Authors: Matt Solomon
Even today, there were plenty of people claiming to see giants. Giants in Kentucky. Giants in Mexico. Even giants in Wisconsin! Many of the stories sounded sort of crazy, but Charlie had a pretty big reason to believe them now.
“Rule three, no phones,” warned Mr. Bachman in a stern voice. Charlie wasn't the only kid who had snuck his out, and they all rushed them back into their pockets. Mr. Bachman hadn't looked up from his Sudoku puzzle.
The rest of the day passed by slowly, but finally the bell rang. Charlie sprinted to his locker, grabbed his backpack, and tore out of the school. It was giant time. Charlie pedaled as fast as he ever had. Adrenaline drove his legs, and his bike sped along streets like never before. He was just about to cross over to Hillside Drive.
And that's when he saw him.
Their eyes met. His only hope was if Fitz didn't recognizeÂ â¦
But Fitz started his chrome-frame racing bike up the hill, his powerful legs pumping with purpose. White-knuckled fists gripped the handlebars, eyes locked on Charlie.
“Hey! Hey, you!” Fitz pointed his meaty index finger. “Game over!”
Panic had Charlie by the throat as he pedaled up Hillside Drive. The street was steep and the incline wore on his legs. He stood to push harder as his bike lurched up the tough grade in spurts. His lead over Fitz was evaporating by the second, and it didn't take long for him to come to a realization:
There's no way I can outrun him! He'll catch me before I can even get to the Siefkes' house.
Across the street, Charlie spotted a poorly paved path that ran down the hill's front face to the Pine River. A wooden-planked suspension footbridge with rope webbing on the sides spanned the black water. Years of cycling around Richland Center had taught Charlie that the footbridge was a lousy place for a bike, but it was especially difficult for one bike to trail another. The lead bike shook the rickety suspension bridge, causing the boards behind to hop up and down. Fitz's bike wouldn't handle a rough ride as well as smooth pavement.
It's my only chance!
He launched the BMX onto the path.
Only twenty feet down the trail, Charlie found himself going too fast for pedaling to do any good. He held the pedals even and just concentrated on coasting. The bike staggered when his front tire collided with a stray hunk of asphalt broken up from the trail. The chunk went sailing. His front tire veered to the right, but Charlie went with the motion instead of over-steering.
His BMX shuddered as Charlie eased the bike back on the trail, and it smoothed out again. He took the opportunity to look over his shoulder. Fitz had just plunged his racer down the path.
Charlie hit the bridge and pedaled hard, building maximum speed and timing his next move. About one-third of the way across, he leaned ahead on his BMX, gripped the handlebars tight, and lifted the back tire up in the air in a donkey kick. Then he brought the back of the bike down as hard as he could. It cost him a lot of speed, but he was willing to sacrifice it.
Fitz was riding all-out as his bike hit the bridge. His front tire jumped all over the place, trying to stay true on the herky-jerky boards that Charlie's ploy had set in motion. Fitz couldn't hold the thin tire straight, and Charlie heard a yell.
He glanced back to see Fitz's bike lying on the boards, its front wheel spinning in the air. He skidded to a halt, raised his fists to the sky, and let out a triumphant “Yeah!”
He stood on the pedals, ready to ride again, when his nagging conscience made him look back one more time. Fitz was nowhere near the bike. Then Charlie heard a shout from the underside of the bridge.
Filled with a new kind of dread, Charlie pedaled over to the edge. Dark water swirled below as a dam loomed in the distance. Its concrete cap was crumbling at the edges from years of holding back the Pine River. He leaned out and peered down alongside the bridge.
There was Fitz, hanging from the boards on the other side of the torn rope. He'd wiped out and crashed through the webbing. “You gotta help me,” Fitz pleaded. “I can't hold on much longer.”
Charlie couldn't just leave. He rode over to the ripped-up webbing, jumped off his bike, and threw off his backpack. Kneeling down, he extended his arm. “Give me your hand,” he said, not even sure he could pull up the bigger Fitz without being dragged over the side. Charlie could smell the kid's sweaty Hornets Football T-shirt.
“You did that on purpose,” Fitz accused, his strained, pimpled face turning crimson as he stared up.
