MIGHTY MIKE AND THE INTERGALACTIC CANDY DISPENSER
Mike shifted on the hard bench and glanced from his math book to his fifth grade classmates dashing around the community soccer field like superheated atoms. So far, the negatively-charged molecule known as “Brutus” hadn’t swooped in to repel the others like an electric bowling ball. Brutus was probably searching for Mike.
He’d show up eventually, hunting down those on The List of Chumps to be Pounded After School. Failing to call Brutus, the biggest sixth-grader at Evanston Elementary, by his self-chosen nickname broke Chump Rule #1. Mike blew that the first day of school. On the second, he sat in Brutus’s swing. His name had topped The List ever since.
Mike jerked upright. A soccer ball bounced away from the side of the bleachers. He gritted his teeth and clenched his math assignment. Home was only five blocks away…
No. He would not hide in his house like a friendless dork. With summer coming and Brutus able to stalk the park all day, Mike’s plan to escape Evanston Ohio had to work.
Step one: attend the Academy section of Space Camp two years ahead of his age group. Step two: get noticed by NASA. Step three: move to Florida as the space program’s youngest astronaut. Step four: “accidentally” drop an International Space Station toilet into Brutus’s backyard.
“C’mon Mike, we need another player.” Carlos picked up the soccer ball and bounced it against the lowest bench.
Displaying his sorry soccer skills was not Mike’s favorite activity, but he never turned down his best friend. Besides, doing homework on the bleachers just encouraged the dork title. Maybe Brutus had found a fourth-grader to pick on. Just in case, Mike ran downfield. Way downfield.
He stretched, pretending to miss Carlos’s wave to move closer.
“Look, it’s Afro-Einstein.” Brutus’s screech drowned out shouts from the other players as they scrambled for the ball.
Mike froze. When his zero-gravity omelet-maker won the science-fair, the judge called Mike the next Einstein. Brutus had chanted “Afro-Einstein,” never realizing Mike liked the nickname. Usually, Brutus just called him “Mikey” unless someone else came up with something clever. Today must be a special occasion. Oh yeah, Wednesday. Otherwise known as “Hang -Mike-Like-a-Piñata Wednesday.”
“If you’re afraid of the ball, there’s a pee-wee league on the other side of the park—in the sandbox.” Brutus high-fived his pal Trevor as he cackled.
Other kids turned away or made sure their shoes were tied. Mike dragged his feet farther downfield to make sure he wouldn’t be anywhere near Brutus and his buddies—or the ball.
Brutus yelled, “Mikey’s running away.”
“Don’t let him get to you, hermano,” Carlos called as he jogged across the field. “You ever see him play soccer? Two left feet—seriously! Here’s the plan: stick with me, I’ll pass wide and you cross it back. You don’t have to score, just angle it back to me, easy-peasy!”
“Easy-peasy?” Mike shook his head. The old-fashioned phrases Carlos picked up from Mama Fanny, his grandmother, were even more confusing than the random Spanish he learned from his dad. There was nothing easy or peasy about soccer. It would take a fifty-foot force field to give Mike the time and space he needed to connect with the ball. And he’d still miss the target.
“Mikey’s afraid of a little ball. Mikey’s a chicken, Mikey’s a chicken.” A couple grammar school kids picked up the tune along with Brutus.
Carlos blew his whistle and kicked the ball from the centerline. Mike stayed out of the scramble of boys and Emma, the one girl who refused to let the boys exclude her. He wiped his sweaty palms across his shirt and danced sideways—as if he knew what he was doing—trying to make sure Carlos didn’t have a clear shot.
No, Carlos was too good. With a sideswipe of his right foot, the ball flew straight to Mike.
Brutus pumped a fist. “Run away, Mikeeeey, that ball’s gonna get you!”
“C’mon Mike, you can do it,” Carlos said.
The ball was right in front of Mike’s foot. He had plenty of time, as if that force field had sprung into place. But some other space warp always came along with the ball, to twitch his leg sideways at just the wrong moment. How else could he miss every time?
Mike drew his leg back and aimed for Carlos, an open target.
“Miss,” honked Brutus.
