Bongo Fishing

Thacher Hurd; illustrations by Thacher Hurd

Henry Holt and Co.

Something far out in space, maybe even beyond Mars, was hurtling toward Earth. It was metallic, about the size of a car, and going very fast. It was going so fast that it would be hard to see what it was, or what was inside it, yet it seemed to know exactly where it was going. It was going so fast that a regular spaceship traveling at 17,000 miles an hour would have looked like it was standing still as our small metallic object passed it, and the astronauts inside would have seen only a streak that vanished almost as soon as it appeared. No telescope would have seen it, no normal earth radar, though there were many people on Earth, both good and bad, who would have liked to see it. Smoke trailed behind the metallic object, lights blinked on and off inside, and it exuded a general air of efficiency and well-worn experience as it barreled along at super-hypersonic speed.
*   *   *
On Earth, it was the end of the school day. Jason Jameson sat in class daydreaming while Ms. Rothbar talked about poetry and her pet poodle. Jason was drawing a doodle of a really fast car on his math homework while Ms. Rothbar talked, and he was wondering when the bell would ring. Then he wondered what he would do when he got home, and then he wondered why it seemed like nothing was going on in his life.
Just a cloudy day in Berkeley, fog coming across the bay, seagulls whirling above the soccer field outside.
*   *   *
Out in space, the bright metallic object (was it green?) drew closer to Earth, and if you had been inside looking out, you would have seen Earth like a huge green-and-blue ball hanging in front of you, oceans and deserts and cities spread over its perfect curve.
The metallic object began, finally, to slow. It veered a little to the left and then made a turn and pointed straight down toward the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, foggy where the cold water met the warm land. The metallic object tried to find a clear landing place, but now something seemed awry, and it shivered and shook and refused to change course. Down it went, closer to the fog bank. It wobbled and shuddered and sped on.
*   *   *
At last the bell rang. Jason gathered his books and stuffed them in his backpack and started off for home, down Ninth Street, then left on Harrison. He was lost in thought, but later he wouldn’t be able to remember anything about what he had been thinking. His feet pattered down the street, and he counted in time to his footsteps, trying not to step on the cracks, enjoying the rhythm of his walking.
He heard a sound above him, small and far away, different from other city sounds.
Far away at first and then a little closer: in the air somewhere, in the low clouds. Jason turned to look up as the sound grew louder, but there was nothing to see. A black car with shiny hubcaps rolled down the street, stereo rattling its windows, turned the corner, and disappeared.
The sound from above grew louder and louder, until it became a screeching yowl that hurt Jason’s eardrums. He stood like a statue with his mouth open, staring up. Out of the clouds the metallic object appeared, close now and going very fast.
It was heading straight toward him.
Jason froze. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. His heart was racing, there was no time to think or even move the tiniest bit. Louder and louder, closer and closer the object came at him.
The object stopped dead in the air, a dark shape looming just above Jason. He heard a small hissing sound, like steam escaping from a valve, and the clank of metal on metal. The object hesitated for a moment and then veered off, careening into the empty industrial lot next to him. WHUMP—it landed in the far corner of the lot, behind a pile of dirt. A cloud of smoke and dust billowed up.
Jason doubled over with relief, inhaling big gulps of air. He steadied himself against a telephone pole. His legs shook, his hands were sweaty, his heart rattled in his chest. What could it have been? A satellite? A bomb? A plane crash? How could it have stopped in midair? His heart still pounding, he stood up and looked across the empty lot. Clouds of steam curled up from behind the pile of dirt.
A big truck drove down the street but rumbled past without stopping. Everything seemed just as before, except for the steam hissing from the empty lot. Jason, still leaning against the telephone pole, wondered whether the police were coming. Shouldn’t they be screeching around the corner to deal with this emergency? But there was nothing, just the same gray afternoon sky, the same fog whispering in, the same empty Ninth Street.
No one had seen the strange object except Jason. How could that be? Should he run for help? Call the police? He looked more intently at the pile of dirt and the steam rising up. He wanted to take a peek, but something held him back. Maybe it was a bomb about to blow up?
Then he thought, I could look at it for just a second. Just to check it out. His legs still shaking, he made his way across the lot and scrambled to the top of the pile of dirt.
Smoke billowed up in front of him, and he squinted, trying to see through it. The hissing seemed to be quieting down, and he heard a sound like a hubcap falling to the ground. Something seemed to draw him in, and he crept closer. He heard a groan, then muttering in a language he didn’t understand: “Beedleupgogborpzzzt zzzt krum!” Then loud, hacking coughs.
The voice started again, but this time in English: “Crummy no-good dust drive. Knew I shoulda fixed it before I left!”
