Authors: Will Hobbs
Tags: #Ages 8 & Up
HE SILENCE AS WE
opened the door to my house felt spooky, at least to me. My dad would be gone for a couple more days with Uncle Jake. I found myself missing the rest of the family way over in Iowa.
I took a casserole from the freezer and we heated it up. After we ate, Quinn wanted to shoot some hoops by the yard light. I think he wanted to see if I could still dunk. I was pretty sure I couldn't. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“What do you mean, âweird'?”
“Just, weird.” I didn't want to tell him about the numbness, which was getting worse. It was traveling up my arms and legs.
Even my scalp was starting to feel numb. Fred's microbes were definitely doing something new. Not knowing what was going to happen next was getting scary. I let my mind run, and it landed in a horrifying place.
I remembered that we had some antibiotic pills upstairs, from when I'd gotten strep back in January. Chances might be slim to none that they would work against germs from Mars, but I might as well give them a try. I went upstairs and took two. I came downstairs looking pretty worried, not even trying to hide it. I guess I was ready to talk. “What's the matter?” Quinn asked.
I shrugged and said, “I've just come up with a wild paranoid theory about what's going on.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Okay, it goes like this. Maybe I was rightâwhatever I got from Fred really
“Let's say it's a disease, and it goes through different stages. In the early stages, the extremophile bacteria go wild and infect every cell in your body, and that gives youâhow would I describe itâ
“Good wordâ¦Carry on.”
“Your immune system reacts by mounting a counterattack.”
“Sounds likely. Then what?”
“The alien extremophiles protect themselves by going dormant.”
“Like they were dormant for millions of years while Fred was flying around in space?”
“Yeah, like that. Here's the worst part of my theory. The last couple days, the alien microbes have been exchanging genetic information with every cell in my body. So, in the stage that's coming, it's not only Fred's microbes that are going to go dormant. They're going to take me with them.”
“Let me get this straight. You're afraid you're going to go dormant for millions of years?”
“I'm just trying to visualize the stages. Tell me what's wrong with my theory.”
“It might be a little far-fetched. I mean, what are the odds you're going to go dormant?”
Quinn yawned a huge yawn. “Somehow I doubt you're going to wake up dead tomorrow, Brady. You always did have an overactive imagination. Seems more likely Fred's 'crobes are just feeling wimpy, kind of sitting out a quarter on the bench. Tomorrow morning they'll be back in the game, and you'll be slammin' and jammin'. Girls will be tearing the shirt off your back.”
“Just promise me one thing, Quinn.”
“You look all serious all of a sudden.”
serious. Let's say the Martian bacteria win out, and I go totally dormant.”
“âTotally dormant'âwhat would that look like?”
“Maybe it would look like death. That's what I'm afraid of.”
“That would be insane. You mean, everybody would think you were dead, only you really wouldn't be, you'd only be dormant.”
“Hello, that's what I've been saying. I wouldn't be totally dead.”
“If I was in your shoes, I sure wouldn't want to get cremated.”
“Or get an autopsy.”
“An autopsy on a live guy. That's just grotesque, Brady.”
“Maybe so, but stick with this a minute. Let's say I die in my sleep.”
“Quit talking like that, dude!”
“Let me finish. You know they'd do an autopsy to find out the cause.”
“They'd probably figure it was your asthma.”
“They'd cut me open to make sure. While I was still alive.”
“You're creeping me out.”
“Take a wild guess who would be dissecting me.”
“Old man Carver! What a nightmare, Brady!”
“I know. Actually, I've been having that nightmare for years.”
“Holding out on me, eh? Tell me about it.”
I knew I was ready to spill this awful stuff, and I launched into the scary details. I had his attention. My cousin was enjoying this like you would a good horror show, and he never interrupted.
“Awesome,” he said when I was done. “That was
strangely weird, terribly twisted, and horrifically bizarre. You know what, I always thought you had it made down here in Hill City. Your thing with the Carvers is deeper than I ever guessed.”
“So I want you to promise me one thing, Quinn.”
“Okay, I promise. Now tell me what it is.”
“If this suddenly gets me, and I go down, and everybody agrees I'm stone-cold dead, you won't let old man Carver do an autopsy.”
him? He's the coroner.”
“You'll find a way, no matter what. Promise?”
“I already did.”
“You got it,” Quinn said. “No matter what it takes, I will not under any circumstances let Daddy Carverâor anyone else for that matterâcut you open, on account of how you might only be dormant. Is that good enough?”
“Thanks. Now I can rest easy.”
“But not in peace, you doofus.”
“I think I'll crash. I'm wasted beyond words.”
