Xander lived in a small gray house in a grim little cul-de-sac just west of the eastbound on-ramp. The house had been there since before the freeway. Mom had pictures to prove it, in an album she kept under the bed. Their house stood alone on a little rise, with an elm tree in the front yard and Mom and Dad, arm in arm, on the porch. It had more color in black and white than it did now. The elm was gone, and the cedars Dad had planted in its place were tall but spindly things, constantly shedding their thin, sour needles on the walk.
Xander watched the freeway from his bedroom window as if it were television, with fewer ads and not quite so many car crashes. Red taillights glowed like rockets through the constant smoke. His soundtrack was a cavernous roar, cut through by the occasional truck fart blatting through the starless night. He never felt tempted to change the channel. Now and then he saw a gray bird roost for a moment on the streetlight stanchions.
He walked to school four whole blocks every morning, rain or shine, finally old enough to refuse to ride with his mother in the blue minivan with one red fender. Mom worried every step, watched him out of sight blue lunchbox and all, but Xander never looked back. He took the freeway sound and the orange street lights and made them into his own story, one that included neither Mom nor the shadowy mob of grown-up fears that populated her vigils at the living room window.
The sidewalks on this planet don't even move. They do where I was born. If only my parents - my real parents, the Prince of Zill and his Consort - hadn't decided to take their holiday here, on the ugliest planet in their possession. I never would have gotten separated from them on a more civilized world, with betawave trackers and public eyebots to answer a lost little boy's questions, never would've gotten picked up by the native couple I'm now forced to live with, never...
Xander's head hurt. He stood up and touched the spot. His hand was red when he looked at it. There was a rock on the ground near his foot. Woody stood in the space between an apartment complex and the quick-mart on the corner, laughing. Xander wasn't crying the way he was supposed to, though, not yet. He put up his fist and sighted along the first knuckle, focusing his laser ring right between Woody's bright blue eyes. He concentrated, fired, but of course the laser ring's energy was dissipated in this planet's musty atmosphere. Woody ran towards him, no longer laughing.
All Xander had was his lunchbox, and he swung it as soon as Woody came within range. It broke open, spilling out brown protein paste and sickly purple fructose pap smashed between porous carbohydrate slabs - not the best of defensive weapons, but it made Woody duck long enough for Xander to twist past him and run across the four-lane to school, no time to push the button to beg for a walk light but at least he had the green, even if he did almost get creamed by a mom in a minivan just like his Mom's only newer. Woody couldn't chase him without getting squished himself now, and there was no fighting ever on the school grounds, once you got within sight of the cameras.
Woody could yell, though, and he did. "I'll be layin' for yuh, ...ucker!" Xander wasn't sure what that last word was but it didn't sound good. None of it sounded good.
* * *
Summertime had been a jungle planet. Xander, freed from the strictures of instruction and the threat of after-school waylayers, spent the long sunny days exploring the thin, tree-lined verge of the freeway, sprawled in front of the television or, mostly, reading. The orange and yellow county bookmobile, vestige of a nearly-extinct breed, crawled by once a week, its narrow cavern filled with all kinds of visions. You could even make requests, and the next week they'd show up on the shelf behind the tiny desk in the back where the librarian sat and stamped each book's due date in blue or purple ink. You could only take five at a time - it wasn't fair to empty the shelves entirely, even if no one else wanted to read what you were reading. Xander could finish one of those dogeared spaceship-and-atom tales in a single long afternoon, so by the next time the bookmobile rolled into the lot of the bowling alley up the street, he was always more than ready for another stack.
In school it was harder. He had to hide the things that made him different, and at first he hadn't been able to - too alien. Not understanding how to fit in with the natives. Unconsciously assuming that they'd see his origin as the scion of Galactic princes, make allowances, maybe even respect him for having come such a long way, come so far down to meet them.
Xander would walk the halls carrying textbooks, and one or two extra. He'd sit on the steps or in a corner of the asphalt playground, reading. One of them would come up to him - it wasn't always Woody, although it often was - and ask him what he was reading.
Xander would tell him. It'd be another book with a spaceship and an atom on the spine. The kid standing over him wouldn't understand.
