I’m having a little trouble with something, but I can’t tell you what. Let me be more specific. I’m working on a short story, but I’m not sure if something is clear that needs to be clear.
It’s a story about two regular, average kids in a regular, average, middle-American town. However, there’s something a leeeetle different about the society in which this town exists. But the thing that’s different – I can’t tell you. In order for the story to work, the reader needs to be able to clearly figure out what’s different about this society. I quietly asked a few friends to check it out because I didn’t want to post it until I was sure it was solid enough. I got mixed reviews. Some liked it and some gave me excellent edits, but I need to get more eyes on the prize. Yeah, pretentious of me to assume my story is a “prize.”
And please don’t be insulted if I didn’t ask you specifically. Even here, where I’m asking for volunteers, I still feel like I’m annoying and imposing. So I’d have to only really impose on those with whom I’ve previously imposed without incident. Much incident.
So you have three choices:
1. Bail out now and read one of those blogs written by men who pretend to be women and tell you about all of their wild “adventures.” Some are real, 0f course, and you can find them in my “follow” list.
2. Read the first half of the story and leave a comment about whether or not you can tell what’s different about this society. In which case, if you think it doesn’t work, maybe you can give me a suggestion on how to improve it. After that, you have my permission to quit.
3. Read the first half, fall in love with me, even more than you already have.
There’s something to indicate when you’re about halfway through and you can let me know if it’s working. And yes, yes, I know this is expecting too much of you. I have no right to ask, and you have no reason to read. Unless you’re one of those men who pretends to be a woman who writes…you know.
George couldn’t see that he was sweating, but he felt the line of moisture trace its way down the side of his head. It curved slightly where his jawbone began, then ducked behind his jowl towards his neck. It only increased as Mrs. Irwin got closer as she strode up and down each aisle of her 7th grade classroom. He glanced two seats ahead at his best friend Eric who, as usual, was sketching airplanes in the margins of his notebook.
“And George, your homework?”
His eyes tightened, then relaxed slightly. “No, Mrs. Irwin.”
Her shoulders dropped. “Again? What’s going on?”
“I’m really sorry. I was just getting started last night, and then my dad said to take the dog for a walk. His collar came loose, so he ran off, and then we spent hours trying to find him.” George tried to look up at his teacher but couldn’t. “By the time we got home, I forgot all about the math homework. I’m really sorry.” He braced himself, for what he could not imagine.
“Well, I’m glad the dog was okay, but please make up the assignment tonight.” Eyes tight, he listened as her shoes clicked the wood floor to the next student. His head dropped, arms relaxed, and chest exhaled.
Hours later he stepped along the dry sidewalk as Eric tried to keep pace. “Hey,” Eric said, “George, are you listening to anything I’m saying?”
“Sorry.” George slowed, blinking as if he had just sat up in bed.
“What’s wrong? I’ve known you since before kindergarten. I know when something’s wrong. What’s going on?” George looked around, noticing they were across the street from the park in the center of their middle-American town. He then nodded for Eric to follow him until they stopped beneath a gathering of trees.
“Remember when Irwin was walking around checking math homework?” George whispered.
“Yeah. Why are you whispering?”
“Remember when I told her why I didn’t have my homework done?”
“No,” said Eric. “Your hands are shaking. You sick? You’re all sweaty.”
“I told her I didn’t have my homework because the dog ran away,” he fought to catch his breath. “Then by the time we found the dog, I forgot all about doing my homework.”
“Okay, so you do it tonight and you get half credit, like usual. What’s the big deal?”
George inhaled sharply. “That’s not what happened.”
“What do you mean?”
“The story with the dog. Didn’t happen.”
Eric tried to focus. “I don’t under-”
“It didn’t happen. I told her something that was not – not real. Not right.” George walked in a tight circle.
“But – I don’t understand. Why would you say something like that? You can’t. I mean, it – I – I never – really? Something that did not actually happen? But-you told it to her as if it did happen? If it didn’t happen, why’d you say it?”
“I don’t know. It just came out. I don’t understand either.”
“I never knew you could do that. This doesn’t make sense. I mean, it does, but it doesn’t. Have you thought about this? Where’d you even get an idea to try something like that?”
“It just popped out, I couldn’t help it,” George cried. “It would have been the third assignment I missed this week. I was afraid of getting punished by my dad, detention after school, who knows what else.” George wiped at his right eye. “So I told her about the dog so I wouldn’t get in trouble again.”