“I'm glad you've finally run out of them. Before you go to sleep, I suggest you turn off your mind.”
“I'll try,” I assured him. With that, I dragged myself upstairs, literally. My legs were pretty much numb. I looked over my shoulder. Quinn hadn't been watching me go, or he would've asked why I was lurching like Frankenstein. He had the TV on.
Soon as I lay down, it was like I'd grabbed hold of a high-voltage electrical wire. It flipped me from my side
onto my back. For good measure, here came a bolt like lightning that seared me through and through. Then it shut off. I lay there stiff as a beetle in a bug collection. Here it comes, I thought. The dormancy.
The sensation that came next is almost impossible to explain. It felt like every cell, every atom in my body was being rearranged, melted down and rearranged. Maybe it was something like when a caterpillar spins a cocoon and then breaks itself down into goo, before its metamorphosis. The only question was, What was next?
HAT CAME NEXT WAS
the morning, waking up like normal and finding myself among the living. “You survived the night,” Quinn observed with a grin. He was taking waffles out of the toaster oven.
I thought about filling him in on the new and horrible things that had happened, but I was all confused. Maybe it was over. “Give me five, I'm still alive,” I joked instead.
When it came to my health, I'd always been secretive as a ferret. It about killed me once to ask a pharmacist what to do about athlete's foot. I wouldn't have, except it was driving me so crazy I was considering amputation.
Quinn grabbed the syrup and went to chowing down on his waffles. I detected a smirk. He thought I was an amusing case, all right.
The phone rang and I jumped for it. I hoped it was Wyoming or Iowa calling. Turned out it was next door, the Carvers. It was Buzz. “Hey, Brady, guess what?”
“We found your backpack yesterday afternoon, on the bottom of Pactola. Snagged it with my dad's drag hook.”
“I kind of thought you might give that a try,” I said cautiously.
“No wonder your backpack went down so fast, eh, Brady?”
I didn't say a thing, just waited.
“We've been to the museum. We even talked to the meteorite expert, Dr. Rip. He said you didn't even tell him you'd lost it.”
“I couldn't stand to.”
“It's valuable, right?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so? He said it's from Mars! First you were holding out on us about it being a meteorite, and now we find out it's from Mars and worth a boatload of money!”
I hesitated, wondering where to go from here. I was glad it wasn't Mean Max I was talking to. With Buzz there was always a chance he'd cut me some slack. “Thanks a lot,” I said. “I really appreciate you guys finding it for me.”
“Hey, not so fast, Brady. We've got just as solid a claim as you do. Haven't you heard about rights of salvage? Not only that, we got possession, and possession
is nine tenths of the law!”
we go from here, Buzz?”
“Bet you expect we have to settle this in court, right?”
“I wasn't thinking that far ahead.”
“That would be really lame, don't you think?”
“We got a much quicker way, and it'll be fair.”
“How would it work?”
“Come on over and find out, you and Quinn both.”
“Like how about now?”
Half an hour later we were pedaling up the Carvers' driveway. What did we have to lose? we figured. Still, I couldn't help remembering that every other time we'd gone over, for paintball or whatever, we'd come home with the short end of the stick.
Attila came charging down the driveway, as large and ferocious as a dire wolf from the Pleistocene. He was barking at first, but then he had me spotted. He ran up close and sniffed my hand. Quinn and I got off our bikes and walked them the rest of the way. I was patting Attila's head and he was wagging his tail as the twins showed up at the corner of the house. They looked pretty baffled about me and their war dog. I was remembering how they'd sat on me in my crazy dream a couple of nights before. These were really big guys.
“Come and check out our catapult,” Buzz said. Max wasn't saying anything.
What about Fred? I wondered as we followed them around the side of the house. Quinn, I could see, was wondering the same thing. Hadn't they called us to come over and settle about the meteorite?
Soon as we got out back, their catapult loomed larger than life, no less than twenty feet high, at the near end of the meadow. Quinn was seeing it for the first time and was having trouble believing his eyes. In another strange twist, Cal was sitting on a commode at the foot of the medieval war machine, with his fist to his chin like the famous statue I couldn't remember the name of.
Silent Cal got up and wandered off to the side. He hadn't been doing any business, just sitting on the lid. Five or six other toilets were scattered around, along with a lot of other junk.
Buzz was busting his buttons. “Introducing Destructo!” he boomed with a sweeping gesture. Max's pride was more fierce, like he was going to put the hurt on us if we didn't react properly.
Quinn gave it up for Destructo. “That's just insane!” he cried.
Max nodded with satisfaction. Buzz beamed.
