Lucas used his left hand to slide the collection of coins off the countertop into his right. Quickly he counted out the eighty cents before shoving the coins deep into his right pocket. For a moment, he considered testing the small change pocket of his Wrangler jeans, but decided against it. He was still unsure if he would use the coins to buy lunch, or a couple of comic books, but either way, losing just one coin to an untested pocket would mean an empty stomach, or one less comic book.
“Why do they even put the stupid thing there, no one uses it,” he mused aloud as he closed the chain link fences gate.
His grandma told him it was a change pocket, but Lucas often questioned her wisdom. He would never question her baking abilities, but her wisdom…that was something totally different. After all, she is the one who would tell him, “Luca, you make me so mad, I could eat a banana, and I hate bananas!” Who hates bananas?
Puzzlement over pocket design and his grandmother’s wisdom was out of his mind before the galvanized hasp fell into place securing the family beagles play yard. Instead, his thoughts switched over to the biggest thing happening in his life.
At first, the prospect of skipping school for regular interstellar combat training excited Lucas. Ever since the evil Mrs. Frankenstein, his Pilot Knob Elementary fourth grade teacher made his life miserable with her weekly poem memorization, Lucas hated school.
However, interstellar space combat school was no picnic, and though it was far more interesting at times than Western European history, it was still a crap load of tests, quizzes, and grades. Originally, Lucas thought it would be all flying all the time, but in five and a half weeks of training, they still has not seen the inside of a Terran defense fighter. Instead of Western European history, his instructors were inundating him with the history of the Galactic Confederacy, and soon, the Dark Empire.
“Apparently the Dark Empire isn’t in a hurry to invade,” Lucas mumbled under his breath as he strolled down his short driveway and onto the city sidewalk.
Lucas paused at the entrance to the alley that ran along the side of his parent’s garage. About a third of the way down, at some point the city let someone build a garage in the middle of the alley, turning the alley into a long driveway for many of the residence on his side of the block. This morning, like most mornings since returning home from his alien abduction, Lucas spied his SIM disappearing around the corner of said garage. Like every other day, it wore exactly what he wore. Lucas assumed it walked to his bus stop, horsed around with his friends, and boarded the bus for school.
Initially Lucas wondered how much like him the SIM is. A couple of his classmates commented a few weekends ago that Lucas did not seem himself lately in school. He said something about not feeling well, and informed Portia. She replied; it takes a while for the sim to pick up and emulate most of Lucas’s characteristics. She must have been right; no one said anything to him during a pickup baseball game this last weekend.
Lucas turned towards Nokomis Junior High, just across the street from his house. What looked back at him were dark windows, some covered in weathered plywood. Actually, most of the higher windows without wired glass were jagged holes. Lucas admitted to himself, he might have had a hand in some of those broken panes.
Nokomis was the junior high he spent two years thinking would be his school, then last year the school board voted to shutter it. Now it sits empty, waiting from him and his buddies to break into it, and start preliminary demolition. Until the waning days of last school year, he looked forward to waiting until the first bell, then walk across the street, and be in his homeroom before the second bell. Now he and his fellow Minnehaha Elementary alum rode a bus to far away Sanford Junior High, were they were all new kids this year. Minnehaha suffered the same fate as Nokomis, and was already crumbling under the incessant pounding of the wrecking ball.
Lucas crossed the street and angled across the expanse of asphalt that made up the schools play yard. Even though Lucas walked around the old school hundreds of times, he always gave it more than a cursory study whenever he found himself within its shadows. Unless of course there was “big kids,” loitering about the grounds, then he pretended the old rust colored brick building did not exist.
His approach took him past one of the rear doors. The horseshoe-shaped three-story building used to have two rear entrances, but the western leg of the horseshoe was extended with an aluminum and plastic one story addition. Between the two horseshoe legs was a courtyard. A large chain-link fence was supposed to keep “unauthorized personal” from the dark underbelly of the old school, but afforded little success in the security department. In the old days, he and his cohorts preferred method of entry was climbing the gate, slipping through the gap at the top, and climbing down the other side. Other vandals simply cut the chain-link away from the gates frame.
Today, Lucas pulled the gate open enough to slide his slender frame between the gate and the thick tubular frame. Without full-time maintenance to re-chain the gate every night, it gave up some slack over the months. Something Lucas appreciated, because using the gate at ground level was much less conspicuous than climbing its fifteen-foot height. Though it seemed none of the neighbors paid much attention to the goings-on at the abandoned school, this was a daily occurrence for Lucas, and he did not want to attract any extra attention.