"Is it a good book?"
Xander never knew how to answer that one. "Yeah" was usually true but rarely enough... but when he tried launching into an explanation of why it was good, the kid standing above him lost interest, if he was lucky. If Xander wasn't lucky, disinterest would turn into disdain, or outright anger at some imagined slight.
"You gettin' smart with me?"
Horror - that someone might become intelligent. There was no right answer to this question - it was a prelude to an altercation whatever Xander said. "No" was easiest, but craven, and not guaranteed to head off a confrontation if the other kid were set on it. "Yes" was defiance instantly met with a fist or a shoe. Anything more complicated eventually boiled down to one of the other two.
Gradually Xander learned to hide not only what, but that he was reading - inside textbooks where he could pretend to study for the simple tests for which he was already eidetically prepared (that earlier Galactic education still held some advantages) or in nooks out of sight of the other kids - for he was, slowly, being assimilated into the culture of this planet, the one he was stranded on.
Not entirely, though. His eyes still sometimes strayed to the unmoving panels of square gray that made up his walk home; he still sometimes searched the simple dashboard of his Earthly mother's minivan for the flight controls and retro-rockets that ought to be there. He still considered himself a visitor. And sometimes the natives - natives like Woody - noticed.
* * *
Xander had managed to forget Woody several times during the day, sometimes for whole minutes at a time, but 2:30pm found him unable to lose himself any further, looking anxiously up at the clock and wondering if he could avoid Woody by going home another way. Problem was, there weren't that many ways into the cul-de-sac; high gray sculpted concrete walls separated it from the freeway and made an effective barrier on two sides, and the tall chain-link fence around the abandoned furniture warehouse blocked a third. He decided to chance the fence; he knew of at least one place where the barbed wire at the top had been broken away by transients or vandals.
When he got to the fence he found he didn't need to go over; someone had clipped a few of the links at ground level and he squeezed through, tearing his t-shirt a little but otherwise unscathed. He set out across the puddled ground towards the other end of the warehouse parking lot as fast as he could, feeling horribly exposed.
He came around the corner of the building and ran into Woody.
"Told yuh I'd be layin' for yuh."
Woody threw a punch that landed on Xander's cheek and spun him around. Xander broke and ran back the other way, splashing through water, Woody hard on his heels. Xander hit the fence and squeezed through just ahead of the older boy. Xander ran a little farther, then halted and looked back when he realized that the noise of the fence being shaken hadn't stopped.
Woody was stuck. Couldn't go out, couldn't pull back. And the noise had attracted the security guard who was usually sleeping in his car on the freeway side of the warehouse.
Xander reached into his reserves of Galactic behavior... and went back to Woody. He held the fence back for him so Woody could get through, then they both ran through the spaces between buildings until they were sure they weren't pursued.
* * *
Woody was never openly grateful, but his attacks on Xander ceased. That gave Xander a little hope... but it never stopped the others.
* * *
The overpass where the four-lane crossed the freeway close to his house had a cage of chain link extending up and curving over the unmoving sidewalks on either side, to prevent vandalistic missiles from reaching the rushing streams of cars below. It was the most open spot he could think of, though, and unaccountably empty on this early Saturday morning. If a spaceship were to come down, following the lights on the freeway - if his parents were to return for him - he would have to meet it here, where its sensors could detect him, where his father the Prince and mother his royal Consort could spot him from the ports.
There were gaps here and there in the wide-meshed fence - not intentional gaps, perhaps, but just wide enough for a boy of a certain otherworldly slenderness to fit through, if he didn't mind a few scrapes.
* * *
There. There. It was coming. Hovering over the freeway, vast and gleaming, wavering in and out of Xander's vision as its shields coped with the changing illumination - nothing but a sudden dark cloud to the drivers underneath. Still the overpass was empty, no one to see the ship but him. He was crying, his torn t-shirt tearing further as he slipped through the mesh. It was coming for him. They were finally coming for him. He could, almost, see them waving.
* * *
He stepped out and up, onto the glowing spaceship, and let it take him away.
* * *
©2004 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated November 30, 2004.