Mike’s toe stubbed on the thick grass. The ball disappeared. Emma had kicked it toward the opposite goal. He hopped on one foot as she shot him a toothy grin and jogged away.
“Mikey missed! The only thing Mikey can hit is the ground!” Brutus high-fived one of his buddies.
Mike stared at the patch of brown dirt left by his toe. Brutus was right. Even a do-over wouldn’t help.
Emma scored, and cheers drowned out Brutus’s tune. Carlos hollered, “I’ve got chores. Later dudes.” He ended the game and walked toward Mike.
“I’m sorry, Carlos. I thought I had it.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, dude, it’s just a game. If you really want a punch in the gut, go say hi to Brutus.”
Mike made the mistake of looking toward the bully, whose eyes were still glued on his target. Brutus stood next to the rest of his gang, Trevor and Cole. All three pounded fists into palms like a scene from a comic book. Mike moved closer to Carlos, then stepped away. He didn’t want to hide behind Carlos. But Brutus never went after Mike if Carlos was around. All Carlos had to do was drop a reminder of his brothers—his older, wrestling champ brothers. Wednesday’s piñata prank would have to wait until next week. Or tomorrow.
Brutus shouted a final jab as Carlos and Mike gathered their stuff. “Mikey’s got a babysitter. Whatcha gonna do without someone protecting you, huh?”
Carlos hollered, “So what? Are you babysitting Trevor and Cole? Or is it the other way around?”
“Good one.” Mike’s voice was small. He wished he’d said it. “Let’s get out of here.”
# # #
The next day, Mike avoided trouble by shelving books in the library during recess, eating lunch in homeroom, and running between classes. The principal called it preparation for junior high to have different classrooms for math and reading. Instead, more hallway time increased Brutus’s chances of finding his favorite victims.
Five minutes before final bell, Mike crumpled his “B-” history quiz into a ball. History wasn’t as logical as science and math. He crammed the wad into his SpongeBob backpack. Mom had ignored his instructions to buy one with The Avengers’ Hawkeye. She’d insisted all kids liked SpongeBob when he glared at it.
Mike flung the half-closed pack over his shoulder and sprinted from the classroom before the bell finished ringing. He burst through the front doors and dashed toward the city park. If no one was around, he’d keep going and aim for the trees behind the sports fields.
Chest heaving, Mike slipped into the woods. He skidded down a bank covered with last year’s leaves and plunked onto a half-rotted log behind a massive oak tree. Little stones followed him and splashed into a puddle left over from yesterday’s rain.
Hiding like a wimp sucked, but it was safer than being found by Brutus and his gang. Carlos was stuck in detention for using his math teacher’s trashcan as a basketball hoop.
The pool stilled into a mirror. A shadow loomed over Mike’s watery reflection. He leapt to his feet—right into the puddle—ready to block Brutus with his backpack.
Except it wasn’t Brutus.
Mike stumbled backward. A bright blue face shone below a baseball cap and a ridiculous pair of women’s jeweled sunglasses. Three-fingered blue hands with inch long nails gripped a small orange cube in front of a huge fishing vest with dozens of pockets. The plaid trousers, rolled at the bottom, wouldn’t have been out of place—if the wearer were a couple feet taller, eighty years old, and standing on a golf course. Or on the set of E. T.
Mike considered his options. Running—he was good at that. Wishing Carlos was here—not helpful. But no matter what his parents and teachers said about talking strangers, he wanted to know why this odd creature had invaded his hiding place. Some things must be risked in the name of science and science fiction after all. “Who, or what—? Well, really, who are you?”
“I’m Grimon,” the creature croaked as he stuffed the orange box into a vest pocket. He cleared his throat and continued in an abnormally deep voice, “I’m sorry if I frightened you. You don’t like my costume?”
“Costume? You’re a little late for Halloween. Or early. Whichever.” Mike rubbed his eyes. Nope, still blue. His pounding heart echoed in his head. He should be afraid, but this wasn’t fear. Maybe just caution. The guy was shorter than a third-grader. “Seriously dude, a baseball cap and sunglasses isn’t a costume, and unless the circus is in town, you’re not gonna pass for normal in Ohio.”
