This is the first draft of a science fiction novel I've penned named "Hollis Whittaker." There are succeeding drafts underway, with both storyline, chapter order and grammatical changes, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to contact me about them. I'd love to hear what you think, even if it's critical.
Wednesday, August 22, 1945:
Eleanor Cole rested an arm on a maple tree and ripped off her left shoe. The heel had finally snapped off her pumps. She slipped the shoe back on and removed the other, bashing it against the tree several times until that heel broke off. She was still out of breath from running for the better part the day, the damned heels occasionally having dug into soft earth as she ran, causing both of her ankles to twist several times. This was the first moment she felt safe enough to pause.
She replaced her shoe and squatted at the base of the tree, head in her hands, the bark pushing into her back. The dried leaves crackled against her red tartan wool skirt as she sat. She tried to keep quiet, but the sobbing became uncontrollable in a moment where she finally felt alone.
A breeze blew through the area, rustling the trees and offering relief from the heat steaming off her body. She desperately wanted a drink of water, her throat and mouth as dry as day old toast. The temperature was still in the upper 80s and a potent smell of baking leaves rose from the ground. Her untucked blouse was soaked through with perspiration and had gone from pure white to dingy. This morning she had spent an hour fashioning her hair to resemble Rita Hayworth’s, an updo-straight up with curls on top and a soft, waved fringe. But that had fallen to hell too. People had told her that she resembled the movie star, so she tried to play it up, but Rita wouldn’t look this disheveled on her worst day with a pound of makeup.
How did her life end up like this? How was she going to get out of this one? She was only twenty-five; her whole life was supposed to be in front of her.
She got a hold of herself, controlling the tears and raising her head. She needed to get her bearings. Her breathing slowed. The sobbing spasm in her diaphragm dissipated. Except for the occasional blustering of the forest floor covering, it was silent. The leaves would act like an alarm if they were still in pursuit and she couldn’t hear anything, even when she strained to focus far behind her. She leaned around the tree at her back and caught a glimpse of the sun lowering. That meant she was still heading east. Good.
Twice a second her head throbbed with the beat of her heart. She rose to her feet and took a long, deep breath, trying to bring back her focus. Even with the relative calm of the moment, she couldn’t stay put. Losing the heels would help. Pulling off her slip was a possibility. It would free up her movement, but she couldn’t risk leaving something that obvious lying on the ground. It would be far too blatant a clue and would make it easy to assess the direction she was heading. Pulling it off anyway, she tucked it under her arm.
She kicked some leaves over the heel and took a few steps back to cover the one that had broken off. Then she charged forward. She didn’t need to run anymore, but she couldn’t dawdle.
For the first time it dawned on her that she didn’t have her pocketbook, so no ID, no money. It seemed like such a minor detail when she thought about what was at stake, but her head was clearer now and she knew she needed a longer-term plan than just getting away.
As another hour passed, she could make out the sound of running water to the north—the Passaconic River. She wasn’t that far from Route 36. It wasn’t a well-traveled road, but at least it led to civilization. She could stick to the tree line and if a car approached, she’d try to determine if it was friendly. If it didn’t seem safe, she’d duck back into the woods before the driver could see her.
It took another hour before she reached the road, longer than she had figured. It cut through the thick of woods, two lanes of asphalt dividing hundreds of acres of forest. The pine trees had left layers of needles along the roadside, blown clear of the tar by the speeding motorists. Behind her, the sun was approaching the horizon. She couldn’t see it through the trees, but the sky had gone a bluish gray with a thick cloud cover and the light was draining from the day. The air was muggy; the breeze had died down and the smell of warm asphalt rose from the tarmac.
She thought about how she’d look to passing motorists. Vagrant? She straightened out her blouse and tucked it in, running her fingers through her hair in an attempt to rein it in. Then she set out north on the no-man’s land between the woods and the road. Every few minutes, when she heard a car or truck down the road, she would step to the left and duck behind a tree, scrutinizing the vehicle and its occupants. She wanted to avoid anyone who appeared too military. Several in a row had been young men with crew cuts. In all likelihood, it would have been safe to try to stop them, but this wasn’t an instance wherein she could take a chance.
She heard the telltale hum of another approaching car from the south. She was just past a bend in the road. It would be 20-30 seconds before it was upon her, but because of the bend, she wouldn’t have much time to examine the car or its driver. And on top of that, it was starting to grow dark. She hopped over a marshy bit of ground and hid herself behind a pine tree. The car was just on the other side of the corner.
It puttered into view. The interior was dark, but Eleanor could make out the silhouette of a hat. At least she thought it was a hat. She squinted her eyes and it became slightly clearer. Yes, it was a hat, a lady’s hat. The chances of spotting a woman driving on her own on this road at this time of day was low, but it was the opportunity Eleanor was hoping for. She stepped into the road and waved her right arm over her head. The car’s headlights rose up to meet her and about ten yards away, it slowly pulled to a stop. Eleanor was on display for the driver, her dirty clothes and messy hair, the slip tucked under her left arm. Would her tattered appearance scare the woman away?
For a few seconds nothing happened. Eleanor slogged to the driver’s side. The scarlet red Ford Deluxe seemed fairly new or was perhaps just well maintained, its exhaust billowing forth from behind the car. The window was half rolled down and as she approached, the older woman in the car discreetly locked the door. The woman was in her early- to mid-sixties wearing a small-brimmed hat with a large ribbon. She looked guarded.
“I’m so sorry,” Eleanor said. “My car’s broken down at our cabin and I’ve had to trudge through the woods on my own. I’m so sorry.”
The woman paused for a moment before easing up a bit. “Oh my dear, that’s all right. I’ll just let you in.” She stretched across the passenger seat and unlocked the door.
Eleanor smiled and circled around the nose of the car. “Thank you so much,” she said as she dropped into the passenger seat, pulling her slip onto her lap. The interior still had a new leather scent. As the car accelerated, the breeze through the windows refreshed her spirits a bit, made her feel somewhat normal again.
“Were you heading into Amberton?” the woman asked, seeming feebler than Eleanor expected.
“Yes, that would be wonderful.” Eleanor was somewhat relieved to have found someone else and wanted to present a calm exterior for the woman, but her next move was still unclear. She had no money, no identification, no bed for the night. She didn’t know anyone in Amberton.
Eleanor caught the woman eyeing the slip and, embarrassed, stowed it between her hip and the door. Then she checked herself and noticed the top buttons of her blouse had come undone. Trying not to draw attention, she buttoned them back up.
“Your cabin couldn’t have been too close to the road,” the woman said. “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
Eleanor couldn’t leave a trail that anyone could follow. From this point forward she needed to become someone else. “I’m Evelyn. And no, we aren’t close to the road. I must have walked through seven or eight miles of countryside.”
“Is your husband not around? Did he leave you to find help on your own?”
Eleanor realized she had instinctively used we, and this woman must have picked up on it. But there was a generally accepted rule that a woman would have found a husband by her mid-twenties. She fought the urge to stand up on her soapbox. This wasn’t the place for that. In fact she wondered if she’d ever be free enough to stand out in a crowd again. She needed to blend in now.
“He’s in France. Been stationed there for the past eight months. I spruce up the cabin every month while he’s away. It keeps me busy and, really, one needs to keep a vigilant eye on things otherwise they’ll fall into disarray. Sometimes I wonder where all of the dust comes from.”
The woman nodded her head in commiseration. “By my age you’ll have cleaned enough dust to make another house.”