“Colossal!” I added, but they didn't make like they'd heard. What else was new? Quinn's reaction was all that counted. Quinn had always gotten a pass, maybe just for being from Lead. Their teams had a raft of state titles. I was always going to be chopped liver on account of my Custer report back in fourth grade.
We walked closer yet to their wicked-looking new
toy. The monstrosity was constructed mostly out of black steel. It was mounted on wheels, like a Trojan horse. It crossed my mind to wonder if my house was out of range. Buzz asked if I remembered the scale model they'd built for school.
I laughed. “Are you kidding? You guys nailed the principal with that golf ball.”
“We forgot to yell âFore!' Fortunately he was cool about it.”
“Does it work?”
“We'll find out in a few minutes. You guys are pretty special. You get a sneak preview this morning, and we aren't even going to charge you admission.”
The twins marched us over to the catapult and invited us to take a seat. We did, on the two closest toilets, and Max sat down on a third. Buzz told us they'd found them at the dump. “We found a lot of throw-ables there, these bowling balls, that cash register, those kitchen sinks, those computers, that old outboard motorâ¦”
Quinn pointed off to the left. “What's up with the pile of stones?” More than a few, I noticed, were the same kind of river cobbles missing from my mother's flower beds.
“We're going to hurl thirty or forty at a time. Better hope they don't shred your house, Brady!”
Off to the side, Silent Cal was chewing on a piece of grass. He took off his cowboy hat and swiped a grasshopper from his pant leg. We said hi. Cal flicked his eyes at
us in vague recognition.
Max stood up tall and cleared his throat, like he was about to give a speech. At the same time, Buzz sat down. Even Attila wondered what was going on. Max wasn't known as an orator.
“Here goes,” Max began with his trademark growl. “Picture you're back in the 1300s, safe, sound, and filthy rich in your castle. An army of fifty thousand marches up and camps outside your walls. They want to get inside. You know why? They want to tear you limb from limb along with all your relatives and servants. You wonder why they're chopping down a bunch of your trees. Day by day you watch helplessly as they build a siege catapult like this one, only theirs is made out of wood. How would you feel?”
“Terrified?” I suggested.
“You got it, Steele. The attackers start off by hurling rocks and boulders, but that gets old. The longer the siege, the more interesting it gets. They capture your cattle and horses, and hurl big hunks of them over the walls at you. Your wife gets killed by incoming fireâa flying sheep. Watch out, here come some blazing hot irons and casks of flaming pitch. They grab the messenger you sent for help and hurl his head back in at you. How'd you like to get hit by a human head, somebody you know?”
Quinn applauded. “Max, you ought to write this stuff down. Don't let it get away from you.”
“Thanks, Quinn, I did put some work into it. Now,
for the construction details, I'll turn it over to Buzz.”
The twins switched places. “What you guys are looking at,” Buzz began, “is basically two steel A-frames braced to support a lever on a fulcrum. The hurling arm is the lever. Notice that it has a counterweightâthat's a ton of pig iron, by the wayâsuspended from one end. Don't ask me where we got the pig iron, okay?”
We nodded obediently. Attila came over and lay down beside me. Max looked hostile about that, but he didn't say anything. “Cal was our welder,” Buzz went on. “He learned welding in a program the Sheriff's Department put him into while he was on probation. If he hadn't gotten into trouble, you wouldn't be looking at Destructo today. Cal's thinking of paying them back by sacking the Sheriff's Department. Just kidding. We'll probably sack Hill City instead. Any questions so far?”
I pointed to a huge hole off to our left, with fresh dirt piled all around. It was so big and so deep they could've buried a pickup in it. “What's the excavation about?”
“It's got nothing to do with the catapult,” Max snapped. “Attila's been digging it. We don't know what's got into himâhe's been acting weird, even running off, which he never does.”
Wait a second, I thought, and then I knew. I knew exactly what had gotten into Attila. That first morning, he'd had Fred in his mouth a good long while
. He'd gotten infected.
As for him sniffing my hand and so on, somehow he knew I had the same thing he did. Now I understood how he was able to pull me up and out of the Abyss.
Buzz cleared his throat. “Let's get back to the construction. Direct your attention to the end of the hurling arm opposite the one with the counterweight. See the sling hanging from it? You attach your payload to the sling. Your payload weighs hardly anything compared to your counterweight. What you've got now is a seesaw with a rabbit sitting on one end and an elephant on the other. Pull the trigger, and your rabbit's gonna fly. Any further questions?”
We shook our heads. Still no mention of Fred.
“Okay, then. Party on like the Dark Ages!”