“Oh dear. And I worked so hard on my outfit. Then I must go, Mike. I don’t want you to get in trouble.” Grimon brought his voice up an octave, but it still didn’t sound normal.
It didn’t sound human.
“How did you know my name? Can you read minds?” Curiosity overcame Mike’s suspicion. Maybe he could use a mind reader to get Brutus in trouble. “Wow, that’s so cool! Maybe you should stick around…oh.”
Grimon pointed at the large black letters on the backpack dangling over the mucky puddle: MIKE ADAMS.
Aside from his name, Mike had also used fat markers to decorate the pack with fiery spaceships. All part of the plan to disguise the bright yellow SpongeBob target that marked the center of his back.
Mike took two dripping steps away from Grimon. “Yeah, got it. Still, you can’t be all in my face ‘I’m an alien’ and then leave. Or,” he inched sideways, “are you going to wipe my memory with your ray gun?”
Grimon lifted the sparkly sunglasses over the baseball cap. As the cap shifted sideways, a lock of corn-yellow hair slipped out.
Mike started to chuckle at the cartoon hair, then cringed and clamped his eyes shut after Grimon blinked. The creature’s eyes glowed pale gold with reflected glints of blue.
He’s got laser eyes. I’m dead!
ELEMENTAL FIRE - YA Fantasy - Editing
Only ten more miles. I sank back into the hard bench as the last group of kids exited the senior high-school bus at the bottom of Stoney Mountain. Only three families were crazy enough to live up here, and our house sat at the edge of a valley on the other side of the mountain. The end of the road.
Silence more overwhelming than the whining bus engine soothed my ears. No one should have to listen to the Swink twins’ claim to have seen Bigfoot non-stop for an hour. Yeah, their pictures looked realistic, but they’d been creating computer games with full graphics since grade school. I wasn’t convinced no matter how truly scared they’d managed to look every one of the twenty times they replayed the event. This was western New York after all, not Oregon.
The substitute driver frowned in the mirror as I stood before the bus rumbled to a stop. I bit my lip, struggling not to glare at him. He ran his finger down the list taped to the dash. “Last stop. Have a good Spring Break, Brooklyn.”
The glare won. Hearing my full name topped off an already annoying day. “It’s Brook,” I mumbled. Stomping down the steps, I flung my bag over my shoulder, then ran across the road.
The steering whined as the driver navigated the tight turn, hemmed in by tall pines and the fence of our horse pasture. I pounded down the driveway rather than climbing through the fence like usual. Vienna would have to wait. I had to find Dad first. How could he?
I’d rather have listened to our history teacher drone on about the Lost Nation or even one more Bigfoot tale than be called to the shrink’s office in front of everybody. Mr. Rowdy’s latest theory was that the tribe had lived in the valley Dad’s ancestors settled before they all disappeared. If so, they’d left behind nothing but ghosts. Still, easier to ignore that nutjob than the insinuation that I was the mental case. My friends already treated me like a china doll that would shatter if they looked sideways at me.
I clenched my fists as I stared up at the old white house, then at the building containing Dad’s lab. Not much chance he’d be in the house like a normal parent, but since no one was allowed in the workshop without an invitation, it wouldn’t help to get in trouble for interrupting some precious physics experiment. I wanted to be the one doing the yelling.
I dropped my books on the kitchen table and peeked into the dark parlor. Dad had turned the once-elegant Victorian room into his office, where he could write reports surrounded by stacks of books and some of his more delicate circuits. Mom’s decorative touches were buried under four months and sixteen days’ worth of paperwork and dust.
His office chair sat empty.
A whinny floated from the pasture as I exited the house. “I’m getting there, Vienna,” I called to the bay mare standing at the gate. “Dealing with crap has to come first today.”
I pushed the sliding door sideways, just enough to slip into the old apple shed. We used this part as a garage while Dad’s shop was in the stone-walled section in the back. The Jeep sat between piles of abandoned projects, tasks that would never be completed without Mom’s prodding. I ran my palm across the cold hood. He’d probably been holed up all day.