They drove for another twenty minutes making chitchat. Eleanor’s new life took shape as it was created from sentence to sentence. The woman at the car’s helm was named Margaret. She’d been married for forty years to a gentle stick of a man named Simon who managed a Sears and Roebuck Department Store. They had three grown daughters. She was just returning from visiting her eldest, Carol, who had a husband serving in Japan.
The full darkness of evening had descended upon the women as they drove. A flaxen quarter moon occasionally popped out, but for the most part it stayed hidden, creating the slightest bit of illumination from behind a cloak of clouds. Every few minutes a car or truck passed in the opposite direction, its lights causing temporary blindness for the women. The woods on either side of the road were completely black. Eleanor could only make out the first layer of trees as the headlights of the Deluxe shone on them, then they quickly disappeared into nothingness as the car passed.
As they approached a hill, Eleanor made out an increasing amount of light coming over its crest, more than just an oncoming vehicle. Something wasn’t sitting right. They had passed a sign for Amberton not long before and it said the town was still five miles away.
“Is that Amberton already?” she asked.
The car slowed a bit on the hill as the engine struggled to climb. Margaret stayed silent for a few seconds longer than Eleanor would have liked. “Well, I don’t know. Amberton’s still a couple miles from here. That’s someone’s headlights, dear.”
Eleanor instinctively braced herself, clutching the seat. There was too much light. They neared the apex. “Let me out,” she said.
Margaret turned her head toward her passenger. “What’s that?”
“Let me out. I need to get out!” Eleanor grabbed the handle as if she were going to jump out as the car was still moving. She placed her shoulder against the door. “Margaret please, stop the car!”
Margaret slowed a bit. “What’s the matter Evelyn? It’s just another car. Are you okay?”
“No, I need to get out now!” The Ford was still traveling at 30 miles per hour. Eleanor wondered if she should chance leaping out.
“Oh my gosh Evelyn, what is it?”
The car crested the hill and a roadblock became evident thirty yards away. There were two cars, barricades, several very imposing men and a bright light on a stand illuminating the road. One of the men held up a hand signaling for Margaret to stop.
Eleanor was trapped. If she jumped out now, the men would definitely give chase. But this had been set up for her. She knew it. She’d managed to escape through the woods before, but she’d had a much more advantageous start earlier. Perhaps Margaret would convince the men she was a friend. Her vision narrowed, the fight or flight instinct fully engaged. She froze.
As the Ford rolled to a stop next to the lead man, Margaret lowered the window fully. The man was easily over six feet tall, a dark unbuttoned suit jacket and fedora pulled low to his eyebrows. “Good evening ma’am,” he said, glancing at Margaret and then at her passenger. But his eyes stayed a fraction of a second too long on Eleanor.
She yanked the handle and flung the door open, leapt out of the car and dropped the slip, bursting into a sprint for the woods.
Each of the men at the roadblock straightened up and the leader pulled a sidearm from beneath his jacket. He took aim at Eleanor and pulled the trigger. She went down face first just feet from the trees. The illumination from the lights was darker where she had fallen, but there was enough. The men all converged on the fallen woman, the back of her dirty blouse seeping with blood, pumping from a wound in the center of the shirt. She moved her head to the right and her arm twitched.
The lead man reached down and frisked her. Then he wrenched her onto her back, her arm flinging to the side like a lifeless stick and he continued patting her down. Eleanor’s eyes stared blankly at the sky, her lips parted. She was gurgling as much as breathing. There was no exit wound on her chest. The bullet was still inside her.
The man straightened himself and looked down at her. “It’s not here,” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘it’s not here?’” The voice was Margaret’s, who was standing on the opposite side of the car in the crook of the driver’s door. Her tenderness had disappeared. This was the voice of authority.
The man didn’t pull his gaze from Eleanor. “I mean it’s not here.”
Margaret stomped around the car to the open passenger door and lifted Eleanor’s slip from the pavement. “Here,” she said, rifling through it before dropping it. “Goddammit!” She peered into the car at the passenger seat. Her hat had slipped down a little and she snatched it off her head and threw it into the car. “Goddammit!” Her hair was gray, high and tight, her suit conservative. She spun around. “Why the hell did you shoot her?”
The man didn’t respond.
Margaret stepped toward them, stopping inches away from Eleanor’s legs and peered down at her. “Where is it?” she asked.
Eleanor’s eyes didn’t move.
“I shot her in the side,” said the man.
Margaret grabbed Eleanor’s shoulder and pulled, exposing a back caked in dried leaves and a bullet hole directly in its center spurting out blood. Then she let go and the injured woman flopped back onto the ground. Margaret shot the man an angry glare. “Well, you missed.”
They glared at Eleanor. “Double check,” Margaret said.
The man bent over Eleanor and ripped open her blouse, buttons popping off with the force. Obviously furious, he reached down to the bottom of her skirt and yanked it up. Eleanor let out moans of pain as he pulled her torso off the ground and continued jerking at the garment until it was bunched up around her waist. “Look for yourself!” he bawled.
Margaret kicked Eleanor’s leg, which didn’t even get a reaction from the incapacitated woman. “What did you do with it?”
Eleanor’s breathing was short; her eyes had begun to glaze over. Margaret hovered over her for a few seconds, then leaned over and slapped her face, knocking it to the side. It didn’t rouse her. “Where is it?” Margaret shouted.
There was a look of sheer abhorrence in Margaret’s face. She stood up straight again, reached her arm out and took hold of the pistol the lead man had in his clutches. The man relinquished the weapon.
Margaret placed her foot in the center of Eleanor’s bra and shifted her weight onto it, causing groans of pain and increased gurgling. Eleanor turned her head toward Margaret and her gaze focused up at her. The added weight on her chest made it impossible to breath.
“Goddammit!” Margaret screamed. The rage was most prevalent in her eyes, which were wide and piercing as the two women stared at each other. Margaret pointed the gun and put more of her weight on Eleanor’s chest. The pain was unbearable for Eleanor. Her eyes rolled up in her skull. And Margaret pulled the trigger.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
“What are you watching?”
Hollis’ heart sunk just a little bit. He’d hoped that by barricading himself in his room, his parents would leave him alone, but his father had just put the ball in motion. Next he’d be telling him what a beautiful day it was outside and how there was a whole new neighborhood to explore.
“It’s about the pyramids,” Hollis answered, clinging to the hopes that an educational show would supersede the requirement to “get some fresh air.”
“I thought your mother told you to clean up your room.”
Hollis scanned the surroundings. He’d thrown his dirty clothes in the hamper and shoved all the toys that were in the middle of the floor under his bed. It looked good to him. “I did,” he said, defensively.
“Well, we’ll let your mother deal with that.” His father reclined on the bed next to him and watched the show for a few seconds, the scent of his aftershave still with him despite the fact that it was the middle of the afternoon. He had on tan shorts and a blue Polo shirt, an ensemble Hollis hoped he’d never inherit. His father showed genuine interested in Hollis, but he had no idea what it was like growing up nowadays. Life just wasn’t the way it used to be. “Who’s that dude?” he asked.
His father obviously wasn’t watching the show; he was referring to the poster next to the TV.
“That’s Kaos, King of the Orcs.”
Kaos was an olive green beast with concrete muscles everywhere, including his face, and scars to match. The raging hulk had yellow eyes and whispers of gray hair melting off his head. The Crag of Fire loomed behind Kaos, spewing forth magma and rock, an inferno that burned into the sky and fused with its ominous black clouds.
“Kaos, huh? He looks like a tough hombre. Doesn’t that keep you up at night?”
They watched another few seconds of programming and then his father finally got to the point. He grabbed the remote between them and shut off the TV. “What say we go enjoy a bit of the day?”
