve worked for the government before...”

Emerald ran out the back door, nearly tripping over Rashida. The young woman cried, “Wait, Emerald! I didn’t mean to…”

Rashida’s attention was suffocating. Emerald spun away, sprinting into the jungle beyond. “Emerald!” Rashida called again.

Emerald’s parents stopped arguing. A moment later, she heard her mother shout, “Emerald?”

Emerald ran, cutting off the main trail following a faint animal trail that led to the Gulf north of them. Behind her, she could hear Rashida pounding after her. The noise stopped abruptly, replaced by a sound that reminded her of mumbletypeg, a knife throwing game the young soldiers played when they were bored. Two people with one knife faced each another with their feet shoulder-width apart. The first player took the knife and threw it into the ground as near their own foot as possible. The second player then repeated the process. Whichever player sticks the knife closest to his own foot wins the first challenge. Each player took one step to the right and repeated the throwing. They kept on until one of the ‘professors’ showed up and they got back to work.

The noise in the jungle sounded like a couple of people were playing a really, really fast game, the knives stabbing into the ground like they were racing.

Emerald cut off the animal trail, hunkering down so she’d break the fewest number of undergrowth branches and stems. Her pulse pounded in her ears as she ran back toward the regular trail then turned and headed back toward the Gulf. She stopped, squatting, breathing open-mouthed, listening intently. The heavy foliage soaked up sound like a sponge, and she couldn’t hear the woman any more.

Instead, she heard dirt tapping followed by the thunk-chunk of a shovel biting into the jungle floor. Scowling, she crept through the undergrowth, focusing on the sound until she was close enough to push aside a branch and see.

The lady root digger was hard at work, wiping her forehead with a wrist then attacking the jungle floor again. But she hadn’t just begun. After breaking new soil, she glanced around as if looking to see if anyone was watching, then she hopped and dropped down into a hole as deep as her waist. She took the shovel and dug again, this time the blade making a dull thud as if it were hitting something hard and hollow. She bent over, disappearing from Emerald’s view and a few moments later straightened up, both arms down as if she were pulling a giant plug from a drain.

She climbed out of the hole then reached back in and with a grunt, hauled out a cube of dirty pastel orange. Emerald touched the tektite necklace, the teardrops oddly warm to the touch.

Muffled but much closer than she’d expected, Rashida called Emerald’s name. The root digger spun, kicking the box back into the hole then frantically threw soil back into the hole. She’d nowhere near covered it when Rashida called again and the woman sprinted in the direction of the Gulf.

Pursing her lips, Emerald backed up slowly, made her way back to the trail and then hurried back to the station. With the jackknife she usually carried, she marked a trail, making certain she knew exactly how to reach the hole with the box in it and leaving Rashida to fend for her soldierly self in the jungle among the coatis, jays, spider monkeys, agouti and parrots.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

ON THE BEACH

 

By the time she reached the trailer, Mom and Dad had stopped arguing and they were deep into their formal presentation. Why had they waited until now to bring out their little show? Usually it was the first thing researchers and professors saw. Mom was the speaker, Dad the stoic scientist, nodding sagely off to the side. Mom was the enthusiast, ramping up the energy in the room then startling her audience. Sometimes Emerald wondered how she could have been the silent child with downcast eyes and unable to speak to strangers. She slipped into her usual spot – under the desk that held both Mom and Dad’s laptops, the wifi router and a micro satellite uplink. At the back of the desk where a person would normally put their legs, Emerald had cut into the wall and removed a piece so that she could not only sit under the desk, but would actually be inside the wall and very much out of anyone’s way.

She could hear Mom pacing back and forth, then stop suddenly. The low hum of the holographic projector was creating a 3D image of a star system that appeared to float in the middle of the small lab. Mom would gesture to it as she said, “The evidence we’ve gathered so far clearly indicates that a massive object – probably a microscopic black hole – grazed Uranus and tipped it on its side.” An invisible something struck the gas giant, throwing off a jet of plasma. “A fleet of invading interstellar warships – the Júwàirén – using black hole energy technology probably experienced a disastrous explosion. Debris swept through the Solar System, certainly missing Saturn but raining down on Jupiter and setting off the Great Red Spot hurricane.” A flash in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter set its gases roiling. “The worst was yet to happen,” she continued as the image zoomed in on a blue, reddish-brown and white Mars. “The surface was covered with shallow oceans that teemed with microscopic life forms. A large rock, possibly an asteroid knocked from a stable orbit and carried on the shockwave of the explosion, slammed into the planet, blowing away much of its air allowing the oceans to boil away under low pressure.” The image zoomed closer, focusing on a world that was obviously Earth in the Cretaceous Era. “The asteroid struck off the coast of what would one day be the Yucatan Peninsula. The dinosaurs and thousands of other life forms, already environmentally and genetically stressed, were launched into extinction.” She paused for effect and as the image swung away from Earth’s nuclear winter, it stopped this time on another world. It was a virtual twin of Earth with a silvery moon and abundant water – though its surface showed less brown, and more green, the continents were smaller and more scattered, a smaller proportion of the world was land than on nearby Earth. “This is the world of an alien, probably sauroid intelligence; native to the planet we now call Venus. They were aggressive and powerful. Spreading through our Solar System, we have evidence that they conquered beyond it. The invasion fleet had come to put a stop to it.”