Eric straightened up as his eyes widened. “You told her stuff that’s not – real? This is like something from another planet.” They both dropped their backpacks into a small crush of fall leaves. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Eric ran both hands through his curly hair. “This – this is something like out of a science fiction story. This could throw the world into spinning the wrong way or something.”
“I don’t know how it happened. It just came to me. She was at Terry’s desk behind me, and I was getting all nervous. Then when she asked me for my homework,” he paused, wiping his eyes again, “it just blurted out.”
“Well, IT didn’t just blurt. YOU blurted it out.”
“I know, I know,” George whined. “I don’t know what to do. Help me think.”
“Eric shook his head. “Dude, you’re a great friend and all, but this might be too much. I mean, we have no idea what could happen. I mean,” he glanced around at the streets that surrounded the park, “this might go to the cops for all we know. Or worse, this could just – just like – bring God and vengeance and apocalypse kinda things down on us. You better start praying, man.”
George collapsed to his knees in the grass, curling up in an upright fetal position. Eric knelt next to him.
“What should I do?” asked George. “C’mon, you’re the smartest kid in class. Help me.”
“Find a priest is about all I can think of,” said Eric. “I mean, I don’t even know if there’s a word for what you did.
“Will ya stop?” cried George. “It’s killing me too, okay? You’re not helping. You’re just scaring the crap out of me. If the earth opens up and we all die, I’ll know it was all because of me.” He wiped at his eyes and nose with his glove, coughing and crying at the same time.
“Let me think,” Eric stood again. “Okay, okay. I have an idea.”
“Great!” George sat up. “What do I do?”
“Yeah,” Eric paced, turned back to George, “nothing. Just give it time and wait, see what happens.”
George stood, not nearly eye-to-eye with his best friend. “But what if someone asks me to explain what happened?”
“What if they don’t?”
* * *
Hours later George stepped slowly to the dinner table. The clinking of silverware on plates, the clunks of the glasses put down on the table, all seemed amplified, even increasing as he reached the kitchen.
“What took you so long?” smiled his mother.
“Finishing homework,” said George.
“Play any football after school today?” his father asked, reaching to pat the boy’s shoulder. George flinched, but it was barely noticeable, as if he had been zapped by a static shock.
“N-no, not today. Had to study for a test.”
“Good boy,” his father said. “What subject?”
“Hey,” Mom jumped in, “didn’t you just have an English test yesterday?”
George’s eyes exploded. “Oh, right. I meant science. Musta still been thinking about the English test.” He kept his eyes on his plate and his fork moving while methodically finishing off each item before moving to the next. Chicken, green beans, potatoes, with bites of bread between.
I’m being too quiet, he thought. They’re gonna think something’s wrong. Do I usually talk more? I can’t remember. Holy crap, I should say something. Anything. I can’t just say nothing. They’ll get suspicious. Maybe they already know. Maybe they’re waiting for me to say the wrong thing. I should keep quiet or I’ll say the wrong thing. I got this.
“Mom,” he said, “why is Becca allowed to wear her tutu at dinner but I can’t wear my football or baseball uniform?”
His mom stopped with a tray of pork chops hovering over the table. She straightened up, blinking as if she had just sat up in bed in the middle of the night. Then she turned to her husband whose eyes went from his confused wife to his inquisitive son. That’s when George knew he should have just kept quiet.
“Something’s wrong here,” said Dad, sitting back in his chair. George looked up, mouth frozen with food as a small bite of potato fell back on the plate like a passenger abandoning a sinking ship. His eyes popped so wide they hurt. Dad turned and pointed at his son. “You. You’re not right.”
“But-” started George.
“You’re on the wrong side, Son.” His father turned to his right, pointing at George’s 8-year old sister. “Becca is usually on my left.” Pointing back to his son. “You’re usually on the right side, closer to the sink so you can help your mom clear the table.” Dad leaned back to the table. “How’d that happen
“I got here first,” smiled Becca. “So I wanted to sit in George’s seat.” As his parents focused on the cuteness of Becca’s strawberry hair, be-jealous-of-me smile, and the space from a recently fallen tooth, they didn’t see George release a tightly held breath. He slumped back in his seat. Not until then did he realized how clean his plate was.
“May I be excused?” he croaked.
“Oh, not yet, Son,” said his father. “I barely got to talk to you.”