“I was watching that,” said Hollis.
“I know, but you can watch that anytime,” his father countered. “The ancient Egyptians are always on, but you don’t get too many days like this, believe me.”
Rolling his head back on the pillow, the ten-year-old let out a protracted groan.
“Come on, sport. Do your mother a favor.”
Hollis hated being called sport. He wasn’t any good at sports and, in fact, didn’t even like them. And he wondered if his father just threw the term at him to deflect from his weight problem. He knew he had a few extra pounds, but he wasn’t fat like “Lumpy” Dobratz. He perched himself up and dangled his legs over the edge of the bed.
His father patted him on the back. “Thanks pal,” he said. “Look, it might not be as terrible as you think.” Then he left, assuredly to relay to Hollis’ mother that he’d roused the young boy.
Hollis shuffled through the house toward the kitchen and opened the sliding glass door to the back yard. He peered at the lawn in need of a good mow and the line of trees on the outskirts of the property. A few puffy clouds speckled the sky, a perfect day with little humidity and a slight breeze, just as his father had promised. It took a bit for his eyes to adjust to the sunlight.
In the middle of the yard he paused to take in the surroundings, the scent of Christmas wafting in from the fir and pine trees and the wind tousling his thin chestnut hair.
He cut around to the side of the house along a six-foot high wooden fence that separated their yard from their neighbor’s and peered out onto the road. They were located halfway through a circular cul-de-sac, a newly constructed prefabricated set of homes, each just different enough from the previous to make the homeowners feel a sense of uniqueness. To Hollis, they all looked the same.
He liked their old home. It was old and creaky, and you could feel the wind blowing through the windows on blustery days, but it had character. An old farmhouse with lots of wood. And lots of land to explore.
He waited for the other kids to come running from behind someone else’s house, but nobody did. The street was empty. The one thing he was looking forward to here was a chance to make some new friends. There weren’t any neighbors in their old place.
Hollis spun around and stared at his new home. They’d moved in a month before and this was it, the place he’d grow up. His father had a new job and that’s the way it was. He missed his best friend, Edgar. They used to stay up on weekends playing video games and eating beef jerky. They still texted and emailed, but it wasn’t the same. No one else really liked the same games or TV shows as Hollis, or music or movies for that matter and he wondered if any of the kids here would.
And he had to make an afternoon for himself now. He plodded out back again, kicking the occasional pinecone as far as he could. In a burst of inspiration, he decided to see how quickly he could make it to the back of the yard and exploded into a full-on sprint, stopping just beside a pine tree as he tagged it.
He had to breath heavy for a few seconds, not unexpected since he’d been diagnosed with a heart defect when he was a baby. The doctors told him his heart pumped about 35-40 percent, which didn’t mean much to him, but apparently it was a little worse than average.
He caught his breath and checked out the distance he’d run. Pretty fast, he thought. “I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner.”
Gazing into the darkness of the woods, he wondered what secrets it contained. He’d told himself that he’d go exploring someday. As it turns out, today was the day. Maybe there’d be an ancient burial site or a cave on their property that no one had ever discovered. He set his face forward and marched past the tree line.
Within fifteen feet, most of the sun’s light had been blocked, dropping the temperature by several degrees. It almost seemed cool. He glanced back at the house through twigs and leaves, a diminishing facade that still didn’t seem like home. His room was on the upper left, the interior of which was covered by a shade over the window in the dormer.
He wondered if he should head back to the neighborhood rather than waste his time in the woods. There were other kids his age around. A couple of them had even waved at him when they’d seen each other. They were probably playing video games or watching TV. Screw it, he figured; he’d looked once and there was plenty of time to meet the neighbors.
He delved deeper in, probing the unknown. Every once in awhile he’d look back at his house, keeping it in sight, and sticking to a straight line, it was always where he thought it would be. He noticed a small mound thirty feet away up on the left, hiked to it and kicked it in disappointment when he discovered it was only an earthly lump.
Hollis was making his own path, sometimes having to duck beneath branches, forcing twigs out of his way with his hands and closing his eyes in case anything snapped back unexpectedly. Every step was met by the crunching of leaves underfoot; otherwise there was silence.
In the distance, a gently sloping hill showed promise. He marched on, reaching its apex in a few minutes. He stood atop the mound and examined the ground, stooping over to grab what looked like an Indian arrowhead. It was black and on one edge was quite sharp. But no, it was just a rock.
The far side of the hill dropped off much more abruptly than the way he’d come, strewn over with rocks and sticks all the way to the valley floor below. For a moment he became Kaos, reigning over his vast kingdom. He raised his arms in triumph and roared at the top of his lungs just like the Orc King. Then he listened for a reply without getting one. In the distance he heard the sound of running water mixed in with the rustle of the trees. It was faint, but unmistakable.
He looked back toward home and couldn’t see it anymore, but he was confident in the direction and soldiered on toward the water. Hollis took great strides, leaping from rock to rock down the hillside, almost losing his footing at one point on some loose stones. The valley floor was closer than it seemed. Then he started the ascent of the next hill, which took a little more effort. Maybe he should work a little harder at dropping a few pounds; he was breathing harder than he should have been.
In a few spots he needed to grab hold of large rocks to steady himself on the steep climb, his sneakers slipping off stones because of slimy moss. At the top of the second hill he glimpsed the stream below, coursing slowly across the forest floor. Ambling toward it, he figured it was too small to be a river.
On the edge of the water he squatted on the flattest rock he could find. His feet rested unevenly on the roots of an old tree, whose trunk was behind him. The roots had worked their way inexorably to the stream over years or decades. He watched the flowing water, as clear as glass, and underneath it, a mix of stones, slime and earth. It didn’t seem all that deep. Hollis lowered his fingers into the stream. It was bitterly cold.
“No swimming in that,” he said.
He leaned his elbows on his knees and eyed the water. This would do. This spot. It would be his fortress of solitude, the kingdom he would rule, a place of his own. He shuffled his way back and sat against the giant tree, whose roots he’d just relied on. He brought up his knees and hugged them, resting his chin on them.
For several minutes he was content watching the stream flow by. Maybe he’d bring some supplies out here—a bug-out kit. If a meteorite came crashing to earth or Yellowstone Park erupted, he could be safe out here. Of course, he’d bring his parents out here too, but he’d need the basics to be able to survive: a canteen, a blanket, a knife, a compass, trail mix, a pot and utensils, a lighter. Okay, this was as good as watching a show about the Egyptians.
As he scanned his new domain, a rounded stone embedded in the upper reaches of the streambed caught the corner of his eye. It was just on the far side of the water, somewhat shiny, but quite tarnished it seemed. He stood up and made his way to the water’s edge, leaping as far as he could and landing with one foot in the water on the other side.
“Aww!” he cried, pulling his waterlogged foot out and squishing the sneaker down on the dirt edge lining the stream. He leaned into the crumbling bank and reached down toward the stone, except it wasn’t a stone; it looked manmade.
He pried it from the muddy bank and held it up to examine it, wiping away as much muck as he could before dipping it into the running water to clean it off better. Flat and circular like a medallion, it was about three inches in diameter. The object was rough like stone, but gleamed as if it were made of silver. There were no etchings on it, just bumps and ridges, like it was cut directly from the earth. Along its edge, a thin metal strip had rusted away to nearly nothing and attached to the strip was a ribbon that was almost completely rotted.
Hollis tried to think of a logical explanation: an Indian artifact, maybe some sort of commemorative medal? It seemed old. He examined both sides and it was strangely unremarkable. Whatever it was though, he liked it. He stuffed it in the back pocket of his shorts and bound back over the stream heading for home, his left shoe squishing as he tromped.