“Of course,” Charlie admitted. “You were going to kill me.” He stretched his hand out farther to the struggling boy.
Fitz coughed and spat from the back of his throat in Charlie's face.
Charlie recoiled in disgust and landed on his behind. He wiped away thick saliva that smelled like grapes, but grapes that had been in somebody's mouth. Fitz's meaty fingers strained white as they gripped the edge of the bridge. Charlie heard laughing. He watched in horror as Fitz's head began to rise.
“You believed I needed
help?” Fitz exclaimed. Then he let out a roar and heaved himself belly-first back up onto the footbridge. “Big mistake!”
Charlie's heart sledgehammered in his chest as he grabbed his backpack, jerked his BMX off the ground, and hurtled his leg over the seat. He burned away, standing tall on the pedals. The BMX sailed along the concrete sidewalk that led from the bridge, off the curb, and down Congress Street.
Fitz cleared the bridge. He had an easy, eerie smile on his face that said, “Nothing can save you now.”
Charlie eyed construction equipment up ahead, part of the city's massive dike-building program to remedy a flooding problem. Charlie knew he couldn't outrun Fitz, but hoped to use the construction mess to slow him down again.
Adrenaline pumping, Charlie swung at full speed around an orange-striped barricade onto the tough terrain and bunny-hopped the BMX over a pile of metal rebar. He gave the pedals all he had, and the bike's knobby tires gripped the mushy surface.
Let's see how your racing bike handles this, Jamie!
By the time he was well into the heart of the construction, Charlie figured he'd left the bully far behind in the muck.
But when he turned his head, there was Fitz, flying toward him from a cross street. He had not taken the construction zone bait after all.
Fitz had learned his lesson on the footbridge about what his bike could and couldn't do. Playing to its strengthâstraight-line speed on a good roadâhe'd headed a longer way around and kept track of Charlie by peeking down side streets. Now Fitz was closing fast. With only the river and little else in front of him, Charlie was running out of room to run.
A massive pile of construction dirt up ahead slanted back toward the road like a huge ramp, practically inviting him to jump the river. He'd try it in a video game, but in real life, there was no way. Especially not on a bike.
Then his rear tire shuddered as Fitz nudged it with his front wheel. Charlie tried to counter steer, but his front wheel jerked sideways, and he went over the handlebars, landing hard on the dirt pile. Fitz skidded to a stop. Charlie scrambled to his feet and dashed up the hill, hoping to escape down the back side. Fitz followed him up the pile, wiggling the fingers of both hands in anticipation of a good beatdown. Charlie reached the top, looked over the edge, and gasped. It was about twenty feet straight down to the jagged rocks on the downriver side of the dam.
He was trapped.
Fitz reached Charlie and grabbed the back of his neck with a strong, hot hand. He grinned. “What are you, scared?”
Charlie's mouth opened, but no sound came out. Fitz was right. Charlie was scared to death.
Fitz tightened his grip and pulled back his other fist. Charlie closed his eyes, but the punch never came as a stern voice burst from below. “Powder, go say âNo!'”
The big German shepherd dashed up the incline, wild barks ringing over the sound of the water. Fitz let go of Charlie and stumbled down the hill, trying to dodge Powder. But the snarling dog drove Fitz back toward her masterâHank, the old man from the warehouse! He hobbled to the base of the hill.
Charlie couldn't believe his good luck, although the old man didn't look happy to see either one of them. He sized up Fitz. “Looks like I got here just in time. What's your name?”
Fitz was frozen by a growling Powder. “Jamie Fitzgibbons,” he groused.
“Fitzgibbons, huh? Sean Fitzgibbons your dad?”
Fitz's face fell, answering Hank's question.
The old man chewed the inside of his cheek. Then he turned to Charlie, who feared being recognized from the warehouse, even though he knew it was impossible. “And who are you?”
“And who's your dad?”
Hank's face softened, and he slapped his thigh twice. Powder returned to his side. “Well, I don't care what you two were fighting about. It's done now. You get me, Fitzgibbons?”
“He laughed at me!” said the defiant teen. “No one laughs at me and gets away with it.”
“People who worry about being laughed at,” said Hank, “often find themselves in laughable situations.”
Fitz's eyes burned, and he clenched and unclenched his fists.
