Authors: Matt Solomon
Early the next morning, while it was still good and dark, Charlie watched the old man's truck come and go with the giant's breakfast. When the sun came up, it was time to put his scheme into action. He contacted the big guy on the walkie-talkie.
“Okay, I'll be there as soon as my mom leaves for work.” The plastic walkie felt greasy in his nervous palm. “Which should be anytime. So be ready. This is going to have to be bang-bang fast. If anyone sees what I'm about to do, they'll call 911 in a second. You got me?”
“Secret,” returned the giant in a whisper.
“See you soon. Charlie out.” He ditched the walkie under his bed and clomped out to the kitchen to check on his mom's whereabouts.
“Charlie,” his mom yelled from outside. “You're up already? Come out here, would you? I need some help.”
He headed down the back stairs to find her sitting on a plastic bench in the grass, a red kerchief tied around her forehead to keep the hair out of her eyes. She held a monarch butterfly by its delicate wings, trying to pick up a sticker sheet full of butterfly tags that she'd set down just out of reach. She didn't want to upset the monarch any more than necessary.
Charlie picked up the slick of paper. He peeled off a small circle that was printed with tiny numbers assigned by some bug professors in Kansas.
Rita took the sticky label and pressed it against the butterfly's fragile black-and-tangerine wing. With the label attached, she opened her hand in a gentle invitation for the creature to take flight. The monarch shuddered and took a moment to recover. She lifted her palm, and the butterfly unfolded into the sky.
Charlie couldn't imagine getting up early on a Saturday morning for volunteer butterfly duty. “Remind me again why you do this?”
Rita looked up and scrunched her face at Charlie. “I like to think I'm helping them on their way. Anything wrong with that?”
Just then the Hummer roared up into their driveway. DJ revved the motor to impress Charlie before killing it. He hopped out of the driver's side with a bag in his hand. “Hey there, C-Squared. I picked up some doughnuts!”
“Cool,” Charlie said. He'd take a doughnut.
“For the ride to Madison!” he exclaimed. “Surprise! Let's see what kind of trouble we can get into over at the World of Wheels, then shoot over to the college to get some of those guy-ros with the cucumber sauce and onions. They're Greek, like olives! Madtown, baby!”
As always, DJ's timing was awful. Charlie stammered, “IÂ â¦ I can't go.”
The man looked like his cable just went out during the Super Bowl.
“Charlie!” exclaimed his mom, with more than a hint of disappointment in her voice. “DJ went to a lot of trouble to plan this trip.”
“I'm sure he's got a good reason,” offered DJ, looking to Charlie with an expression that pleaded,
It's not me, right?
Charlie did have a good reason, but he sure couldn't let his mom know what it was. Then, out of nowhere, an excuse popped out of his mouth. “I've got aÂ â¦ a date.”
Rita's eyebrows arched, crinkling her forehead in doubt. “A
date?” she asked. “With a girl?”
The surface temperature of Charlie's cheeks rose a few degrees. He was trying to think fast, but his brain felt like it was stuck in quicksand.
DJ launched into a big grin. “Ten-four, C-B!” He winked at Rita and punched Charlie in the shoulder. “Madison will be there next weekend. But a date with a beautiful girl? You grab those opportunities when they come, am I right?”
“A date at eight in the morning? Sounds fishy to me,” argued Rita, hands on her hips.
“We're not supposed to meet until noon, but I wouldn't be back from Madison in time.” The excuse sounded pretty good to Charlie.
“Who is this girl, anyway?”
“Adele.” Charlie blurted out the first name that came into his head. “Adele Hawkins.”
“There you go,” said DJ. “Her folks work at the plant. Good people.”
But Charlie could tell his mom wasn't quite buying it.
“Adele Hawkins. I suppose I could call her mother and confirm?”
All of a sudden, the excuse didn't feel so good after all. A slick of sweat ran down Charlie's neck. He'd be in a real jam if his mom called, but there was no turning back now. “Sure. Go ahead,” he said, trying to sound casual as he leaned against the stairs.