As the gate swung back, the old hinges let out a piercing screech that echoed off the courtyards brick walls and emanated across the half block of asphalt that spanned from the old school to Fiftieth Street. For Lucas, the sound seemed to tear through the world bringing everything to a stop and focusing all eyes on him and the gate. Yet, as he looked out from the shadows of the courtyard, it seemed no one noticed. Birds sang from the branches of the old Elm trees lining the streets, the sound of a city bus pulling away from a bus stop two blocks over roared through the still air, while a lone jogger ran along the sidewalk out on Fiftieth Street, oblivious to Lucas and what side of the gate he watched from.
Life as usual, Lucas thought, before turning to the metal shed that leaned against the building. As he approached it, he looked beyond it to the squat brick building behind it. It must be where the boiler used to heat water before they shut it down. From its roof towered a smoke stack that rose above the uppermost level of the school. As was his practice, he scanned for any way to climb it, thinking how cool it would be to stand at the top, straddling the black maw. Some other day, he thought turning his attention back to the shed.
The corrugated steel shed sat just under one of the large windows that ringed the school. Its roof slanting steeply away from the building. At its lowest point, it was just a few inches above Lucas’s highest reach. He stepped back until his butt bumped the wall opposite the shed.
“One, two, three,” he said before launching himself at the shed, leaping at what he hoped was the right moment. The edge of the corrugated steel roof hit him in the lower ribcage; his hands slapped the metal roof hoping to gain purchase, his toes doing the same against the wall. To no avail, he slid off the roof and fell back to the asphalt.
“Should have eaten my Wheaties,” Lucas groaned as he stepped back, and this time used his hands to push off the wall thinking that little extra effort will give him the momentum he needs. This time the edge of the roof caught him just above the hips, his momentum allowing him to bring a knee up; hands splayed Spidey style for traction. This time he pulled himself up onto the sheds roof, and rolled onto his back. Quickly he performed a mental inventory for any stabbing pains. Feeling like he was intact, he rolled over, and scrambled to his feet.
In the old days, janitors repaired broken windows quickly, but now, things like the slightly ajar window remained neglected for weeks. As best Lucas could recall, the window above the shed remained open for the better part of three weeks. He slid through the opening on his stomach, and let his legs dangle the four feet to the floor and stood up in the shadowy interior of the classroom.
“Ouch,” he hissed as his right forearm slid across the windowsill. He grabbed his wrist and looked at the blossoming red line that ran half the length of his forearm. It was a shallow cut, but stung like hell. He looked to the windowsill and spotted the glint of metal. It looked like a broken off staple.
“Twenty trips through that damn window without a scratch,” he grumbled, “then this one time.” He glanced around for something to wipe up the blood, but found nothing.
“Maybe the bathroom,” he whispered. He knows once he arrives at the orbiting station they will fix him up, but he did not want blood all over his shirt.
Holding his bleeding forearm away from himself, he peeked out the window, through the gate, and out onto the asphalt expanse. This is where the cops always parked, cars at an angle, whenever him and his pals tripped the alarm. As best they can figure, there are still motion detectors in the old school, because it takes about ten to fifteen minutes for the cops to show up after they break into the school. Except for the one time, they always manage to get out of the building without the cops catching them. The one time, they just finished climbing the gate when the police showed up. Suspended fifteen feet in the air offered no escape route. He, Brad, and Chris received rides home from the Minneapolis Police, and Lucas received a lecture, followed by one of his infamously long groundings.
However, Lucas’s daily excursions into Nokomis Junior High never garnered the attention of the police. He reasoned that agents of the Galactic Confederacy disabled the alarms during his morning and afternoon forays into and out of the building. He did not know now, but in his mind, he envisioned them focusing a beam from way out in space on this old brick building rendering its ancient technology useless. Someday, he would remember to ask one of his instructors, or Portia.
Out in the hall, Lucas poked his head into a supply closet. A quick scan of the shelves confirmed what he already suspected; the district left nothing useful behind. Then, as he was turning to leave, he saw an almost empty roll of paper towels behind the door. Careful not to get blood on his clothing, he reached down with his left hand, and picked it up. With his right hand, blood running into his palm he unwound a couple of wraps, tore it off, and tossed it aside. He unwound a couple more wraps, tucked the role under his left arm, and wadded up what he tore off. Without much concern for the stinging cut, he wiped, adjusted the wadded paper, and wiped more, cleaning up most of the blood.
With the next torn off piece, he folded it to the appropriate size and pressed it against the wound. Lucas wished for tape, but knew better than to go hunting for it since bleeding was minimal at this point. Instead, he sandwiched the compress between his chest and arm, and headed to the classroom that harbored his ride to class.
