“Ray,” Mom called from the bottom of the stairs. “Are you coming down for dinner?”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” I responded as I replaced the caps on various vials of model glues and paints. I didn’t spend a lot of energy cleaning up the rest of my supplies since I knew I’d eat a quick bowl of stew and be right back up in my room after dinner attaching pieces to my model until all the lights in the surrounding neighborhood had gone dark. I’d build with just an old flashlight shining on my work, until my eyes burned and the glowing moon chided me into bed. And that’s exactly what I did, as always.
At school the next day, I felt like a hardened criminal trying to elude the prison guards on his way out of Alcatraz. Only the prison guards, in this case, were led by a warden named Matty Gibson. Between every class, as students spilled out into the hallways like a flash flood and jammed notebooks and book bags in lockers, I crept through the shadows as inconspicuously as possible.
But an open hallway doesn’t provide much cover. I found that out each time a teammate popped out from behind a slammed locker door with a slug to my shoulder and a “you suck, Walker.” As the day advanced and the black and blue marks spread their domination over the top half of my body, I became amazed at how many derivations of the same phrase actually existed in the English language. There was “You suck, Walker,” of course. And then there was “Walker, you suck,” and “Walker…sucks.” There was “Suck it, Walker,” and “Suck on one, Walker,” and I even heard one kid say, “Walker….kid sucks, man.”
And as I dressed in my gym clothes and pondered over what greeting would be paired with my next beating, I found myself surrounded by Gibson and his goons. Matty held a can of shaving cream in one hand and razor in his other. The rest of the group slowly advanced on me the way tom cats corner fat rats in the alley behind the Shop N’ Buy. Coach Wilbury was in his office behind a thick plate of glass with his back to the locker room. His feet rested on a crate full of old locks under his ancient desk, and the sports pages were fanned out before him like a palm tree. There was little chance he’d suddenly abandon his daily obsession with the local high school roundup and come to my rescue.
I could feel the blood drain from my face as Tyler Miller grabbed me by the collar and pressed me up against the bay of lockers. A greasy sneer stretched across his face and his eyes twinkled in the same way I’d imagine a Great Horned Owl’s would before it scooped up an unsuspecting rabbit and flew off with a new meal.
“Things got a little hairy yesterday,” Gibson grumbled. “Didn’t they, Walker?” Tyler Miller cupped his hand tightly over my mouth, so all I could manage was a miniscule shake of my head. “Well, we have a little remedy for that,” Gibson continued while shaking the can of shaving cream. “Maybe we can CUT into the problem for you, if you see where I’m coming from. Maybe we can SHAVE a little bit of the edge off of it for you.”
I didn’t like where Matty was headed with the sudden outburst of barber puns. I knew I had to act quickly if I wanted to avoid sporting a hairstyle like E.T. or, worse yet, Matty Gibson.
I tried to lunge forward, but Tyler Miller had me pinned against the lockers like a five hundred pound wrestler on a toy poodle. My exertion did little but knock more wind out of me and cause Tyler to tighten his grip on my collar. And that’s when I realized: this was happening. I would not escape.
Even as Billy Gill siphoned a fluffy glob of shaving cream onto Matty’s hand and he slapped it unscientifically in a heaping pile in the middle of my head, I didn’t struggle. Even as the Bic razor made one surgical pass across my scalp, tugging and ripping at thick locks of hair on its way, I did not move a muscle. Even while Coach Wilbury chuckled and casually flipped and folded his sports pages and a shiny, bald stripe formed a path across my head that resembled a wooded trail, I remained resigned to the fact that Gibson and his goons would have their revenge—if that’s what they wanted to call it.
When it was over, Gibson slugged me in the gut for good measure and Tyler Miller released his grip long enough for me to slither down the side of the locker on my back. Billy tossed the shaving cream and razor down beside me and the crew left me gasping for breath in a pile of my own cream-covered hair. That’s when Coach Wilbury thought it’d be a good time to inspect the locker room.