“Sorry, Dad. Homework.” He shrugged. “Talk to my teachers and tell them they’re giving us too much.” George’s words caught up to him. “Uhh. Actually no. I mean, it’s just tonight I have too much work. I mean, it’s not like every night. Just tonight, so no need to talk to my teachers about anything. My bad.” He stumbled off his chair and backed away from the table, eyes reluctantly catching everyone else’s eyes before leaving the kitchen.
“George,” his mother called, the echo through the hallway stopping him momentarily. “Come back here, please.” His head sunk as he turned back to the kitchen to face his mother. “I made apple pie. And I’m going to make hot chocolate. So you better have some with us later, young man.”
“Uh huh,” he nodded. The smile on his mother’s face told him that somehow everything was probably going to be okay. That smile was what drove him to do most of the good things he always did. He shuddered to think how that smile might break when she found out about what he had done at school today when he said something happened that didn’t happen. He took half a step back to his room then stopped. “Can I use the phone?”
His father turned to him. “Calling Eric?”
“Yup. Not sure about something with the homework.” He had barely stopped his sentence when he realized that the phone was right there in the kitchen. “Oh, wait. He’s just down the block. Can I go over his house instead?”
“I don’t know, George. It’s dark out. I’d rather you just call, but not yet. It’s dinner time, family time. We don’t interrupt family time, Son. Maybe other people do, but we don’t.”
“Okay. I’ll call him later. Thanks.” Half step. Why are they staring at me like that? They’re looking at me like I have donkey ears or my nose is growing. Half step, and he was gone to his room.
That night, George couldn’t sleep. Sweating, twisting, rolling, twitching, dreaming. He dreamt of something like a crown upon his head, something metal and shiny. He was sitting in a great wooden chair with many people sitting before him, silently watching him. The sun was setting. The sky was a fiery red. The people were faceless, black silhouettes against a red sky. All appeared menacing but peaceful at the same time. One man in a uniform approached him and stood at his side. Lights flickered as George began to feel a numbness, then a floating sensation.
* * *
The next morning, minutes after George had left for school and as his mother tidied up his room, her senses caught something in the air. She pulled back the covers from his partially-made bed and frowned when she found a stain that she hadn’t seen in years.
George was scanning the street for Eric and saw his tall frame on the corner across the street. He stepped off the curb, but when his foot touched the street he immediately pulled it back as if he had stepped barefoot into a fire. After telling a story that isn’t true, he thought, there’s no way I can get caught jaywalking. He then quickly walked up to the corner, looked both ways, and crossed to where Eric waited.
“So? Anything happen?” Eric said.
“No.” George stepped a little faster to keep up with Eric’s longer strides.
“Nobody asked nothing?”
“Irwin didn’t call your parents?”
George paused before answering. “Had a bad dream, that’s about it.”
“Not sure. It seemed like I was a king or something. I remember wearing a crown and being in a something like a throne.” Neither spoke for several blocks, each wondering when the other would offer something. As the silence continued, George felt more alone.
“You think it had anything to do with, with what you did?”
“I don’t know. I’m just waiting to drop dead or get run over by a truck. Arrested, something. I just know this is going to come back to me,” George whined. “I know this isn’t over. I just know it. How could I do such a thing? What’s wrong with me to even think of something like that? Seriously. It’s like, unheard of.”
“But nothing’s happened?” asked Eric. “You don’t feel pain or anything? Cops didn’t come to your house last night?”
“No. That’s the weird part. Nothing.” George kicked at a rock but missed.
“Good. I have an idea,” said Eric.
“I can’t explain it yet. I want to think it through some more.” George’s stomach pinched him, not happy about waiting. “Oh, do me a favor. Here, hold this for me.” Eric pulled a $5 bill from his pocket and handed it to George. “Don’t give it back to me until after school.”
As they continued to school, each breath of the fall air seemed to drop a degree, as if winter were coming more quickly than usual. Scattered clouds crawled across a stark blue sky. They didn’t speak again until lunch when George, waiting at his usual table, spotted Eric approaching quickly, but he was later than usual with a lunch tray more full than usual.
“Where’d you get all that?” George said salivating.
“You won’t believe it,” Eric whispered, peering left and right. “I told the lunch lady that I forgot my money and I’d pay her back tomorrow. Then I told her that my friend also forgot his money, so I asked for two lunches so I could bring some to him.”
“No way!” George gasped. “She believed you?”
