Chapter 1 - The Clubhouse


August, 1977

I sit in the rusted folding chair in one corner of the clubhouse. I'm staring intently at ground in front of me. I'm waiting for something to happen. I don't really think it will.

This is experiment x00213.

It says so on the open page of the notebook at my feet.

---

Two things you should know about the clubhouse.
  1. It's not a house.
  2. It was never intended to contain a club.
Clubs mean people. People get in the way.

I could call it a hideout, I suppose, but that implies an intent that I'm not prepared to concede. I'm not anti-social. I just don't want people in the clubhouse. The clubhouse is for reading. The clubhouse is for contemplation. The clubhouse is for experimentation.

These things are done alone.

I stare a bit longer at the seemingly random framework of sticks, paperclips, and rubber bands that I've built in the center of the clubhouse. It unfolds tentatively from the crusty dirt floor beneath my feet like some sort of shyly primitive alien growth.

Still nothing.

I turn my attention to the Complex, Invisible Surveillance System on the wall beside me.

Everything seems to be in order.

All systems go for Phase Two.

---

For too long I've done nothing but read comic books in the clubhouse. That was the original purpose, after all. But that changed three months ago. Everything changed three months ago. There's a stack of unread Richie Rich waiting patiently for me in my room. But the experiments are priority now. The summer is rapidly coming to an end. Time is of the essence, in more ways than one.

I wasted too much time at the pool today. I know that. But the pool is the one place I can go in the summer to swim in something other than sweat.

My pores are overactive. The summer is not my friend.

After swimming, I walk to the gas station down the street. I've got just enough money for a Chocolate Nehi from their pop machine. I shouldn't spend it, but Chocolate Nehi will focus my thoughts. Chocolate Nehi will crack this puzzle. I'm certain of it.

When I die, I want to be buried in a vat of Chocolate Nehi.

I walk home reminding myself that if I make real progress, I can go back to the pool tonight. I live for the pool. I revel in the water. If not for meals and sleep, I would never leave the water.

Meals, sleep, and now the experiments.

I should have sent my sister on the paper route that day.

---

The shed could have been the clubhouse, of course. No one ever uses it. But the shed would be the obvious choice. I don't enjoy being obvious.

Much better behind the shed. In the corner where it leans against the back of the garage. There's a drainage ditch on the left that forms an imposing mote. The front of the clubhouse is obscured by a mulberry bush. The mulberry bush provides much-needed privacy, and the opportunity for snacks. Beyond the mote I see the small, white home of Grandma Kroll. 

Grandma Kroll lives around the block. She's not my grandma. Grandma Kroll is grandma to all.

Grandma Kroll has a canary in a cage that constantly chirps, in that yellowish way that canaries do, and there's a giant red tricycle that lives in her front room with multi-colored streamers billowing from its handlebars. The tricycle and the canary are unrelated, of course, but the room would seem incomplete with only one of them. There are also bowls of Werthers. Big bowls of Werthers.

The room would also seem incomplete without the Werthers, but the canary and the tricycle are the star of the show. The Werthers are just the straight man. Or so I thought.

---

I wish I had that tricycle right now, I think. It wouldn't fit inside the clubhouse, of course, or if it did, there wouldn't be any room left for me, but it suddenly seems Just the Right Thing to complete my experiment. It's the bell, of course. The shining silver bell that lives on the handlebar. 

I need a trigger. 

Obviously.

But I remind myself that Resourcefulness is the Seventh Most Important Thing.

Resourcefulness.

I turn to examine the two-by-four nailed to the back of the shed just above the CISS. The two-by-four serves as a shelf, and atop it are prescription drug bottles filled with varying combinations of common household ingredients. Some are inert, others bubble and hiss and threaten to pop their lids. Each has its own purpose, of course, but for most of them that purpose is unclear. To define them too soon would be to lessen their power. And power, right now, is the thing I need most.