Dad wouldn’t be happy with my intrusion, but then I wasn’t happy with his. Apparently he’d surfaced long enough to call the school and suggest I spend more time with the shrink. Ms. Weatherby wasn’t really a psychologist. Her office door labelled her a guidance counselor, but for the poor girl who’d lost her mother, she tried to play the role of someone with a real degree.
At least she tried—between overusing the word “we” when asking about “me” and trying to hug me. Dad didn’t. He just foisted the responsibility on the school and hid in his shop.
I’d accepted my role in Mom’s death. Had he?
I twisted the knob and shoved the lab door open an inch. Cold air and white light from the fluorescents flowed out. I knocked. No answer.
“Dad?” Still nothing.
I shoved the heavy steel door another few inches. “Sorry to bust in, but we…” I stepped into the shop. No Dad. Mom would have nagged him for leaving the lights on.
A whirring noise on the counter to my left caught my attention. Amid metal arms bolted to magnifying glasses, laser tubes, and LED displays, a clock nestled in a jumble of wires. The second hand whizzed around the dial, urging me to leave before Dad found me. On a second glance, it couldn’t have been a clock. The Roman numerals only went to ten. Weird, but then his gadgets hadn’t topped our discussions for ages.
I shivered. The thick rock walls didn’t allow the spring heat to permeate the room. Anchored to the wall across from the door, a spotless, stainless steel bench topped dozens of drawers and cabinets. At the far right end of the room, old stacks of apple crates, unused for decades, lay beyond Dad’s narrow cleaning focus. But no Dad.
Although I hadn’t been invited into the lab for several months, something struck me as different. The normally bare wall on the left end displayed several items out of place amongst the sterile lab equipment. They perched on rocks that randomly stuck out farther than the others. A bowl, a vase?
I flinched. That sounded like the porch door slamming. Dad must have been in the house all along. I switched off the lights, closed up the lab, and peered out the side window.
Oh, just the screen door blowing in the wind. Where was he? Figures, he’s not even around when I need to yell at him. If I couldn’t shout, I’d drive away my anger by riding Vienna.
As I turned toward the Jeep, a rectangle of light grew across the hood. My leaping heart threw extra force into my spin. Dad’s thin frame wearing a ridiculous Futurama tee now stood in the doorway. His head above robot Bender’s body. I would have laughed, but maybe a self-centered robot was the perfect uniform.
“Dad? Where’d you come from? I was just in there.” Oops.
Brown eyes gawked from behind thick lenses. His mouth opened and closed.
“Brook? You know you’re not allowed in the lab.” He stabbed a finger in my face with each word. “Just. Stay. Out.”
Seriously? He walks out of an empty room and I’m the one in trouble?
“I wanted to know why you called…” The words died on my lips. Dad walked through the garage door without waiting for an explanation. An invisible fist squeezed my stomach like an orange crushed against a juicer as the house door slammed. Damn him. But just like I always played peace-maker with my friends, I probably would have chickened out without saying the things I really wanted to. Like why did he insist on living at the end of this twisty mountain road?
I fled to the barn. Where I could forget. Forget Dad, me, and constant war between blame and guilt. Only Vienna drove away the pain of losing Mom.
The mare nickered as I scrubbed the winter hair from her body, leaving it slightly more prepared for the coming hot and sticky summer. Bedtime memories of Mom’s stories of growing up on a Kentucky horse farm and my repeated begging for a horse flitted through my mind. The horse-crazy gene was my only inheritance from her. Mom was petite, blonde, and blue-eyed, but Dad’s brown eyes, auburn hair, and tall, gangly build won the genetic battle. I tossed my head to flip the red-brown ponytail over my shoulder. I didn’t need another reminder of Dad right now.
As Vienna’s shedding coat flew in the spring breeze, so did my heartache. My lips almost curled into a smile as she jostled my elbow, as eager to ride as I was.
“Some patience, maybe?” I lifted the English saddle onto her back, and for once, she didn’t sidestep. Vienna was my first horse and while no one would describe her as well-trained, she’d fulfilled the wishes whispered to my mother. A consolation prize one month after Mom’s car slid off the road on the way to pick me up from school.