“Duh. What’s it look like?”
“And you totally made it up, like I did about the homework?”
“That’s why I gave you my money this morning,” Eric said. “Just in case she asked me to check my pockets again. I wanted to see if she’d still give me the food.”
“And she did. Wow. Were you scared?”
“More scared than when I lost my baseball glove last summer.”
“Right, I remember that. You got a pretty good beating, right?”
“I’ve had worse, but it was a brand-new glove I just got for my birthday. Man, that had my name stitched on it and-”
“Wait,” said George. “We only have fifteen minutes left for lunch. Let’s talk about your glove another time.”
“Okay. Hey, what are you doing after school?”
“I dunno. Something going on?”
“Yeah, you’re meeting me out front right after dismissal. I got another idea.” George’s eyes lifted like a dog watching a child inadvertently drop pieces of food on the kitchen floor, waiting to hear Eric’s idea. Nothing else was said until the bell rang and they headed to social studies.
Here’s about halfway through. Can you see what’s different? Is it working?
It’s okay to quit, really. I’ll never know.
* * *
Two boys had trouble walking forward as their eyes kept pulling sideways. The store windows on Main Street were getting ready for Christmas, even though Thanksgiving was still weeks away. Workers were busy arranging and rearranging window displays, removing some of the yellow and orange decorations and replacing them with red and green. In another week, a truck would make its way along the curbs, attaching a framework of silver garland, lights, snowflakes, and candles that would create a very merry tunnel of light from one end of town to the other. Great, funnel-shaped speakers would be carried to the top of the Edenton Town Hall to blast instrumental Christmas songs that would dance across rooftops, sift through the trees, and then front porches below.
“Oh, man,” said George. “Look at that bike! Those chrome wheels and the high handlebars. It’s like a motorcycle!”
“It’s called the Apple Krate. Looks like a fire engine color,” said Eric. “Comes in yellow, silver, green, and orange.”
George stepped closer, peering at the beautiful bike in the window. “Schwinn? That’s a weird name.”
“I don’t care if they call it Pile of Crap. I want one,” said Eric. “And if this plan works, I know exactly how I’m gonna get one.”
They continued another two blocks until they reached the same park in which George had originally brought Eric to explain his homework confession. Then it was Eric’s turn to look around to be sure they were safe.
“Here’s the plan. We go into the candy store back there. We tell Mr. Cord that we forgot our money, but we really need a soda. Then we see if he lets us take some.”
“No,” said George, “that’s no good.”
“He knows us. And if he ever sees us again, he’s going to ask us about the money.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Eric. “Okay, let’s go over to Helena. Nobody will know us there. You got time? It’s only the next town over.”
George looked at his watch. “I think so.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Thirty minutes later they passed a playground as they cut through an apartment complex only a block from the edge of Edenton. Their quick pace slowed to a stop as they approached two bicycles resting in the shade of a tree. Half of its leaves were on the ground while the other half were still golden, still hanging on the branches above like sleeping bats.
“What do you think?” said Eric.
“What about them?”
“What if we took them to ride to Helena?”
“They’re not ours,” said George. “Are you nuts? I’m in enough trouble already.”
“You’re not in any trouble.”
“Not yet, but I will be when someone figures out what I did.”
“We can bring them back.”
George looked around, up at the apartment windows that reflected the afternoon sky, slightly less blue, slightly more gray. “You promise we’ll bring them back?”
“Of course,” Eric smiled. “You pick. Blue or yellow.”
George hesitantly straddled the blue one and started pedaling as Eric followed suit. Not more than a block away, two boys were running towards them from the opposite side of the street.
“Hey!” one yelled. “Those are our bikes!” George skidded to a stop as Eric slowly rode circles around the younger boys.
“No they’re not,” said Eric, filling George with a frightful surprise. What’s wrong with you? George thought. I’m in enough trouble for saying things that aren’t real. Now you’re going to do it too and make it worse? Stop it or we’re gonna die!
“Yes they are. Did you find them over by the playground?” The boy pointed back from where George and Eric had ridden.
“No. These are ours,” said Eric. George said nothing, but his twitching eyes followed his partner, who was circling the two smaller boys.
“Mine is yellow and has that same basket. I’m sure that’s my bike.”
“No it’s not,” said Eric. “I have the same bike and basket. I got them for my birthday.”