There's no roof on the clubhouse, of course, but there is an eave above the graying, pitted surface of the shelf, and though the shelf itself has not escaped the elements, the eave and the mulberry bush seem to provide just enough of a shield to prevent any wind gusts from endangering the bottles. This is important. The formulas are a secret, even to myself. If a bottle were lost it could never be re-created.

I scan the bottles slowly from left to right, as I reach into my pocket for one of Grandma Kroll's Werthers. The wrapper crinkles between my fingers. One of the bottles catches my eye. I freeze.

Why?

I step forward and gaze at it intently. Compare it to the other bottles. It's third in line, but that could mean anything.

It's the same color.

Same size.

Filled to the same level.

What is it?

I step back to take them all in at once. Left to right. Right to left. I step on the chair to view them from above.

It's out of line.

That's the difference.

It stands ahead of the others, just slightly.

Like a soldier volunteering for hazardous duty.

---

I begin to unwrap the Werthers with one hand as I reach for the bottle with the other. The invisible screen of the CISS catches my eye. I pop the Werthers out of its wrapper and into my mouth, drop the cellophane onto the ground, poke at the invisible keypad below the invisible screen, my fingers know where to go. I watch. Adjust the coordinates again. Lean forward. Watch...

False alarm.

I thumb the controls back to stand-by and return my attention to the bottle. I pop the lid and hold it tentatively above the framework. I tip it a bit, then stop. Consider.

I untip for a moment and take a slight sniff. It smells like lemon dish soap and vinegar. What if I chose the wrong one? I sniff again.

No.

Instinct. The Second Most Important Thing. Follow your instinct.

Always.

I lift the bottle again and ever so slowly tip, tip, tip it above the ground until one drop of whatever it contains breaks free and plunges downward toward the fragile framework below. I watch it tumble through the air like a slow motion diver and splash down in the center of the lattice where it's sucked almost immediately into the cracked, thirsty earth.

I hold my breath and wait.

Nothing.

I wait longer.

Nothing.

Wait...

Damn.

I finally take a breath and nearly choke on the forgotten Werthers in my mouth. I gag and cough it out onto the ground where it bounces once over the framework and lands in a puff of dirt on the other side.

Wait.

Was that a glimmer?

Just then, as the Werthers passed over the framework?

I turn to the CISS, enter the code and punch the replay button with my knuckle.

Inconclusive.

I turn back to the mute, dusty Werthers.

Think.

I pick it up. I pop it into my mouth to remove impurities and spit it back into my palm.

Could it be?

I pinch it gently between my thumb and forefinger, bring it up to my eye, gaze through it toward the framework like a jeweler inspecting a diamond.

Was that a spark?

I place it down into the center of the framework, not even thinking, I wait, nothing happens, but I'm moving by instinct now.

Instinct.

I reach for the bottle from its spot on the shelf, the CISS is blinking in five different places now, but I ignore the alarms. It's too late to do anything about them now.

I turn back toward the framework. I notice the mulberries. They're glowing. Sparkling like a galaxy of plump, juicy suns in the vast outer reaches of space. I pluck the plumpest one from its branch and drop it into the bottle, I cover it with my palm and shake, once, twice, three times. I can feel the vibrations now, they're coming from everywhere as I once again tip the bottle slowly over the framework and drip one drop onto the Werthers below. The Werthers cracks open with a deafening snap, then a yellowish chirp, and the clubhouse is suddenly flooded with...

Something...

I crash down onto the rusted folding chair in the corner. There's a something hovering in the air. Just above the framework. Between me and the mote. A transparent something. A something I can see through.

I stand up very carefully and move forward for a closer look. It's like a light hovering above the ground, but it doesn't light up the shady corners of the clubhouse. It's a small, roundish windowish thing with the sun shining through it, but it doesn't hurt your eyes to stare at it. And when I get close enough to look through it, I see...

Holy shit.

My knees buckle, and I land hard, bouncing from the chair onto the ground. The wind is knocked out of me. The sweat pours from my forehead.

Grandma Kroll's white house has turned blue.

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Chapter 2 - Prologue

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