“Get out of here,” Hank said, “unless you want me to call out to Accelerton and talk to your old man.”
Fitz kept an eye on Powder and retrieved his bike. He yanked it off the ground with one hand. Charlie relaxed as his tormentor took off for the other side of town.
“You all right?” Hank asked.
“The last thing I need is kids hanging around and getting hurt. This dam isn't safe. Get on home.”
Charlie didn't need to be told twice. He hopped on his bike and rode away as fast as he could. He worked his way through town, beating for the warehouse, and finally flew into the alley. Then his heart and bike skidded to a stop.
The window he'd used to get in earlier was boarded up tight.
Dr. Fitzgibbons was manipulating a digital simulation of a giant DNA strand when his phone chirped. He'd been expecting the call and transferred it to the lab's largest monitor.
With a flicker, the thin, serious face of Gretchen Gourmand appeared. Her close-cropped hair accentuated the sharp angles of her cheekbones, pinched in an expression that suggested she'd tasted sour milk.
“Good afternoon, doctor,” she said in that affected accent Fitzgibbons could never quite placeâEuropean, Scandinavian perhaps, though he'd heard from another high-ranking Accelerton executive that she was from Denver.
“You remember Mr. Barton, Gretchen?” said Fitzgibbons, motioning for his colleague to enter the camera's view. Barton, always more comfortable with centrifuges than with executives, slicked back his hair with a sweaty palm and smiled weakly at the screen.
Gourmand ignored him. “I need a status report, gentlemen. I haven't heard anything since you began this current phase in Richland Center.”
“My apologies,” said Dr. Fitzgibbons. “We've found something promising.”
“Not exactly. It's a piece of giant thumbnail,” said Barton. “We're still analyzing but it looks likeâ”
“Sean?” Gourmand interrupted, her voice sharp with skepticism.
Fitzgibbons took a moment to choose his words. “As I said, we've found
, and early analysis indicates the presence of DNA.”
“Have the allelic variants been identified? Can you confirm that this is giant DNA?”
“Not conclusively,” Fitzgibbons admitted. “At least, not quite yet.”
“What about the giant? You have verifiable proof it was there?”
“It was hiding in a silo. I've tasked more satellites to comb the surrounding countryside,” returned Barton. “If it's still in the area, we'll find it.”
“I'm tired of hearing about âifs,'” said Gourmand, seizing on the uncertainty. “I need results. You've delivered for me in the past, Seanâthat's why I was willing to pursue this outrageous idea. But there's too much cost here and, so far, no benefit. It's not like I haven't been supportive. I've approved huge expenditures to retrofit labs, task satellites, and I've even authorized you to employ the Stick. Mercenaries aren't cheap, as you know.”
“We agreed the Stick was a necessity,” argued Fitzgibbons. “When the time comes to bring down a giant, he's our man. And who better to go to the military with product? They all know him. There's plenty of benefit for your cost.”
“Forget the military,” said Barton. “You know the consumer side of GGH alone will be worth billions. Want to be seven feet tall? No problem. Want to be seven foot three? Sorry, that's next generation. We're going to roll out products for decades!”
“There's nothing to roll out,” she said. “That's the point.”
“You know the process doesn't move that fast,” Fitzgibbons said. “But we're on the verge of something that will make our previous military work look like whey powder at the nutrition store. The Stick's abilities are merely amplified. GGH will transform.”
Gourmand sighed. “I've heard all the upsides before. I need definitive progress that will yield products, not fairy tales. Soon.” She disappeared from the screen.
“Arbitrary deadlines,” Barton muttered, adding several expletives about how it was science that bought Gourmand's expensive suit. He stomped back to his workstation and pounded away on his keyboard.
The intercom buzzed. “Dr. Fitzgibbons? Jamie is here.”
Fitzgibbons had nearly forgotten. As punishment for that morning's fight, Jamie was “volunteering” with some odd jobs at the lab, including an evening stint at the Accelerton fair booth. The scientist hurried to the lobby to find his son shadow-boxing his own furious reflection in the receptionist's plate-glass window. His gray Hornets Football T-shirt was wet with sweat around his neck. JoAnne, the anxious receptionist, flinched every time he took an angry swing, punctuating each punch with a powerful grunt.