The cinderblock stone halls inside Jeremiah Wilson Elementary School were painted a shiny turquoise reminiscent of the nuclear family era when kids were instructed that desks were their best protection from atomic bombs. The color wasn’t due to the school board’s aesthetic preferences, but because there were always leftover cans of semi-gloss at the end of a painting year that were preserved for the next time. The sock hop came and went, the Summer of Love, Disco, Reagan, Brangelina and as the definition of risqué intensified from Elvis’ gyrating hips to Lady Gaga’s meat suit, the school’s interior remained comfortably consistent. It never struck anyone to ask why they didn’t just try another color.
Until recently, the philosophy fit the curriculum too. It worked in 1950, so it ought to work now. Reneé Denoncourt made attempts to sway the school department toward a new educational ideology in her first few years at the school in the late 1990s, and several younger teachers had tried since, but the old guard put the brakes on reform each time, preferring the sit down, shut up and open your mouth, so we can shove it down your gob method.
Teachers fresh out of college rarely stuck around for more than a year or two, frustrated that mindless memorization wouldn’t sink in so readily on kids who were plugged in and entertained 24/7, and who were years beyond giving a second glance to a dress made of meat.
But a chink in the armor showed the previous year when the school board passed new guidelines for fifth graders in an attempt to prepare them for middle school. “Team teaching” shifted the ten-year-olds from a solitary homeroom to a set of teachers specializing in subjects. Where they used to rely on one adult for all of their educational needs, they now visited different classrooms just like the big kids.
Teachers fresh out of college rarely stuck around for more than a year or two, frustrated that mindless memorization wouldn’t sink in so readily on kids who were plugged in and entertained 24/7, and who were years beyond giving a second glance to a dress made of meat.
Hollis was recently enrolled in the mid-sized facility, having started fresh with the new school year just a few weeks prior. His grades, as at his previous school, were pointing to an average student, or even a bit below, his tendencies leaning toward indifference and distraction. JW Elementary wasn’t all that disparate from where he’d come in New York State, but kids in fifth grade already had friends. No one needed another.
Seated in the back row, he creaked open the lid of his homeroom desk and removed science and math textbooks and a three-subject notebook, closed the desk and laid them on top. The tan notebook, spiral bound, was already well worn around the edges, with the words math, science and computers written in all caps across the top and underlined. The rest of the cover was crowded with doodles, including a centerpiece of a skull and crossbones with drips of blood flowing from the jaw.
Standing behind her desk at the head of the fifth-grade classroom, Janelle Miller raised a piece of paper and flapped it back and forth. She had been teaching at JW Elementary for thirty-seven years, her first job out of college. A set of mom jeans fit loosely around her portly frame and her shoulder-length brunette locks covered the neck of a red Polo shirt. Her flowery fragrance had permeated into everything over the decades and left a sustained and unambiguous redolence in the air of Mrs. Miller’s room.
The kids joked behind her back that she didn’t shower, but rather plastered herself in perfume to cover the strong body odor she put off. The myth had a half-life of the rest of her career, as do all yarns spun about teachers in grade school, but it wasn’t true, having stemmed from a day in 2004 when she had forgotten to wear deodorant.
“If your parents haven’t gotten back to me about conference night, tell them to shoot me an email by tomorrow,” she said. “I’m looking at you Sarah, Zachary and Tyler. Got me?”
The offending parties nodded their heads.
“Okay,” Mrs. Miller said, taking a seat at the desk.
The students filed out of the class, yammering and pairing up into their cliques. Hollis was among the silent stragglers at the end, having yet to find a close group of friends. He kept his head low, his books clasped to his side.
He made his away along the edge of the hallway quietly to Mrs. Bennett’s room, just four doors ahead on the left. A few teachers stood watch in an attempt to keep the chaos in between classes to a minimum and for the most part, it worked. Kids scurried around like a nest of ants, an Amazon jungle’s worth of noise, but orderly.
Hollis plodded into science class as the room began filling up. A rail of a woman, Mrs. Bennett, was seated at her desk, swiping away at her phone, a blank stare on her face and an occasional glance up to see how many of the children had come in. Sporting an oxford blue blouse, she was one of the well-liked teachers among the students. She taught with a touch of humor and took the time for one-on-one assistance.
Posters and drawings lined the walls of the room, the chemical makeup of the sun, the parts of an atom and cells; and a model of the solar system hung from the foam-tiled ceiling spanning the entire room. The sun, like a bright yellow beach ball, was in the corner near the room’s entrance while the planets ranged out toward the back window and the poor, demoted dwarf planet Pluto. A large, colorful replica of an atom dominated the left side of Mrs. Bennett’s desk with removable parts, a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, onto which additional protons, neutrons and electrons could be placed.
The bell rang at 11:02 and Mrs. Bennett rose and leaned against the edge of her desk, laying her phone down. “Good morning,” she said as the conversations dwindled. “I asked you to read the chapter on atomic structures last night. Why don’t we open to page 47 in our texts.”
As the students opened their books, Mrs. Bennett approached the black board and grabbed a piece of chalk. “Who wants to try drawing a hydrogen atom?”
A few hands shot up, but Hollis kept to himself. He hadn’t cracked a book the night before, having spent the time in pursuit of a magic sword on the family’s xBox. He had no idea what a hydrogen atom looked like.
“Alexus,” Mrs. Bennett said, holding out the chalk. A girl, with inky black, straight-as-a-ruler hair, stepped up to the blackboard and drew a near-perfect circle with the letter P in it, then added a larger ring around that and a small circle attached to it, and wrote the letter E above the small circle. She looked at Mrs. Bennett, who took the chalk from the girl. “Very good. That’s exactly right.” She patted the girl on the back and Alexus took her seat.
Mrs. Bennett gestured toward the drawing. “So this is hydrogen. It has the simplest atom with just one proton and one electron circling around it.”
As he appraised the atom’s rendering, a strong skepticism washed over Hollis, a sense that there were mistakes, a lot of them. It just didn’t seem right. He hadn’t done any studying or even seen a depiction of an atom, but he knew it wasn’t accurate. Then he gazed down at the textbook, at the drawings in its pages and there was something that seemed flawed about all of them. Flipping through the chapter, he couldn’t shake the feeling, but he didn’t know why.
He needed to get a hold of himself. This was the textbook and it was obviously right. Mrs. Bennett had agreed with Alexus’ drawing, and she was the science teacher. He figured it was a smart move to keep quiet, so he let it go and his mind conjured up memories of his sanctuary in the woods, far from school and teachers, his private kingdom. The solitude along the stream and among the trees was void of unwanted pressures. He was the ruler of everything he saw.
Reaching into his back pocket, Hollis pulled out the medallion he had found two weeks earlier. Stripped of its deteriorated ribbon and scrubbed clean, it had become his good luck charm. He held it in his hands, the ridges along its front and back seeming familiar now, like frozen ripples of water, rough and wavy. Mrs. Bennett’s lesson clouded over, just background noise with nothing to interest him, but his name was enough to snap him out of it.
“Hollis,” Mrs. Bennett said. “What is that you have?”
Embarrassed, he stared at the teacher like a deer in headlights. “It’s just a thing I found in the woods.”
“Well, put it away and join us in science.”
He stuffed the artifact back in his pocket.
“Could you come up and show us all what a helium atom looks like?” She held out the chalk for him to take.
He let out a long breath and lowered his head. It was inevitable now. He would once again look like a lunkhead in science class. He stepped to the board, taking the piece of chalk, and inspected the large empty space on which he was expected to draw. The hydrogen atom scribbled out by Alexus was glaring at him from the side in all its imperfections.