“Yup. Swear.” Eric looked at George, who then looked away. “I bet if you go back to the playground, you’ll find your bikes waiting there.”
“Wow, that’s amazing that we would have the exact same bike and basket,” said one of the smaller boys. “I’m sorry very sorry that I didn’t believe you. I hope you can forgive me for my mistake.”
“No problem,” said Eric.
Two smaller boys walked back to the playground as two others pedaled away.
They rode on, following continuously along the main drag while lost in a conversation and the candy store experiment now forgotten.
“Do you realize what we can do?” said Eric.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure I like it.”
“You can tell your parents you got straight A’s in school. You can tell Mrs. Irwin that she was wrong and you were right when she marks your test. Or you can tell the umpire you were safe when he calls you out.” George pedaled mostly silently, just following where the road was taking them, his expression very different from that of Eric.
As the brainstorming and planning continued, the boys did not notice the setting sun or crossing two sets of train tracks. Nor did they notice the change from single-family homes to worn, brick apartment buildings, and then back to single-family homes again. These houses were larger than the houses from the very pleasant homes of Edenton. Castles compared to their cottages. They had ridden well beyond Edenton, deep into Helena, a town to which they had never gone that far before. They parked the bikes in front of a convenience store.
“Where are we?” George asked.
“No idea. Let’s just go in, get something, and start riding back. We never left Main Street, so we’ll just head straight back. C’mon. I’m hungry.”
They entered as they would any other store, looked around for what they wanted, soda, pretzels, and approached the man at the cash register. George remained off to the side as Eric handled business.
“Hi, Sir. We forgot our money, and I called my father. He’ll be here in about five minutes, but we’re starving after a long bike ride. Can we just take this stuff outside and then we’ll come back in with the money when my dad gets here?”
The man smiled and spoke in an accent that Eric did not expect. “Sure. I will be here. Come back in when you have the money.”
“Thanks.” Eric turned with his own smile and jabbed an elbow at George as he headed for the door. The bell over the door rang as they exited, though they didn’t recall it ringing on their way in. In their haste and the glory of their spoils, they didn’t notice until they were finished eating that the bikes were gone.
“Oh no,” said George, wiping a sleeve of his jacket across his mouth to catch the last few drops. “What do we do?”
“Catch a bus?” Eric zipped up his jacket, which was no longer thick enough for the cold, the bitter half of a bittersweet sunset.
“We don’t have money for the bus,” said George, “and we don’t even know where to find one.”
Eric started walking. “We don’t need the money part, remember. And we know which way to go. Back that way. Let’s just start walking until we figure something out.”
“Hey there’s,” George began, “oh, forget it.”
“I just remembered that I saw a payphone in that store where we got the soda and pretzels. Then I thought we should walk back. But then I thought we don’t have any money. Then I thought we don’t need money, like in the store, but then I realized we can’t just tell the payphone to make a call for us.”
“Maybe we can ask someone in the store to give us some money,” said Eric. “Just keep walking for now, and if you see another one, we’ll go in.”
It was only minutes away from full dark when they came upon a sign. “Edenton ten miles,” said George. “Holy crap, did we really ride that far?”
“Guess so,” said Eric. “Let’s just keep going.” They did, and they eventually walked alongside a park setting, similar to the one in center of Edenton, where they stood to create their secrets and plans. A cascade of trees greeted them as they walked further, surrounded by only green above and the road below. Then the road was interrupted by the lights of a long, black car that slowed to a stop next to them. The driver clicked off the headlights.
“Boys,” said a voice from a shadow of a man inside. “You’re out kind of late.”
They turned with lifted hearts and stepped forward. “Somebody took our bikes, and we have a long walk home.”
“Took your bikes? I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said the man in dark glasses, even at night. “Would you like a ride home?”
“Oh, wow. Really?” said George.
“Sure. Get in the back.” They did, closed the door, and the car moved ahead. “Where you going?”
“Edenton,” said George. “Do you know where it is?”
“Of course,” said the man, and again the boys’ hearts lifted.
“I live on Borden Street,” said Eric.
“I know exactly where that is,” the man said with a smile as he closed all the windows.
“Really? Wow,” said Eric. “See,” he turned to George. “It’s all gonna be fine.”
“Relax, boys,” the man said. “And I know a shortcut to get you there fast. Get you there safe and sound. As soon as possible. Trust me.”
– 30 –
If you made it through all that, you are a champion, and I owe you something more than a “thanks.”