Authors: Richard Scrimger
To my children: Ed, Imo, Sam, Thea,
with thanks and love
Writing this book was an unusually intense experience. I've never stayed up later, or missed more meals. In addition to acknowledging the hard work of my publisher and editor, Kathy Lowinger, and copy editor, Sue Tate, I would like to apologize to my family for my inattentiveness.
Additional dialogue in chapter 14 is by John Keats. (I borrowed bits and pieces of his “Ode to a Nightingale.”) That's just in case you thought I could write phrases like, “light-wingèd Dryad of the trees.”
The scene with the carrot-wielding knights is based on an actual dinner-table episode. The rest of the story comes from the usual places in my mind.
It's midnight, and I'm at a pay phone at a highway rest stop with a greasy receiver in my ear, smelling detergent from the bathroom next door and hot fat from the burger place down the hall, and waiting for my mom to stop dumping on me.
Have I done anything wrong? No. I'm bug-bit, dirty, and exhausted, but innocent. The camping trip was Mom's idea. The guy who left Victor and me on our own in the middle of the woods was her boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend, I should say. That's one good thing that happened. She dumped him like so much trash.
And now it's my turn. “Oh, Alan, Alan,” she says. “Why didn't you phone earlier? Where are you? Do you know how worried I've been?”
My mom doesn't have to raise her voice to yell. I can always tell when she's upset. Some of her best yells come in a near whisper.
“Sorry,” I say. In fact I
sorry – not for anything I've done, but because Mom is unhappy. “We're stopping for gas. Mrs. Grunewald says we should be back soon.”
Mrs. Grunewald is Victor's mom. She's driving us home. She's the one who told me to call – even let me use her phone card.
I yawn. I hear a lone toilet flush in the bathroom next door. I hear the steady whine of the highway outside. I hear my mom sigh.
“Are you hungry?” she asks.
She sounds sincere, but this is a trick question. If I say yes, then she'll be upset that I'm not eating properly, and if I say no, then she'll be upset that I've lost my appetite and don't want her to feed me.
“Ahh-mmm,” I say. I've used that answer before. Means nothing.
“It's all a nightmare!” She's back to being upset. “My life is a nightmare. You get back in the car, Alan Dingwall, and hurry home. I haven't finished with you!”
This is so unfair. Her life is a nightmare, so she's yelling at me. She used to yell at Dad when things were going wrong and she felt bad. Then he'd yell back. I'd hear them in my room, when I was trying to sleep. Now Dad's gone, and she needs someone to yell at.
I don't know what to do now, except apologize again. But I don't get a chance.
Haven't you said enough, lady?
Oh, dear. That's Norbert's high squeaky voice. Usually I can feel a tingle in my nose before he speaks, but not this time. I guess my nose was too busy with the smells from the bathroom and burger place to notice.
“Shut up, Norbert!” I whisper, putting my hand over the telephone mouthpiece.
But of course he doesn't shut up. Norbert never does what I say.
You go on and on and on. So many words. Did you eat a lot of alphabet soup when you were a kid? So your life is a nightmare, is it? Well, here's a news flash: talking to you is not a walk through the Paradise Gardens. Know what I'm saying?
I wince, listening to him. This is my mom he's talking to. And when you're thirteen – even thirteen and a half – you do not talk to your mom like this.
“Alan? Alan? What's going on?”
“I don't know,” I say. Then I get an idea. Norbert has a high squeaky voice, so maybe she won't think it's me talking. “There's some homeless guy here at the rest stop. He doesn't know what he's saying.”
“A man? A homeless man?”
“Oh, he's a long way from home, all right,” I say.
You're making his life hard, Mrs. Dingwall. He's the one living a nightmare, Mrs. Dingwall!
“He's using my name,” says Mom, in my ear. “He's talking to me. How is that possible?”
I cast about for another idea. I don't get one. “Coincidence,” I say.
“Got to go, Mom.”
“I'm not finished with you, yet!” She's actually yelling now.