Before she died, Mom had arranged the surprise for my fifteenth birthday. I’d hated the bay mare for about three minutes. But even from the grave, Mom’s life was wrapped around caring for me, and Vienna became everything missing in my life: Mom’s warm presence, an ear to whisper my desires, and even my complaints when Dad hid behind the locked door of his shop more often than not. Mom couldn’t finish the mare’s training with me, so Vienna and I were left to figure each other out on our own.
After tightening the girth, I pressed my forehead against Vienna’s. My fingers twisted through her thick mane and found her favorite itchy spot. She leaned into my hand while her lower lip quivered. Dad’s mysterious appearance trickled away into the brilliant blue sky.
I scrambled onto the saddle. Vienna pranced down the driveway, ignoring all but the sharpest tugs on the reins. She sprang into a trot, and we wound our way through abandoned apple orchards. The vine-covered tree maze was more fun than any arena.
Vienna pulled to go faster. Her speed thrilled me. So what if I didn’t really know how to ride? I leaned forward and inhaled the rich smell of waxed leather and the clean scent of spring grass. I grinned as her ears twitched at shadowy stumps, moss covered rocks, and abandoned wood heaps.
Overgrown forest choked the final rows of twisted apple trees, blocking our path. We turned into a clearing where apples used to be loaded onto trucks, but all that remained was a carpet of grass and weeds. I let the reins slide an inch through my fingers, telling Vienna it was okay to canter through the open space. In the same instant she leapt forward, a shadow blanketed us. A roar like a locomotive rushed from the surrounding gnarled trees. Leaves, sticks, and an entire pine tree swirled past.
Vienna skittered to one side, then lunged forward again. I slid sideways as my left foot bounced, losing its grip on the stirrup. I snatched a shorter hold on the reins. She yanked them back, winning our tug-of-war for the moment.
“Vienna, whoa. Whoa.” The fierce howling muffled my plea.
She slammed on the brakes, but it had nothing to do with my request. I thumped painfully against the pommel and Vienna’s upright neck. And stared.
A twisted tornado hung from nothing. It could have been a hundred feet away, but I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Blue sky above the black cloud looked painted on a canvas, not connected to the swirling mass. The angry finger writhed as it reached for the forest floor.
It didn’t connect with the ground, but branches flew through the air like feathers. The finger widened, now more a black, spinning bowl on a potter’s wheel. As if some god spun evil into stoneware.
Like a black hole, the tornado pulled everything nearby into it. Leaves, branches. Vienna’s mane lifted, drifted sideways. Black and gray striations, speckled with debris, braided themselves together, then flung random junk away. The funnel didn’t seem to be moving in any direction, but it blocked our route home through the old orchard rows. As it grew wider, more limbs sucked into the vortex.
I tore my horrified stare away and yanked Vienna’s head to the left and, with an unneeded jab to her sides, we bolted into the dense forest. Only my death grip on the reins and mane kept me in the saddle. Her speed threatened to leave me behind, branches plucked at my clothes and hair, the spinning storm tried to pull me into it.
Ahead, another blur grabbed my attention. A massive log blocked our path, nearly as wide as the space between the trees, and it seemed to be growing larger. I closed my eyes and crouched into the saddle, grasping mane as a lifeline and squeezing my legs around her barrel, glad for once that I was tall. I’d prepared for a leap, so of course she veered sideways, back toward the whirling storm.
My eyes flew open. The ground seemed only inches away as I clung to her neck. Mane whipped my face. I swallowed a scream, afraid she’d leap so close to the tornado we’d be sucked in, pulled past the event horizon.
As suddenly as it started, the crosswind died, the high-pitched whine diminished as if someone had flipped a switch. I wrenched myself back into the saddle. The cone lifted, rippled into itself, one layer at a time. Tree trunks and the biggest branches crashed to the ground, followed by smaller ones and a… a ladder? With a final shriek, the maelstrom blinked out of existence, leaving an inverted imaged of itself piled in splintered rubbish on the bare ground.
The tornado was gone.Gasps ripped through my throat. Not because of any near-death experience. Because this wasn’t the first time deadly weather spontaneously erupted in our valley.