“Another time, C-Horse,” said DJ, throwing Charlie the bag of doughnuts. “Have fun today.”
“Thanks.” Charlie felt kind of bad, but what was he supposed to do?
His mom stood up and brushed the grass from her Ed's Fine Foods shirt. “Well, I need to get to work. I'll see you tonight, Charlie.” She raised an eyebrow. “I want to hear more about this girl.”
“My plans just got canceled,” said DJ with a smile. “How about a ride?” She accepted the offer and they both hopped into the H2. With a wave to Charlie, they were off.
Charlie ditched the donuts and hightailed it across Church Street. He looked up to the high windows, flashed an index finger to signal “Just one minute!” and darted into the dark alley.
The plan was simple but terrifying: work his way up to the warehouse roof and jump down the elevator shaft. The giant would catch him.
A halo of sunlight glowed around the top of the tree Charlie needed to climb to get up on the roof. He'd imagined the ascent over and over in his head during the night, but the oak was taller and more intimidating when he was standing underneath it. He took a deep breath, reached to grab hold of a low branch, felt the rough bark bite into his palms, and started climbing.
A bigger kid might have weighed too much for some of the more slender branches, but they were sturdy enough to hold Charlie. He climbed like a natural, ascending fifty feet in only a few minutes.
Soon, he arrived at the branch that bridged to the roof. The limb extended well over the top of the warehouse. Charlie straddled the branch and started shinnying across, feeling the substantial bough narrow with each incremental shunt forward. As he crept along, his weight bent the bough, but it still seemed plenty strong for the job.
Piece of cake
, he tried to convince himself. Then about halfway across, he looked down.
In the alley below, broken pieces of glass glittered like they were in a far-off galaxy. Charlie couldn't believe how high he was. His hands slicked with perspiration, and the limb got slippery. He sucked in air as if it could fill him with courage. He pried his eyes off the ground, training them on his destination. An inch at a time, shallow breath by shallow breath, he started forward again. The branch cooperated. Finally, he dropped down to the roof and approached the elevator shaft.
Soot-stained from decades of absorbing exhaust from passing trucks, the bricked tower jutted skyward ten feet from the roof. A metal ladder ran up the side. Charlie took a quick look out onto the street. A lot of cars were already heading to the fair. Even though the ladder couldn't be seen from the road, he'd have to jump quickly so no one saw him at the top of the elevator shaft. He grabbed hold of the lowest rung embedded into the brick and mortar, and started to climb. The rungs held firm all the way to the top.
From there, he snuck a peek down into the dark shaft. He couldn't even see all the way to the bottom. He swallowed, and the spit balled up in his throat so he had to do it again. For some reason he remembered a story kids told about a girl who ran off Bogus Bluff and fell to her death because Indians were chasing her. If the giant didn't catch him, he'd end the same way.
“Charlie!” The big voice boomed up the elevator shaft.
There was a total break in traffic. The perfect time to jump. He had to go.
you can do this.
Charlie tried to harness the fearlessness of his alter ego and pulled himself atop the chimneylike structure, but his legs still shook. It was like being at the end of the springboard on the world's tallest high-dive, except there was a giant waiting below instead of a pool. He wavered. It was now or never.
“Go,” said the giant.
“I know, I know,” stammered Charlie. “It's just hard.”
Faced with a literal leap of faith, Charlie closed his eyes and hopped off the ledge. He plummeted down the shaft for what felt like long enough to dieâonly he didn't. The giant was as good as his word. He caught the boy right in his fleshy mitt.
The impact was still enough to knock the air from Charlie's lungs. His head swam with stars as the giant pulled him out of the shaft and set him down on the cool concrete. The big guy held out his fist for Charlie to bump, which the boy managed despite his inability to pull in a solid breath.
“We did it,” Charlie said between gasps. “And I don't think anyone even saw me!”
He couldn't have known about the satellite 200 miles above that was sending pictures back to Earth as fast as its digital eye could take them.
Jamie Fitzgibbons was facedown on his weight bench, as scheduled, an early Saturday morning ritual in the basement of the Fitzgibbonses' rented house. He lowered his Hornets Football shorts and exposed his bare bottom like it was the most natural thing in the world.