But I'm finished with you. Good-bye!
Oh, boy. Boy, oh boy. Silence.
Hang up, Dingwall
, Norbert whispers.
You've made your point.
“Mom?” I ask.
She hangs up.
The food court area has picture windows. I can see Mrs. Grunewald and Victor standing under the lights by the minivan, waving at me to come on. I nod. On the way outside, I speak firmly to Norbert. I can't get rid of him because he's inside me, but I can tell him how I feel. “Don't do that again,” I say. “It makes me mad!”
I don't blame you!
I'm mad, too. Mad at her! Talking to you like that. Doesn't she know how important you are?
“Quiet,” I say. “Here's Victor and his mom.”
What am I, blind? I can see them perfectly. I must say, I like Mrs. Grunewald's baseball cap.
“Just shut up.”
Trucks whine past us. The moonlight makes them look silver.
“Did you get through to your mother, then?” asks Mrs. Grunewald, starting the engine. “She'll be that worried, if I know her.”
I try to smile. “She's that worried,” I say.
We drive down the highway, passing the silver trucks. I'm worried, and angry, and tired. So tired. I lie back against the seat. I yawn wide enough to swallow a gopher. The hum of tires on the road sounds like a song in a language I don't know. The moon is riding high on our right side. Nearly full, it looks like a Ritz cracker with a bite taken out.
What is Mom going to do to me? I wonder. And what'll I say back?
Mrs. Grunewald turns up the air-conditioning. When I feel the first blast of cool on my face, I sneeze three times in a row, so hard I have to catch my breath.
“Bless you!” calls Mrs. Grunewald, without turning around. “Bless you. Bless you.” She seems a long way away, and each “Bless you” sounds fainter than the last, the words receding like ripples in a pond.
, says Norbert. I want to tell him to be quiet, but I'm too tired.
The Ritz cracker moon is still there, in the same place on the window, but the window itself, like Mrs. Grunewald, seems a long way away. I reach out, but I can't touch it. I can't touch the seat in front of me, either. What is going on? I appear to be … no, I
shrinking! I'm shrinking! A minute ago my seat belt was over my shoulder; then it was in front of my eyes; now it's over my head. I can feel myself getting smaller and smaller. The window is farther, and farther, and farther away. I'm shrinking into blackness, and the world is
moving away from me, disappearing down a long tunnel.
I've never felt like this before sleeping. I fight to keep my eyes open. I hear Norbert's voice again, but not from inside me. He seems to be sitting beside me now.
I close my eyes, a night swimmer sinking beneath the surface of consciousness. Funny thing, though. Even with my eyes closed I can still see the moon and the night sky, a poster on the inside of my eyelids. The tire noise becomes more insistent and high-pitched: the noise of a highpowered engine. Mrs. Grunewald's voice has faded to static. The sky begins to spin slowly and change color. It's a very complete and detailed dream vision:
We're going down. Our spaceship is spinning slowly, like a tired figure skater at the end of her routine. The surface of the planet below us appears for a second through the small curved window. I get a glimpse of rounded hills bumped together, with a deep valley cutting between them. Lightning crackles beneath a thick choking fog. Funnily enough, everything's the same color – lime Jell-O lava, mountains of emerald mist. It looks like this because the view screen of my space helmet is tinted green.
I hear Norbert's voice.
he says again. I don't know where his voice is coming from. I want to tell him to shut up. I'm afraid Victor and his mom will hear him. I try to talk, but I can't. My brain doesn't seem to be attached to my mouth.
Hey, Dingwall, pull the lever beside you. Come on, move!
I make a huge effort, and move my head. Now I can see where I am for the first time. And I realize that the dream is more complete, more detailed, and even weirder than I thought. I'm in a real working spaceship. There're instruments all around – gauges and dials and flashing lights. I can see metal brackets and coils of wire, and knobs and a single rounded window. I'm wearing a helmet, all right, and it's attached to a poufy suit. Like everything else, the suit looks green.