What was helium? It was the stuff they put into balloons to make them float. His best friend in New York, Duncan, once sucked in some helium from a balloon so his voice would shoot up a few octaves. It was like air, but different. A gas. Hollis raised the chalk and without thinking started sketching. First he clumped together a series of dots, dozens of them, hitting the chalkboard like a machine gun. Then he repeated that clump three more times so there were four distinct, but complex forms.
A glance at Mrs. Bennett assured him that he was wrong. But it just seemed right to him. He was struck by a sense that the blackboard wasn’t enough. Surveying its edges, he lowered his arm, looking back at the classroom walls and at the board again, then back at Mrs. Bennett. “I don’t think I have enough room.”
Mrs. Bennett cleared her throat. “Okay. Well why don’t you just fit it the best you can.”
Hitting his chin with the chalk several times, he contemplated, and then walked to the far edge of the board. Using the side of the chalk rather than its point, he began shading in a column several inches thick from the bottom up as far as he could extend. “I can’t reach any higher,” he said.
Mrs. Bennett had her arms crossed. “That’s okay Hollis.” She held out her hand and he returned the chalk to her and slogged away from the front of the class.
“That’s not exactly what I was looking for, but at least it’s interesting,” she said. Giggles erupted from the class.
As Hollis reached his seat, Mrs. Bennett was finishing four tight circles on the blackboard. She placed a P inside two of them and an N into the other two, then drew two lines encircling them with a tiny ball along each line. She placed an E next to each of the balls. “This is a helium atom. There are two protons, two neutrons and two electrons,” she said as she pointed to each of the atom’s parts.
He examined the corrected version of the helium atom, which looked as wrong as Alexus’ hydrogen, and returned to something more enjoyable—doodling.
When the class ended, Hollis gathered up his books and shuffled in with the rest of the kids leaving. Alexus, who was in front of him on the way out, glanced back with a condescending, wrinkling sneer in her nose. It took Hollis aback. He wanted to tell her that her diagram was awful, but evidently it wasn’t. She whipped her head around lashing him across the face with her ebony tresses, causing him to brake mid-step.
Outside the classroom, the students split in different directions, Alexus and her friend Jayden to the left. That was good; Hollis was going right.
“It’s not you,” came a voice from behind directed at Hollis. “She’s a bitch to everyone.”
Hollis swiveled around and stared up at a gangly classmate with a rock and roll haircut and a Red Sox t-shirt. It was Kirby Cooper-Quinn, a kid who was snarkier to teachers than anyone Hollis had ever met. The two had spoken on occasion, but not at great length.
“I don’t mind,” Hollis said.
Kirby had an armful of books under his spindly arm and an assemblage of pens and pencils in his grasp. “Hey, I saw you riding your bike yesterday. I live on Raleigh Street.”
“It’s a couple blocks over from you. You should hang out with Milo. He lives across the street from you. That’s who I was hanging with.”
“Oh yeah,” Hollis replied. “I’ve seen him.”
Kirby and Hollis shared a few classes, including math, where they were heading. Without much thinking, they proceeded to their next destination, a burgeoning Abbott and Costello in search of a caper. “So how come you’re never outside?” Kirby asked.
“I’m outside, like, all the time.”
“Oh yeah? I never see you.”
Hollis shrugged. He had taken to visiting his private spot in the woods, but he also played in his front yard and rode his bike around the neighborhood. He hadn’t remembered seeing Kirby. Maybe it was just bad timing.
They arrived at their next class and hung out back for a bit chatting about the other folks in Hollis’ area. Terrell, a few houses down, had a PlayStation in his bedroom with an epic surround sound system that his older brother had bequeathed to him when he joined the Marines. Brandon, who was at the house on the corner, had an older sister nobody liked and a younger brother who was hit by a car when he was young. The kid had made a full recovery within a few weeks. Everyone on the block avoided Mrs. Donovan’s house, most of the others referring to her as creepy, but Kirby wasn’t sure why. She was old, but always seemed nice to him.
By the time the bell rang and the kids had to take their seats, Hollis was wondering if he had found his first friend. They’d even agreed to ride their bikes back home together after school so Kirby could show Hollis where he lived.
Mr. West entered the room and closed the door behind him. Perhaps the most fashionable teacher in the school, he had a set of thick red-rimmed glasses plastered to his head at all times, mahogany curls that were touched up by a stylist at least every other week and flawlessly fitted attire. The female teachers would have despised him if they didn’t love him so much. He reached down onto his desk and pulled up a stack of papers, holding them aloft. “Good news. We’re starting the day with a pop quiz.”
Hollis felt his stomach drop as the classroom let out a collective groan. Not only was math his worst subject, but he hadn’t been doing the homework. Mr. West dropped off the quizzes at the front desk of every row and the students passed them backward.
Hollis laid the sheet of paper on his desk and glanced it over, a peculiar feeling spreading through him, just like it had done in science. But there weren’t any mistakes this time and without even looking at the individual questions, he started to sense the answers. He knew it was a mistake to trust instincts on a math quiz, but what else could he do? He had no idea how to figure out the problems.
So he hastened through the quiz with no regard for the math involved, barely skimming over the problems. Before he could even comprehend what the question asked, he was writing an answer. What is ¾ minus ½? ¼. If Annabelle has 1½ cups of ice cream and eats half, how much is left? ¾ cup. What is 918x642? 589,356. Within 20 seconds, he had completed the quiz, part of him believing he was about to receive a zero and another part confident that he’d score perfectly. He scanned the sheet one more time and figured there was nothing else he could do.
His chair scraped along the floor as he rose, and the eyes of the entire class were on him, including Mr. West’s. He stepped to the front holding the quiz in both hands at his chest.
“What is it Hollis?” asked Mr. West.
In Hollis’ battle between confidence and trepidation, the latter was winning out. Should he head back to his seat and give it another go? How bad would it look to get a zero? Nobody else was done yet. He stood mute for a moment.
“Hollis, did you have a question?”
It was now or never, Hollis figured. In nearly a whisper, he replied. “Done.” Then he offered up the paper.
Mr. West cast a look of utter disappointment at Hollis. “Are you sure you don’t want to take a little more time with it?”
Hollis shook his head and Mr. West let out a sigh, taking the sheet from the boy. Kirby was the only one to remark. “You da man, Hollis!” he said without a hint of self-awareness. As the class laughed, Hollis made a beeline for his seat and buried his head in his desk.
For the next couple minutes, the room was once again silent, the other students chewing on pencils and erasing parts of their work. Hollis had eventually taken to surveying the others as they scribbled their answers. They all seemed so intent, even Kirby, who by all accounts didn’t care about grades.
“Hollis,” said Mr. West, breaking the silent apprehension, a serious focus in his eyes. “How did you do this?” The heads began to raise up one after another gazing at the teacher before turning back at the boy. Hollis’ jaw fell an inch, unsure how he had done or how to respond. He didn’t answer.
“Hollis?” This time, Mr. West seemed less accusatory and more stumped.
“How did I do what?”
“How did you do this test so fast? You didn’t show any of your work.”
“I don’t know.”
“These are all right. You got a hundred.”
Hollis had become the sole focus of the hushed classroom. His heart was pounding fast. He tried to take in all the eyes staring at him, but was a little overwhelmed. He looked again at Mr. West waiting for an answer and shrugged his shoulders.
The fluorescent chartreuse BMX that Hollis had received for Christmas lay upside down on the driveway, balanced on its handlebars and seat, its rear wheel loosened. Hollis’ hands were smeared with dirty grease from the chain, which he was rethreading around the sprockets, a pair of pliers sticking out of his back pocket. He pulled the back wheel taut and tightened the bolts with the pliers.