His father inserted a sterile twenty-two-gauge needle into a burnt-orange vial, turned it upside down, and drew out one and a half CCs of a performance enhancer of his own design. It could not be detected by even the most sophisticated test. He could have made a fortune selling it to professional athletes, but he wanted only one person to have the advantage: his son.
Fitzgibbons glanced up at the five framed black-and-white photos hanging on the wall behind his son's weight equipment. The shots provided a time-lapse history of an Olympic sprinting trial held twenty-some years earlier. Sean Fitzgibbons finished fifth in the final heat, behind four men who would go on to represent America at the Games. All of them except Fitzgibbons had used performance enhancers to run faster. He had foolishly thought he could win through training and sheer force of will. Instead, he was beaten by science.
The loss didn't embitter Fitzgibbons. It emboldened him. He returned to school to study performance enhancers, dedicating his life to understanding them, improving them, making them safer. When his young son showed a natural aptitude for sportsâand for winningâFitzgibbons knew why his life had taken this particular path. It was too late for him, but not for Jamie. When the boy's moment came, he would have all the edge he needed.
That was, if Jamie could get stronger. Not just physically but mentally as well.
“I met a man named Hank Pulvermacher yesterday,” Fitzgibbons said, tapping the syringe with his finger. Air bubbles rose to the top. “He says he stopped you from beating up a smaller boy.”
Jamie scowled. “Guy needs to mind his own business.”
“You need to control your temper. We're not doing this so you can be a bully. Think how much a kid like that would want these injections. They're a privilege.” He searched for a small area of acne-free skin near the top of his son's gluteus medius muscle, then cleaned it with an alcohol swab.
Pressing the stopper until a bead of fluid appeared at the tip of the needle, the doctor stretched Jamie's skin taut with his free hand. The needle penetrated his son's buttock, plunging deep into the muscle.
“Ow, that hurts!”
“Think about the big picture, Jamie.” Fitzgibbons pressed the plunger until the full dose was delivered, then he removed the needle and threw it into a red plastic container marked
“How many times have we talked about this? What do you want?”
Jamie yanked up his shorts, grimacing as he flipped over and sat up. “The Heisman. The NFL. My own shoe deal! I want to be huge!”
“Don't confuse fame with excellence,” warned his father, starting up the flight of stairs. “Fame is fleeting. Excellence is forever. If someone hurts your feelings, hit the weights. We're not about getting even in this house. We're about excellence, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said.
“And what do we do to attain excellence?”
“Refuse to lose.”
“Can't hear you?”
“Refuse to lose!”
“Playground fights are for losers, Jamie. If you want to be huge, act like it. I'll see you at the lab after you finish your morning workout.”
Fitzgibbons left the house and drove to Accelerton. As he worked his way through security, his phone buzzed with an e-mail. He opened the message. Pradeep had analyzed the oats Fitzgibbons found in the back of Hank Pulvermacher's truckâthey were an exact match for the fiber material in the manure sample from the silo. The puzzle pieces were coming together.
He entered the lab. Barton was at his desk despite the early hour. Fitzgibbons doubted the man had gone home to sleep. “What's the latest?”
“Let me show you.” Barton finished toggling his keyboard, then wheeled his chair down the counter of whirring lab equipment to a centrifuge. He keyed in a code on the device's beeping interface, which glowed before the front hatch clicked and opened. A silver tray rolled out from its encasement, and the spinning cylinder slowed to a stop.
Barton reached inside, withdrew a small glass vial, and held it up to the light. The container was three-quarters full of fluid, watery and golden. Bubbles bobbed to the top.
“Still need a few hours to replicate vectors,” Barton replied. “But all early indicators are promising.”
Fitzgibbons pumped his fist. “I know I put you under the gun, but even I didn't expect this kind of progress. Excellent work.”
“A combination of no sleep and a certain amount of luck.” Barton replaced the vial into the centrifuge and restarted it. “I did call in those new satellite coordinates. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to look at surveillance.”