Emerald could see it in Mom’s face as well as Dad’s. They hadn’t been fooled by the military pretense at all! They’d known there were soldiers in the compound all along.

On his chair to one side, Paolo Marcillon, Emerald’s Dad, glanced at the faces of the Combined Forces officers. He shook his head and rubbed his temples. Nhia shot him a look but continued, “But the accident that destroyed the fleet and saved the sauroids next threatened them with the mindless destruction of chance.” A massive debris cloud – the remnants of the invasion fleet – after dropping a few pieces in the Earth-Moon system, slammed full force into Venus and its moon. Nhia took up the narration, “An object nearly large enough to split it in half hit the moon, knocking it cleanly out of Venus’ orbit, where it drifted until the Sun captured it again, the molten scar on its surface glowing red hot for nearly a century. The world we call Venus was pounded by meteorites sleeting through the vacuum of space, fielding one object large enough to reverse Venus’ rotation.” She paused – as she had one hundred and twelve times before – before she finally said softly, “The Solar System had been reshaped and the intelligences on the new, second planet of the shattered star system were extinct. We are the heirs of those shattered spheres. We are the ones who must piece together the details. We are the ones who must find the bits of technology that we can use to go to the stars...”

There was a pause. A “professor”, who now spoke like a general; Emerald knew exactly who he was, an older man whose hair and moustache were completely gray said, “Thank you very much, Drs. Marcillon.” By the sounds on the floor, he stood slowly. “Unless you have some material evidence to support your theories, I think it may be time for us to go.”

Mom said softly, “We have evidence, Commander Shinichi.”

His reply was just as muted when he said, “Go on.”

“One of your operatives has already discovered some of the evidence, Commander. I’ll offer you a bit of advice, however: don’t try to open the box on your own. We’ll cooperate with your people – but the timetable and conditions under which we will cooperate will be ours.” He started to turn away as she added, “If you try your hardest and set your best people to break any of the six of them open, they are set to destroy the evidence inside.”

Commander Shinichi studied her for some time before he said, “We’ve imposed on your hospitality long enough, Ma’am; Sir.” He and the other “professors”, subordinates in one way or another, stood with him. One carefully studied the space where the 3D images had been then walked out.

The “professor” and his retinue strode back into the heat of the jungle and Paolo said, “We’ll never see them again.”

Nhia scowled at him and snapped, “There’s no need to curse the presentation just because...”

Paolo stood up, shaking his head. Despite the air conditioning, the air was humid, overly warm. “I’m not cursing something that has failed ninety-six times! Why can’t you just admit that no one is interested in investing in our wild science fiction?”

“It’s not science fiction!” she exclaimed, swiping her hand through the hologram, making it vanish. “It’s hard science! We’re...”

“We were once respected paleoxenoarchaeontologists – we invented the field! People came to study with us! They still want to – but not in this freaking jungle! We have to go back...”

“You’ve lost your sense of adventure, Paul,” he hated it when she called him by his anglicized name. She knew that very well. “You were so brave and daring when we first met...”

He cut her off, “You had some modicum of good sense when we first met...”

They both heard the door slam as Emerald left the trailer. Their argument died as they turned, avoiding each other’s eyes. Paolo started walking. “I’ll go after her. It’s my turn.” By the time he reached the airlock, it was standing open to the hot and humid Yucatan Peninsula air. In the distance, he heard Emerald’s retreat. He called out, “Emerald?” 

“I just want to be alone!” she shouted over her shoulder. Emerald Marcillon fled through the airlock that kept the equipment in the mobile home cool and dry and stomped out into the humid Mexican night.

Onde você pensa que você está indo, moça?” her father called after her, holding the airlock door open.

“Leave me alone!”

The muffled voice of her mother called her father back inside. He hesitated then closed the lock slowly.

The soldiers were no longer making any pretense of being professors and college students. The older men and women barked orders and the youngsters hurried around, pulling down the tent, packing equipment and moving it all out to the road that ran from Progresso to Telchac Puerto. By the time the sun sank into the misty heat of the jungle, the soldiers were gone and the station was silent but for the cries of monkeys, squawks of parrots and the coatis chirping, snorting, or grunting with joy, appeasement, irritation or anger.

She didn’t want to go back into the trailer because there’d just be another argument. The sense of being trapped, walled in and helpless would just upset her and she’d start to get angry. Tonight, she just wanted to think about the crate the root digger had pulled out of the ground – she had a sudden thought. What made her so sure that the digger was a regular scientist and not a soldier? If the woman was a soldier, then she had probably sent the crate into Progresso with the luggage they’d moved out. She needed to see if the crate was still there.

But not yet. When she went into the jungle at night where it was so calm; peaceful despite the wildness and violence. But it was a different kind of noise. It wasn’t Human noise.