“What is this, Walker?” he asked as if someone had just stolen his tickets to the Super Bowl. “This is a mess, that’s what it is. Now clean it up. And Walker, be a trendsetter on your own time…or not at all. Because that haircut makes you look like road kill.” The rest of my day at school went about the same as my conversation with Coach Wilbury.
Mom, however, didn’t find it amusing when her only son came home with a section of Highway 9 carved into his scalp. “Ray!” she screeched as if I’d just walked through the door carrying my own severed head. “What have they done to you? Who was it? I’ll be on the phone to his mother so fast he won’t know—“
“Mom, it was an accident,” I said, not even believing the words myself as they wiggled through my lips. “I was in the locker room and I…uhh…” But that’s as far ahead as I had thought, and Mom wasn’t buying the delay.
“And what?” she asked with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Did you fall off your bike like you did yesterday? Trip over a book bag in the hallway like you did last week?” She took a deep breath and shook her head slowly. “How long will you let this continue, Raymond?”
Our eyes met, and for a long time I said nothing. I could feel that slight sting behind my eyes. The kind that happens when you’re trying your hardest to keep your cheeks dry. When words failed to find their way to my mouth, Mom muttered something under her breath—something like, “I’ll stop this,” or something of the kind—and she turned and left me sitting alone and holding back tears on my bed. I heard the door to her bedroom swing shut. Now I could only wait to see how she would react and make things worse for me in a way only a loving mom could.
That night, after an hour or two of slogging tiny, plastic pieces on the main deck of my merchant’s schooner, I lay awake staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars Pop-Pop and I had stuck to the ceiling a few years ago. He’d read to me about all the constellations and the Greek myths that went along with them, and I did my best to arrange the sticky stars in shapes that resembled Orion and Ursa Minor.
The warm, summer air oozed through my open bedroom window like soup. It perfumed the air with the spicy scent of cedar bark and pine needles. A chorus of cicadas chirped their monotonous melody while I squeezed my eyelids tight like a clamshell. The darkness was heavy. It fell upon me like a second blanket. I could almost feel its weight heaving down on my chest and slowly squeezing around my throat like an invisible boa constrictor. I pulled my actual blanket up over my chin and squeezed my eyelids even more tightly, until a few excess teardrops pushed their way to the corners of my eyes.
It would be a long night, and I couldn’t exactly wake Mom this time to keep me company until I finally conked out. I’d have to snarl my lips and face it tonight. And that’s when something extremely peculiar happened.
At first it began as an eerie flashing—a faint light I could barely distinguish from behind closed eyelids. Then, it grew brighter until it shined through my eyelids like lampshades. And I heard voices. Tiny voices like the whispers of a moth’s wings in my ear. Gradually they grew louder until I could decipher words and short phrases. One of the tiny voices asked, “Is he the one?”
“Yep. That’s him,” another voice responded. “That’s my grandson.”
My eyes flapped open like one of those cheap shades they hang on windows in hospitals and dorm rooms. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Suspended in the air above my bed were a number of perfectly round orbs, each emitting a warm glow—flashing and twinkling in time with their speech.
I snapped my eyes shut again and bit the inside of my cheek. A familiar, coppery taste brushed against my tongue. I was not dreaming. Maybe I could lie still enough to where these things would think I was a mannequin, or dead, or something other than a helpless boy they’d like to eat for a midnight snack.
“Yep,” the one with my Pop-Pop’s voice continued, “I’d know my grandson’s room from any in the galaxy. No…from any in the universe. Looks like he took all my lessons to heart judging by all the model boat paraphernalia lying around.”
My ears must have joined my eyes in playing tricks on me, I thought. It couldn’t really be him, could it? It had been more than a year since he’d been gone. And even then he was a man with arms and legs and a head—and a mouth to talk through. He wouldn’t come back as this thing, this weird ball of light just floating around aimlessly.
“We’re not floating around aimlessly, Ray,” another voice said. This voice was slightly deeper than the one that sounded like Pop-Pop. “We’ve come with a purpose. Everything we do has a purpose.” It was a familiar voice. One that reminded me of tree houses and skinned knees and taking the garbage out to the curb. And that’s when I could hold my eyes shut no longer.