He might not be able to run a marathon, but he could still repair his most valuable possession as well as any adult. He leapt to his feet and flipped the bike back over, yanking it up by its seat with his right hand, his left turning the pedals half a crank to ensure the chain was working. The wheel spun freely and continued with the steady mechanical clicks of a perfectly calibrated machine.
There was a momentary sense of triumph whenever he fixed something on the first try. He lowered the bike and the tire screeched to a halt against the asphalt. Holding it at arms length, Hollis admired the repair and then leaned the frame against his hip and wiped his hands on his jeans. His faded orange t-shirt emblazoned with the words “get r done” was already smeared around the bottom.
“Looking for your training wheels?” a voice howled from the end of the driveway. It was Kirby Cooper-Quinn on his own bike. He skidded to a stop next to Hollis.
“The chain fell off,” Hollis said. “I had to get my dad’s tools to fix it.” The fact that he had been using tools made him feel older. He thought it might impress Kirby.
But Kirby didn’t take much notice. “Sweet. Hey, you want to go riding?”
“All right,” Hollis replied, straddling the seat and using his right leg as a kickstand. Kirby had become Hollis’ best friend in the past few weeks and his contact to meeting the other kids on the block. For the first time since moving in, Hollis was beginning to feel at home in the new neighborhood. The streets weren’t too heavily traveled so he could ride his bike with virtual impunity and there was a shop named Youssef’s a few blocks down that sold candy and comic books. “Where do you want to go, Youssef’s?”
“There’s a trail in the woods behind Terrell’s house with an awesome jump.”
Kirby swung his bike around and beat a path for the street and Hollis put all his weight on the right pedal and was quickly on his tail.
The two boys stopped at the end of the driveway and spun around to face the Whittaker house. Hollis’ mother was calling to him. “We need to go somewhere, honey.”
“Okay,” Hollis hollered back.
“You’re coming with us,” she replied.
Hollis let out a disappointed tsk and responded with a futile attempt to force his mother to see a preferable alternative, “We were going riding!”
“You can go riding later. Come on.”
“Aw man!” Hollis faced his new friend. The decision had been taken out of his hands.
“Whatever,” Kirby said. “I’ll show you tomorrow.” He took off once again for the road. “Smell you later!”
Hollis slogged back to the house. He leaned the bike against the wall just inside the garage and pulled the pliers from his back pocket inadvertently dragging the medallion from the woods with them. The item tumbled loose clanging on the concrete floor. He shoved the pliers onto a shelf and snatched up the object, which had become his good luck charm. Placing it back in his rear pocket, he stepped in through a door connecting to the kitchen. His mother was filling a glass at the sink by the far wall and his father was at the kitchen table to his left gliding his fingers along his phone.
“What do you say pal?” his father asked without looking up.
“Where are we going?”
His mother took a few steps toward the table. “We have a meeting with one of your teachers.”
Hollis’ shoulders hunched over in foreboding resignation. He trudged to the table and slumped into a chair, accidentally kicking their bulldog Risley underneath. The animal shifted his portly spotted chassis. “Sorry Riz,” Hollis said without a spark.
His mother Lonnie sat next to him and put her arm around his shoulders with a comforting smile, laying the glass of water on the table. “My poor little trooper.”
His parents were a bit of an odd couple. If everyone had an animal they resemble, Graham was undoubtedly a silverback gorilla, solid enough to sprout acorns and with thicker fur covering his whole body than you’d find on his head—except his ears. He was also several inches shorter than Lonnie, who was best described as a middle-aged Susan Sarandon if she shopped at Target.
Hollis didn’t want her mock support. If she really felt bad, she wouldn’t drag him back to school when he’d only been home a couple hours. She had it in her power to set him free for the rest of the day to check out the jump behind Terrell’s house and hang out with Kirby, but she made it seem like it was out of her hands.
“I don’t want to go back to school.”
“I know you don’t,” she said. “But Mr. West said it was important.”
Hollis buried his head in his arms on the table, his words muffled. “I didn’t do anything.”
His father replied. “Nobody said you did anything, buddy. Mr. West said he was impressed with you.”
That brightened things a bit. Hollis wasn’t putting in any effort in math class; the answers just rolled out of his mind as easily as if he were breathing them. “So why do we have to go in if I’m doing good?”
“Tell you what,” his father said. “How about some ice cream afterwards?”
Hollis raised his head. He had to make it seem as if he was considering the options, though he knew he didn’t have a choice. He was silent for a moment. “Can I get a large?”
Both of his parents glanced at each other and smiled. “If you think you can finish it this time,” said his father.
• • • • •
Graham parked on the curb just outside the front doors of JW Elementary, a spot usually reserved for buses. The walk in from a vacant parking lot was the beginning of an otherworldly experience. There was something odd about an empty school. It didn’t just look unnatural, it sounded dead, like visiting an old ghost town with faint shadows of a once thriving culture.
Their footsteps bounced around the cinderblock hallways, leaving Hollis with the impression that he was in trouble, like a condemned man walking to his doom. He pictured the zombie apocalypse, a horde of undead savages lurching from every direction, enclosing his family amidst hundreds of stumbling, ever-encroaching masses of rotted flesh, teeth and bony claws. Why were they always silent before they attacked?
Of course, he knew zombies weren’t real, but it was still fun to fantasize about what he’d do if he were ever caught in such a scenario. He’d lead his parents into his homeroom on the right and slam the door shut. The monsters would eventually break through the glass on the upper half of the door, but he’d buy enough time to make a hasty exit through the windows out to the playground.
The sound of a muted conversation echoed through the hallway. It was Mr. West and another man. As Hollis and his parents approached the math room, the voices became more distinct. The door was open and a whiff of chalk dust greeted them as they entered.
Mr. West was in his usual wooden chair that creaked whenever he swiveled or leaned back. In front of him, with a great ham hock of a leg resting on the desk, an unknown behemoth in his 70s was breathing heavily and grinning. The stranger, of unknown Hispanic origin, was endowed with a rotund face and broad nose to match his body, a full head of salt and pepper hair parted to the side and a snowy beard. He had a gentle smile, dark eyebrows and wrinkles around his eyes that hinted at a lifetime of laughing.
The men halted their conversation when the Whittakers entered. “Hi there,” Mr. West said, rising to his feet and moving to receive them. “You must be Hollis’ parents. I’m Dan. Thanks for coming in.” Dan West spoke with an eagerness Hollis wasn’t used to.
Hollis, dwarfed by his own father, eyed the even bigger roly-poly man, intrigued.
“I’m Lonnie, and this is my husband Graham,” Hollis’ mother said as they shook hands with Mr. West.
“Hi Hollis,” Mr. West said, mussing the boy’s hair with his hand before turning to the odd-man out. “I’d like to introduce you all to a friend of mine, Teo Ayala. Teo’s a neighbor of mine and a retired scientist.”
The stranger struggled to his feet, giving reprieve to the desk. He shook hands with Hollis’ parents and then all attention turned to the ten-year-old.
Hollis didn’t think the stranger in the oatmeal Polo shirt and chocolate corduroys looked like much of a scientist—he seemed more like he should be a retired wrestler—but he liked that adults were impressed with his intuition and that this man was curious and important.
“I asked Teo to come in so he could meet Hollis. A couple of us have noticed some things that are way out of line for someone his age. I don’t know if you’ve been helping him with his homework, but I’ve never seen anyone like him.”