She ran silently down to the beach then headed back toward the jungle, staying above the water line but still on solid, wet sand. She angled up away from the water and finally picked up a game path, running until she was panting. Stopping abruptly, she listened. Nothing but the jungle, the shouts and moving racket from the station were swallowed by densely packed trees and undergrowth. Diffuse green light leaked down from the canopy.

It took a while before she could find the right trails to lead her to the root woman’s excavation of the box, but when she found it, she was surprised when she leaned over to look down. The box was still there, exposed. Frowning, she stared down at it. The tektite felt warm around her neck and she touched them. They felt no warmer than the air around her or her skin, so she shook her head. Looking around, she couldn’t find anything like a shovel or rake, so she started to kick soil back into the hole. If her parents had buried it, they’d wanted it hidden for a reason.

 

By the time she’d buried the box and spread branches and other floor detritus over the scar, she was exhausted and it was nearly dark. Heading back to the station, she kept as much out of sight as she could, reaching the edge of the clearing and stopping.

The soldiers were gone and the lights inside the trailer were all on. The air around was still and humid and warm. Just the way she liked it. Keeping to the jungle, she made her way along the edge then over the dune and down the path, weaving through Yucatan scrub and scratchy green beach grass. Her tent was half way down a sand dune on a beach where the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico mixed. Dry palms and green alamo trees rattled in the breeze off the water. Five meters away, the slap of waves on perfect sand sounded with dulling monotony.

Slipping through the door of her tent then under a cowl of mosquito netting, she rolled on to her cot. She could just see the stars through the netting and the tent’s screen window and watched a low satellite move across the sky.

Through the thin windows of the trailer, Mom and Dad’s shouting grew louder when the breezes faded. The subject was always the same: the stupid Chicxulub Crater and the sixty-five million year old buried remains of a meteorite that hit Earth. It had contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs while killing off half of what life was left. Uncovering the mystery of the meteorite had been her parent’s passion for the twenty years of their marriage.

Dad wanted a normal life now and Emerald was starting to think maybe he was right. He wanted them to live in town, maybe have a normal job teaching paleoxenoarchaeontology in the US and the possibility of doing something besides work.

Mom argued that the real world was here, at Chicxulub and that they were so close to exposing real, verifiably alien artifacts that it would be immoral and irresponsible if they left.

The three of them living alone on the coast for almost two years now was crushing them all. Her parents had dug up six gray plastic boxes worth of junk that no one in the universe could possibly be interested in. Emerald had no physical friends, only people she chatted with on rLife, usually other Aspies like her – not that she wanted any, really, she felt better alone. She liked being alone – and tourists seemed bored with the Crater and rarely came any more.

Sometimes she thought that maybe she could handle ONE friend who lived somewhere nearby. Emerald sighed. She and Mom and Dad worked together great during the day. It’s just that they couldn’t be together for a single night without world war three breaking out. Maybe Mom and Dad were autistic, too.

Maybe they were just plain crazy.

Or they’d fallen out of love.

Lately Mom had been more excited while Dad seemed angrier. Something about alien something-or-other. Emerald sighed, rolled to her back and snapped on the halogen bed light. It wouldn’t be the first night she’d spent on the beach alone. In fact, she was starting to like it that way now that she was twelve and a half. She read a chapter from the classic science fiction book, PODKAYNE OF MARS, then turned out the light and settled down to listen to the waves whispering on the beach until she could keep her eyes open no longer.

 

She woke to a sound she’d heard before. After a brief, blurry instant, she recognized it as a fast version of mumbletypeg. The sound of knives being thrust into wet sand and pulled up fast over and over again came from the water, moving up the hill.

Frowning, Emerald sat up.

Through her other screen window, the Moon was setting, balanced like a huge, silver beach ball on the Caribbean. Against the Moon, she saw a robot spider – a thick platform jutting six legs and downward spikes. It didn’t move for several minutes then walked out of her line of sight.

Emerald slipped through the cowl, out of the tent and scampered down to the damp, firm sand on the Gulf. She sprinted along the beach until she could see the sharp, regular depressions where the robot had plunged its feet into the sand. She was even with the aluminum trailers of the house and lab. Up the dune again, she slowed then peeked over the ridge.

Dad pushed open the airlock and shouted, “Emerald!”

From out of the night came a cough and a hiss. Something whistled faintly through the air. Then the house exploded in a blinding fireball. The shockwave threw Emerald and part of the dune backward, tumbling into shallow water. Stunned, trembling, she waded back to shore, stumbled and fell to her hands and knees silently on the sand.

Emerald heard a second hiss and cough, a thud and another fireball rose, glaring white light at first, fading to red rolled into the sky. Shreds of hot metal rained hissing down on the beach. The sound of knives stabbing sand came over the dune again as a third missile shredded her tent. She curled more tightly on the wet sand ten meters from the alien robot, holding her breath.

A few moments later, the spider walked through the burning remains of her tent, splashed into the Gulf and was gone, leaving Emerald entirely and completely...alone.