At the end of the hall, he climbed the litter-strewn steps to the second floor. About midway down the hall was room two-fifteen. Inside two-fifteen, a pile of furniture was stacked to the old light fixtures and covered all but the fringes of the floor. Lucas made his way half way around the pile to the left, and pulled open a closet door. Inside the closet, a hidden door slid aside as he pulled the closet door shut behind him. Yet another mystery he kept forgetting to ask someone about. The secret door never open until he closes the closet door. This aspect does not have to be high-tech, could be something as simple as a magnetic switch in the door frame. What he did not know was how it knew it was he. Any teenager could wander into this classroom. A few might even open the closet door, and though unlikely, one might even pull the door closed behind him, maybe to allude searching police officers. Yet Lucas was sure the secret door would not open for anyone but him.
With a myriad of questions fluttering through his mind, Lucas gazed at his school bus. This one was not school bus yellow, but closer to battle ship grey. This one had no tires, and only one seat. Lucas touched a depression to the right of the door, and it opened. Lucas knew in his heart, only he can open the pods door.
That is what Portia called his school bus, a shuttle pod. In many ways, it shared similarities with America’s space capsules. It was sleeker and not as bell shaped, but still wider towards the bottom than the top. A handful of antenna and sensors sprouted from the top of the pod while the rest was smooth and featureless.
When Lucas brushed the impression, the door vanished the same way as the chair in his room weeks ago. It just rather dissolved into the frame around it. Tiny little cubes collapsing upon themselves until a clean edged opening offered itself to Lucas. Within the capsule was a single padded seat. Standing outside the shuttle pod, Lucas could not see the monitor imbedded in the wall above the open hatch, but he knew it was there.
Lucas stepped, ducked, and turned in one fluid motion lowering himself into the seat. After a few seconds, something sensed he settled into the seat and triggered the door to regenerate itself sealing Lucas off from the smell of dust, old wood, and spring.
It will be several minutes now before the pod did whatever it did. Lucas doubted it “blasted off” since he did not see any rockets, or exhaust ports of any kind on the pod. It might launch in some fashion because he did feel a slight change in gravity, but by the time the monitor came online, he was already thousands of feet in the sky arcing towards space. Sometimes he wondered if it did the Star Trek thing, and energized itself out of the building. Usually he dismissed that thought quickly on the assumption that if they could transport the pod out of the building and into the sky, it seemed they would just transport him directly from his room on Earth, to his room in the space station.
Whatever made the transition from his current state to flight, it did not happen until an appointed time. Which gave Lucas something he did not always relish…time to think.
And think he did. School was almost over for the year here on Earth, but he knew he still had months of training out there on the Galactic Federation space station. What will be his cover for being gone all day then? His friends will notice if he is never available to sneak down to Minnehaha Park or the river sin search out new adventures. He was sure his parents will notice his complete lack of sunburn after spending a day out in the sun.
Then it occurred to him, his childhood might just be over. A sinking feeling settled into his stomach at the thought and the realization that so much of what he did this last year may never happen again. No more bumper shagging behind the bus on snowy winter days. No more boxing with his bus mates on the back of the bus, “No hitting above the neck.” No more sneaking out of school and hoping speedy Mr. Rucker does not see you. Easily the fastest man in a suit and wingtips Lucas ever met. Would his sim hear the words, “Hello Mr. Vanice,” or is the SIM going to be straight-laced, never finding himself in Mr. Rucker’s office.
“Will I ever be in his office again?” Lucas asked aloud trying to remember how many visits it took before Mr. Rucker did not have to ask him his name as he broke out the Book of Life. The Book was a binder where the Vice Principal kept a record of students’ transgressions.
For the first time since he told Portia to, “sign me up,” he regretted the decision. The Galactic Federation might think of him as an adult, but Lucas did not. He hated childhood, but now, he was not sure he was ready to let it go?
“This last year was a blast,” he whispered, “things were turning around.” His face lit up as a particular memory crossed his thoughts, “Sarah.”
Lucas sat there, a forlorn look on his face as he recalled memories of the last twelve months before a blinding light snatched him from the banks of Minnehaha Creek.
“It was a good year.”
Then he felt the change, whatever force propelled him into the sky did its thing, and the monitor came to life. Sadness vanished as he watched Earth transition from filling the monitor to a rapidly shrinking blue and green ball.
He smiled as he realized giving up all those trivial pursuits was necessary to keep his home, his friends, and his family from falling into the clutches of the Dark Empire.