“I don’t help him much,” Graham said, looking at Lonnie. “Do you?”
“No,” she answered. “So he’s, what, doing really well in math?”
“And science,” said Mr. West. “Mrs. Bennett started realizing that he was beyond what she was teaching in class. At first she thought he was just goofing around, but it turns out he’s into some complicated stuff.”
“Atta boy,” Graham said, rubbing his son’s back.
The force of his father’s hand made Hollis stumble forward a step. He didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t even been doing the homework.
“So anyway,” Mr. West added, “I was hoping to ask if his last school noted any special aptitude . . . I tell you what.” He stepped toward the blackboard and wrote down an equation: 984x363. “Hollis, what’s the answer to this?”
“Its 357,192,” the boy replied.
“Oh my god,” Lonnie said. “Is that right?”
Dan grabbed a calculator from his desk. “Nine hundred and eighty-four,” he said, punching the buttons, “times three hundred and sixty-three.” He turned the calculator toward Graham and Lonnie. It was the number Hollis had given, which left the two parents staring at each other dumbfounded.
“Now here’s the thing,” Mr. West said as he wrote another problem on the board. “Hollis, go ahead.”
The boy answered without hesitation, “nine period fifty-seven.”
Mr. West punched the numbers into the calculator, “Five thousand eight hundred and nine divided by six hundred and seven.” The calculator once again showed Hollis to be right. “The thing is, not only have we not started division yet, but we certainly haven’t gotten to decimals. Did he go over these things in his last school?”
“No,” Lonnie said. “I think they ended on long addition.”
Hollis felt the room heat up a few degrees. He knew all of the eyes were upon him, but he had taken to staring at his sneakers. He couldn’t explain how the answers came so easily, nor could he understand why everyone else had such trouble doing math. He stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Hey buddy,” his father said softly, as if he might hurt Hollis with his voice. “Do you want to tell us how you know how to do this stuff?”
Hollis shrugged his shoulders. What was the big deal? He was starting to think it would have been better to just play dumb all along. He could have gotten a few wrong and then he’d be out riding his BMX with Kirby. Maybe that’s what he should start doing.
“Did you learn it on TV or something?” his mother asked.
“I don’t know. I was just guessing,” the boy replied. He didn’t want to spend his time doing stupid math problems to impress adults anymore. He plodded over to an empty seat and collapsed into it. There was no getting out of this. Moving a few feet away wasn’t going to stop them from focusing on him. He glanced up and they were all staring at him, as if they pitied him. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t done anything. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said.
A soft glow of gold and rust warmed the room from the twilight outside, the sun still partially visible on the horizon. Hollis considered the vastness, the possibilities that lay outside the school walls. That’s where the fun was, not in here. The school’s dead walls and dusty books held no interest to the ten-year-old.
His mother pulled up a seat in front of him and leaned on the desk at which he sat. “Are you okay, honey?” she whispered.
“This is boring.” His eye shot to the blackboard and the posters of math equations lining the upper walls, settling on his father, who was standing silent with the other two men.
“Can you do me a favor?” his mother asked.
He gave her his attention.
“Can you help us for a little while longer? We’re just trying to figure some things out.”
He nodded his head in resignation. Get r done, he figured.
“Hollis,” Mr. West said. “Would you mind if Teo asked you a few questions?”
“I guess,” the boy replied.
The scientist grabbed a textbook from the top of Mr. West’s desk and sat on the floor next to Hollis, bending one leg up and wrapping an elbow around it. He flipped through the book and placed it on Hollis’ desk splayed open to an illustration of the solar system. From his crouched position, the stranger could just get an angle on the image himself and Hollis had to look down on the man.
“Mrs. Bennett said you seem to know all about the subatomic world,” said Mr. Ayala. “But what do you think of this picture?”
Hollis inspected the drawing. He recognized the sun and the planets, but there didn’t seem to be much else right about it. “I don’t know. It’s good.”
“It’s good?” the man asked.
Hollis took a deep breath. He didn’t want to throw himself deeper into the fire, but the depiction of the solar system was like a pebble in his shoe. He glanced at the poker-faced Mr. Ayala and judged that the man was on-the-level.
“It doesn’t look right,” the boy said.
“It doesn’t? What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. Everything.”
A genuine smile broke through Mr. Ayala’s beard. And then the man turned to Mr. West. “Hey Dan, do you have a pen?”
Mr. West delivered a pen to the scientist, who had raised himself up onto his knees, giving him a better angle of the textbook.
“Why don’t you draw in how you think it should look?” said Mr. Ayala, handing the pen to Hollis.
“We’re not supposed to write in the books,” Hollis countered.
“It’s all right,” said Mr. West. “It’ll be fine this time.”
Hollis moved the pen toward the page, but stopped. “There’s not enough room.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Ayala.
“Everything’s too close together.”
“Mmm hmm. Well you’re exactly right Hollis. Why don’t you pretend that the distance doesn’t matter.”
That was fine with Hollis. He redrew the planets in different orbital positions. He moved Jupiter to the other side of the sun and earth down a few centimeters, each of the planets on their same orbital path, but in alternate spots.
Leaning his elbow on the desk, Mr. Ayala asked, “So why did you move all the planets?”
Hollis shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. That’s where they should be.”
“I see. Okay.”
Hollis continued drawing without any prodding. He added a small planet in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, then two more on the outer edges of the illustration, past Pluto. Finally he placed a larger planet farther away than the rest.
“Interesting,” said Mr. Ayala, pointing to the last planet Hollis had drawn. “What’s that one there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You just thought there should be a planet there?”
Hollis shrugged and nodded.
Mr. Ayala pulled his phone from a clip on his belt and typed. In a moment, he held the phone next to Hollis’ depiction of the solar system.
“Wow!” the scientist roared with a bellowing laugh. “Hollis, that is . . . most interesting.”
Hollis’ parents and Mr. West crowded around the phone and compared the image on display with Hollis’ drawing. It matched.
“I don’t get it,” said Graham. “Why is that better? What is this an old textbook or something?”
Mr. Ayala was shaking his head and still smiling. “You see this?” he asked, indicating the image on the phone, “I’m using an app. This is what the solar system looks like right now, I mean today. The book just has the planets in random orbits because . . . well, what does it matter in a textbook? But your son here corrected the orbits for how they’re aligned now. And he’s added the dwarf planets, which the book probably doesn’t tackle until a later chapter.”
The adults were silent for a moment before Mr. West spoke. “So . . . Hollis, did you memorize this or something?”
Hollis shook his head. “It just seemed right.”
“That’s not even what got me,” said Mr. Ayala. “You see this planet here?” He indicated the final shape Hollis had drawn. “We think there’s another planet out past Pluto because its gravity affects the orbits of objects around it. They call it Planet X. Nobody’s ever seen it, but Hollis here thinks he knows where it is.”
Graham stumbled through the inconceivable thoughts in his head. “But . . . you don’t think . . . he couldn’t possibly know . . .”
“No,” Mr. Ayala replied. “But I have a friend working with one of the biggest telescopes on the planet. It might be fun to see if he’d check it out.”
Wednesday, August 22, 1945:
The twin bells on Eleanor Cole’s brass alarm clock clanged in dissonance, an unholy end to an inadequate night of sleep. Lying on her side with her head snuggled in the embrace of a down pillow, her eyelids unzipped just enough to note the time, 5 a.m. She reached her arm behind the clock and pushed in the switch turning the infernal noisemaker off.