“Dad?” I whispered to no one in particular, since there wasn’t technically any one person I could decipher in my room. “Is that somehow…you?”
“Of course it is, son,” the voice responded as if my question was one of the silliest ever asked in recorded history.
“But what? You think we’d leave you and Mom completely alone in this god-for-saken place?”
“Your mother has always had the ability to contact us if an emergency arose. And it looks like certain events in your life have slowly evolved into something like an emergency.”
“You said that already, son,” my Dad’s voice concluded.
“Let the kid speak, Jerry,” Pop-Pop’s voice cut in. “He has every right to try to understand this. If anyone in the universe has that right, it’s him.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Dad’s voice said. “So what do you want to know, son? I’m sure you have many, many questions.” My tongue felt like a fat slab of beef spinning around in my mouth. My eyes were bolted open and desert-dry from not blinking for the last few minutes. Ten thousand questions swirled around in my brain. They bounced off the inside of my skull like bumpers in a pinball machine and converged upon my mouth all at once. The effect was very much similar to a Los Angeles traffic jam. The only sound that came out was something like, “B-B-B-But…”
“I see,” Dad’s voice continued, and it seemed to be stifling laughter. “How about this? Take a few moments to collect your thoughts and then meet us down in the vacant lot across the street. I think you’ll find us a little more approachable down there. We can have a nice chat. In fact, you get those thoughts of yours nice and organized for us, and you won’t have to do much speaking at all.”
I wasn’t quite sure what the glowing orb that sounded like Dad meant by this last remark, but the deal it laid out sounded like a good option for a boy who was having a tough time finding his voice at the moment. So I agreed and watched the orbs float effortlessly out my bedroom window and disappear into the treetops. Then I hopped out of bed and threw on a dusty pair of jeans. I grabbed my bat off the windowsill—just in case these odd creatures suddenly became more violent than they were leading on—and I snuck down the stairs and out the front door to attend a most bizarre meeting at the vacant lot.
I knew Mom didn’t want me hanging around there, especially at this hour, but I figured the current circumstances overshadowed her ruling. Under a layer of broiling storm clouds and the blanket of night, the place seemed like it had been reclaimed by nature. Only the sound of gravel crunching under foot reminded me that man had indeed harnessed this stretch of land, apparently to be used for later devices. It kind of bothered me that the lot had been vacant since, well, forever—in my estimation. There’d never been anything there, nor was there ever any talk of something being built there. I always chalked it off to poor planning, like if I raised the mast on one of my ships before building the frame. It just didn’t make sense.
It was silent like a graveyard. The skin on my arms tingled with goose bumps under a film of cold sweat, but I managed to creep out into the middle of the lot, away from the protection of the towering poplars and oaks. There was nothing but the shuffling of my feet through the ankle-length grass. And then there was a light. A tiny twinkling like the single bulb you find on a strand of Christmas lights. Then a massive beam like a single headlight on a Greyhound bus poured out of the woods behind me and put me quite literally in the spotlight.
Great. The police, I thought. I have one crazy dream and the next thing I know I’m down in city lock-up scraping an empty cup against some iron bars. Exactly my luck. But then I heard the voices again. First Pop-Pop’s coming in low like the gentle coo of a dove.
“Raaay,” the voice whispered. “Raaay.” Then Dad’s voice blasted out like a trumpet at a candlelit vigil.
“Son!” the voice shouted. “Over here! Follow the light!”
Things were far past being considered weird at this point. Here I was in an empty lot, in the middle of the night, with a couple of possible alien beings using the voices of my dead relatives and asking me to ‘walk towards the light.’ The situation didn’t look promising to anyone not playing the lead role in a sci-fi flick. But there was something so real about their voices. Something comfortable and easy, as if the words came without any effort at all; as if they’d been spoken to me my entire life.
So, I did what I was told. I allowed the light to suck me in like a tractor beam, and when I reached the edge of the woods the source of the light switched off with the simple flick of a button. A flashlight. And holding it firmly in his right hand was a man with a shag of dark, brown hair and a beard like the fur of a grizzly.