Jason stood transfixed, peering through the smoke. Out of the haze, reaching through something like a car window, appeared a small, slightly blue hand.
Jason recoiled from the hand, but then he was fascinated and moved nearer. When he was a few feet away, the voice called out, “Isn’t this Earth?”
“Yyyes, this is Earth.”
“How about a hand? Door’s busted shut.” More hacking coughs and the sound of a car door rattling. The hand beckoned to him, and the voice said, “Don’t worry, just do it.”
Jason reached out to touch the hand and felt a shock, almost electric. It grabbed tightly onto his hand, and, surprised, he pulled away. As he did, he fell over backward and landed in the dirt. Whatever he was holding went flying over his head. Jason lay on the ground for a moment, then sat up and turned around.
A small man stood in front of him, alternately coughing and energetically dusting off his clothes. He was about the same height as Jason, but much older, old enough to be a grandfather. He had silvery white hair, a black baseball cap, faded blue jeans, and a jacket that reminded Jason of something a race-car driver would wear. On his feet was a pair of purple high-top sneakers.
Jason studied the man’s face. He had bright eyes that seemed amused by what they saw around him, and a crooked nose. His face, like his hands, was slightly blue. The man looked up from cleaning his jacket and broke into a laugh.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, kid?” he said, then went on brushing himself off. He picked a piece of straw out of his hair, flicked it away, and reached into his jacket pocket to pull out a card, which he held out to Jason. “The name’s Sam. Samuel X. Orbit.”
Jason looked down at the card. It looked like an ordinary business card, but a little more mysterious.
The man bowed low with an exaggerated swing of his arm. “Glad to meet you, kid.” He held out his hand for Jason to shake.
Jason stared. Where had he come from? What was he doing here? Was he really from outer space? Was he an alien? Was this a joke? A trick played by someone from Telegraph Avenue? Jason felt nervous. What was he supposed to say to an alien who had landed in Berkeley, whose smoking spaceship was sitting in an empty lot on Ninth Street? What if he wasn’t an alien at all, but some weirdo from San Francisco? It seemed like he had come in from that direction.
Jason’s mind was racing, and his mother’s words rang in his ears: “Don’t talk to strangers!”
This was definitely a stranger.
He tried to think of something to say, but nothing would come out of the rush of his thoughts. Standing at attention, he blurted, “Alien! I come in peace!” in a high, scared-sounding voice.
The small man burst out laughing, his eyes twinkling. The more he thought about what Jason had said, the funnier it seemed to him, until he was doubled over in laughter. He regained his composure and said, “Hey, kid, that’s my line. I come in peace. You live here.”
Jason was taken aback by this response. He relaxed his shoulders and stared at the little man. Whatever he was, he seemed very comfortable on Earth. Jason felt reassured. At least this being who called himself Sam could talk to people on Earth.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Jason. Jason Jameson.”
“Jason, hmmmm? I knew a Jason on Orion 26 one time. Gave me a lift for a couple of light-years when this blasted machine conked out on me.”
“Orion? Is that out past Concord somewhere? Out in the suburbs?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, “way past Concord. About 1,344 light-years past Concord, give or take a few parsecs here and there, and not counting if one wants to take a detour to the Pleiades, which is where I live. That’s only 410 light-years away. Ever been there, kid?” Sam’s eyes sparkled.
Ever been there? This was getting out of hand. “Uh, no, not recently.”
“Not recently?” Sam said. “You mean like, never?”
“I haven’t even been to New York.”
“Well, anyway,” Sam said. “So you’re probably wondering what I’m doing in this empty lot in Berkeley, California. This is Berkeley, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Jason.
“Thought so. At least that’s what the Omni-Locator said. By the way, thanks for pulling me out. And sorry about the close call back on the street there. Steering’s a little loose.” Sam pulled a piece of grass out of his ear. “Took the Dart out for a spin to test the new turbo drive I put in. Slipped it into thirty-sixth gear out near Pluto, thinking I’d slingshot around the sun and then home to the Pleiades, when it conked out on me. There I am out in the middle of the asteroids with no power. Then I think, Earth! It’s only a few million miles away, so I zip over here and manage the reentry angle, but then the steering gets a little funny on me and I have to make an emergency landing in your fair city. Wouldn’t you know it? Just when Edna had a delicious dinner cooking.”
“Edna? Who’s Edna? Is she in the spaceship with you?”
“Cooking in the spaceship? No way. Can’t fit a stove in my spaceship. She’s my wife, back home in the Pleiades, making a ruckus in the kitchen and cooking up something scrumptious.”
“Oh.” Jason liked the way this alien talked. There was something comfortable about him, even if his skin was slightly blue. Sam reminded him of his uncle Miltie in Los Angeles. Uncle Miltie was an auto mechanic, too.
“Any good at fixing stuff?” Sam was looking intently at Jason. “Like broken-down spaceships?”

Text and illustrations copyright © 2011 by Thacher Hurd