There was a cool air whispering in through the linen curtains, the window left open the night before with hopes that it might help her rest. Despite her efforts, sleep hadn’t come until somewhere between 2 and 3 a.m. She rolled over onto her back, closed her eyes and nuzzled into the blanket, the allure of sleep clutching hold of her. The coziest of all times was the moment after waking in a cold room and a warm blanket, but she could only allow herself a few seconds of indulgence. Any more and sleep would win out. She forced her eyes open and stared at the wallpaper—milky white with yellow roses and lime green stripes, a pattern she had chosen. She had helped her father hang it over a few warm days the previous autumn after the crops had been harvested. He had taught her about matching the patterns and squeegeeing out the bubbles.
He was undoubtedly in the fields already pulling weeds, the never-ending struggle with Mother Nature, or maybe feeding the hogs. Most of the year he worked from well before sunrise through early evening. He said he’d learned the importance of diligence while fighting on the Western Front in the Great War, though he never mentioned the specifics of his time there.
Her father started every morning with a hot cup of tea with milk and sugar, and a couple slices of homemade soda bread smothered in butter and honey, then he’d get an hour or so of work done and allow Eleanor’s mother time to rise. The aroma of bacon and eggs was his signal to head back in for a full feed.
Eleanor lifted her head and eyed her bathrobe hanging on the door by a hook. The nip in the air made the distance seem farther than it actually was and she dropped her head back down again. Was this all that life had to offer her? One day followed the next in increasing tedium. She had gone as far as she could in her career as a secretary for a male chauvinist, and the thought of following in her mother’s footsteps didn’t appeal to her in the least. She wanted to lead her own life, not follow the dreams of a future husband.
If the war had taught her anything, it was that women had been undervalued throughout history. Rosie the Riveter had inspired her, as had newspaper stories of millions of women joining the workforce at jobs traditionally held by men. But as the men were returning from the war, the jobs were reverting back to them and women were expected to take their places in the home again. She loved her mother, but she wanted to be more.
She considered the cold trek to the robe again; it wasn’t going to get any easier. On the count of three, she thought. But she only counted to one before casting the blanket to the side and sliding into her slippers. She shuffled to the door and threw on the robe with a shiver.
The smell of a hot breakfast hit her immediately upon opening the door. She descended the stairs and entered the kitchen where her mother was cracking eggs into a frying pan. The kitchen was the only source of warmth in the morning with the stove going full blast. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem in August, but the temperature had dropped dramatically overnight. Within a few hours she’d be longing for the frigid air, but for now all she wanted was a steaming cup of coffee and a seat by the stove. Without a word to her mother, she grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured some of the coffee that had been freshly brewed and was keeping warm on the end of the stove, then pulled up a chair next to the heat.
“They’re supposed to be running an electrical line up this way,” Eleanor said before sipping from the mug.
Her mother answered absent-mindedly. “Mm-hmm.” She didn’t really care about electricity. In fact it somewhat scared her.
“Do you think we’ll be getting it?”
“I don’t know. Why would we even want it?” Her mother flipped an egg with the spatula and sprinkled on some black pepper, the grease from the bacon splattering all over the pan. “It’s just another bill.”
Her mother was clad in a beige bathrobe and a full floral apron strapped on to protect it. Her cheeks had begun to sag and her hair was showing signs of graying, but a picture in the family room taken at her wedding showed that she was energetic and beautiful when she was Eleanor’s age. Eleanor envisioned a life of dull routine turning her into the aging woman before her.
The outside door creaked open and Eleanor’s father, a lanky man with thin white hair, button up shirt and suspenders dominated the entrance. “Make no mistake, the humidity’s coming back today,” he said. Her father pulled out a seat from the table and perched himself onto it, sitting with his legs splayed wide open, brown slacks with stained patches covering the knees. “What’s the scuttlebutt this morning?”
Eleanor’s mother scooped sausages, bacon and eggs onto plates, handing one to Eleanor. “Your daughter wants to know if we’re getting electricity.” She brought the other plates to the table and returned to the stove.
“Yeah, I heard they was running a line up here,” her father said as her mother returned to the table with the pot of coffee and mugs. “I’m not sure we need it, do we?”
Eleanor knew the conversation wasn’t going anywhere, but she figured she’d lay out her arguments. “We could get a radio and a fan and we could turn on lights with the flip of a switch. What’s not to like?”
Her father snickered as if he needed to educate the child once again. “Let me translate that. We could buy a radio and buy a fan and buy some electric lamps and then pay someone for electricity so we can use them.”
Mother nodded her head and slid open the metal bread box on the table, pulling out half a loaf of hearty brown bread and a serrated knife. She cut a slice of bread and lifted the lid of the ceramic butter dish. The butter had melted a bit the night before, but was solid again.
Eleanor brought her plate to the table where the silverware was set up for her. “I could buy some of it. I have a job,” she said.
“But after you get married, you’ll move out of the house and we’ll still have a bill we didn’t ask for,” her mother said, spreading butter onto her bread.
“When I get married?” Eleanor replied exasperated. “I went out with a man once last year. At this rate I think the dowry’s safe to invest.”
Her parents laughed.
“And anyway,” she said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever want to get married.” She stuffed a load of sausage and egg into her mouth waiting for the inevitable blowback.
“That’s fine by me,” her father said, tucking in.
“That’s, what? No . . .” Her mother swiped at her father’s arm as he chuckled. “Dear, you can’t talk like that. You’ll settle down when the time is right. That base of yours is full of men, isn’t it?”
Eleanor didn’t want to answer. She worked at an army facility, but the thought of being a military wife only depressed her. She took another bite. It was hard to believe they’d let the matter drop, but that’s exactly what happened. After breakfast, with no other mention of electricity or marriage, Eleanor washed her face in the bathroom and brushed her teeth, then headed back upstairs. She closed the window and sat at the alder vanity she’d had since she was a child, staring at herself in the mirror. It was still cold in her room, but the heat of the kitchen and a warm breakfast had helped.
The beauty essentials were neatly organized around the edges of the vanity, brushes, pins, curlers, scissors, tweezers, makeup cannisters, perfume bottles and her special mix of sugar water and lavender that she used to style her hair. She grabbed a copy of Movie Stars Parade magazine from the top drawer. She needed inspiration for a new look, something carefree. And she found it after only a few pages—Rita Hayworth. They could have been sisters, or so she’d been told. Copying the starlet’s hairstyle wouldn’t make her life any more interesting, but it couldn’t hurt, could it? She propped the magazine up against the side of the mirror and reached for a curler.
By the time she rose from her chair to take in her new look, a full hour had passed. She scrutinized herself from every angle and doubted a Hollywood stylist could have done a better job, but a glance at the clock warned her that she needed to get moving. Darting to the closet, she picked out an outfit, throwing on the ensemble as hastily as she could. She snatched her purse off the bureau and scurried out the door, spinning back around and returning for a couple squirts of perfume before finally heading downstairs.
Her mother was just about done cleaning up after breakfast, but did a double take when Eleanor entered the kitchen. “What on earth have you done to your hair?”
“It’s the new me, mother. What do you think?” Eleanor spun around.
Her mother shook her head.
“Where’s pop? I need to go!”
“Down at the chickens last I saw,” her mother replied, drying a plate and taking one more gander at her daughter.
Eleanor threw open the outside door and barked to her father. “Pops! Pops, I gotta go!”
Her father poked his head out from inside the chicken shed and nodded, disappearing once more as Eleanor felt the time ticking away. It was seven or eight minutes before he made it back to the kitchen and Eleanor was pacing between the stove and the table entertaining her mother in the process.
“Okay,” her father said, composed as always, “let’s get you into work.”
Eleanor stormed toward the front door with her father shuffling behind her grinning at the misses.