Sitting beside me, in a molded chair like mine, in a poufy space suit and helmet like mine, is a small figure – like a little kid, maybe three or four years old. As far as I can tell by feel, my helmet doesn't have antennae coming out of it, but his does. And his view screen is split down the middle, to make two individual screens. The kid is staring at a row of flashing lights.
It's like I'm inside a
movie, only instead of Han Solo or Anakin Skywalker, I have –
Be useful, Dingwall. Pull the lever!
It's Norbert's voice, and it's coming from the figure in the space suit and helmet. He must be Norbert, but he's too big. Much much larger than the Norbert I know.
I still can't talk. But he can. He's bigger, but he sounds the same as ever.
Dingwall, I know your species is pathetically unfamiliar with space travel. But can you follow simple instructions? There's a brake lever over your head, attached to the bulkhead. The bulkhead is the wall. I can't reach the lever, but you can.
Would you do it, please? Easy peasy Slow us down so that the tractor beam can pick us up.
I feel my heart beating loud and fast. Everything is so strange. I'm not used to seeing Norbert.
I realize I've been holding my breath. I let it out, and take a quick gasp. Then a deeper gasp. That's better. I wonder
I'm breathing. It feels like air, but I don't know where it's coming from. Is my helmet connected to oxygen tanks? What happens when they run out?
It's a dream, I tell myself. Don't worry about it. You're not really here. You're really sleeping in a minivan. In a minute the dream will change, and you'll be hiding from monsters, or strolling downtown with no clothes on. Meanwhile,
yourself. It's a dream. You're safe.
Pull the lever, fool!
I open my mouth to protest, but the ground is rushing towards us at a great rate. The rounded hills look like folds of soft spongy tissue. There's a network of tiny dark rivers crisscrossing the folds. The lightning is continuous. I pull the lever. There's an instantaneous jerk, and the ship begins to slow. We now appear to be floating down. The lever must be attached to a parachute, or some kind of brake. Norbert checks his control panel, then spins around in his chair to stare out the window. He sighs.
“That was mean,” I tell him.
“Calling me a fool. That was mean!” He's not usually quite so bad tempered. Rude, yes, but not mean. Not to me, anyway.
, he says, without turning around.
Come to think of it, that's unlike him too. I can't remember him ever apologizing.
Something large and powerful grabs the spaceship. A huge hand is what it feels like, belonging to a monster. I can't help thinking of
again. The hand starts to spin us, and to pull us forward and down.
“What's going on now?” I ask.
Norbert is sitting very calmly in his chair. His hands are folded on his chest.
I've engaged the Underground Automatic Landing System
, he says.
The UALS tractor beam is guiding us down. You may feel a bit dizzy for a few minutes. The ship is rotating at a high speed to ensure an accurate entry into the landing tube.
“Oh, good,” I say faintly.
I know what he's talking about. Rifles shoot true because the bullet spins on its way through the barrel. I try not to think too hard about this. I concentrate on taking deep breaths. I do the same thing on the teacup ride at the amusement park – you know, those little circular cars that spin around and around. Toddlers love 'em, but I sure don't.
Fortunately, this ride doesn't last very long. A couple of gulps later, we stop spinning. In fact, we stop moving altogether. I begin to feel better at once.
Here we are
, says Norbert.
“Here? Where's that?” I ask.
He sniffs. Funny-looking little guy, with his arms on his chest. They're so short, he can just clasp his hands
together. I didn't notice before. He doesn't seem to have any elbows, but I guess he doesn't need them. He wouldn't have to bend them to reach his mouth, like you and me.
, he says, with a squeaky rasp as he clears his throat.
“Home? You mean … Jupiter?” Of course, that makes sense. Norbert is from Jupiter. He's always talking about the place.
He flicks a switch, and jumps down from his seat. A song is playing quietly on the ship's sound system. “Start living, that's the next thing on my list,” sings a guy in a twangy baritone.
Norbert helps me out of my seat belt.