The Empty Quarter
Every couple of months Dad and I would climb in the car and he’d drive out through the suburbs, out past the small towns, past the farms and ranches, until we came to what I called the Empty Quarter. I saw a BBC special on it once—I thought they said Ruby Kallie, but now I know they were saying the Rub al-Khali—the “quarter of emptiness.” It’s the sea of sand that makes up a fifth of the Arabian Peninsula, but for us it could mean Death Valley, or the Gila wilderness, or the Spanish Pyrenees, and once, it was an island in the Bay of Siam that we had to sail a small boat to.
But it had to be empty—it had to be without people. That was the only safe place where I could do it, where I could practice.
“We just can’t chance it, Griff. You want to do this, this is the only way.”
We were living in the United States then, five thousand miles from England, in San Diego, in a garage flat at the north end of Balboa Park, but when Dad said that, we were a hundred miles east of the flat. We’d taken the Yuma cutoff, U.S. 98 off of Interstate 8, and it was hot and windy and sand was blowing across the road.
I was only nine then, used to not knowing anything, always asking, always pushing. “Then why do it at all—why should we even take this chance?”
He looked sideways at me and sighed, then back to the road, swerving slightly to avoid a bouncing tumbleweed the size of a Volkswagen. “It comes down to . . . could you do that? Could you walk away from it? I mean, for me, it would be like spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair, even though I could still walk. I’d be pretending I could do naught, you know, making myself do everything the hard way when by just standing up and taking a few steps I could reach that stuff off the wheelchair ramp, the stuff on the upper shelf.”
He sped up a little as we reached a rocky stretch where there wasn’t quite so much blowing sand. “And, dammit, it’s a gift! Why the hell shouldn’t you be able to do it? Just because they—” He clamped his mouth shut and looked back at the road.
For once I didn’t push it. There were some things my parents just wouldn’t talk about, and what happened back in Oxford was one of them. When I’d first jumped, at five, from the steps of the Martyr’s Memorial in front of a busload of tourists. Well, not then, exactly, but after, the thing that caused us to leave the UK and keep moving.
Dad began watching the odometer closely, checking the map. He hadn’t been there before—our Empty Quarters were always different. He drove past the road, only recognizing the turn after we passed because a tangle of tumbleweeds hid the cattle guard that marked it. We were the only ones on the highway—he just backed up and made the turn, switching the Range Rover into four-wheel as soon as he was in the loose sand on the other side of the grate.
“Tell me the rules,” he said.
“Go on, Dad!” I knew the rules. I’d known them since I was six.
“So, back to the flat? It’s two hours, but I’ll do it.”
I held up my hand. “All right, all right!” I held up four fingers and ticked them off one by one. “Never jump where someone can see me. Never jump near home. Never jump to or from the same place twice. And never, never, ever jump unless I must—or unless you or Mum tell me to.”
“And what does that mean—that you must?”
“If I’m going to get hurt or captured.”
“Killed or captured by who?”
“Anyone.” Them. That’s all I knew. The strangers from Oxford.
“And what does it mean if you break the rules?”
“Have to move. Again.”
We drove for another forty-five minutes, though it was slow going. “This’ll have to do. Any farther and we’ll be too close to the border. Don’t want to attract the INS.” He turned up a dry wash and went on until we couldn’t see the road and the hills of the ravine rose up on both sides.
It took us ten minutes to climb to the top of the higher ridge, so we could see all around. Dad used his binoculars, taking forever. Finally he said, “Okay. In the ravine only, right-oh?”
I danced in place. “Now?”
He said, “Now.”
I looked down at the Rover, toy-sized, at the bottom of the ravine, and then I was there, sand settling around me as I fumbled with the gate.
By the time Dad had hiked back down I’d changed into the coveralls and the goggles and I had the face mask hanging loosely around my neck. When he came trudging across the sand and gravel, I was laying out the paintball gun and the hopper full of rounds and the CO2 cartridges.
He took a drink from the water bottle and offered it to me. While I drank he put on his own goggles and loaded the gun.
“Don’t wait for me to fire. This is pretty fast—maybe two hundred feet per second—but you could still jump before it arrived if you were far enough away. But bullets travel thousands of feet per second. You wait till they fire, and you’ll be dead.
“Don’t let anyone even point a weapon at you.”
I was just seating the face mask when he shot me, point-blank, in the thigh.
“Fuck!” I yelled, grabbing my leg. The paint was red and I put one of my hands right in it.
“What did you say?” Dad looked half mad, half amused. I could swear he was trying not to laugh.
I blinked, looking down at the red paint on my hand. My leg hurt. It hurt a lot, but I wasn’t supposed to use that word. I opened my mouth to reply but Dad said, “Never mind,” and lifted the gun again.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . .
The paintball splattered across the gravel, but I was twenty feet off to the side. Dad twisted and got off a quick shot but the reason it didn’t hit me was that he missed, not that I’d jumped in time. I felt the wind of the projectile go past my head but then I was on the far side of the truck and the second shot passed through empty air, before tumbling through the branches of a creosote bush.
“Okay,” he yelled. “Hide-and-seek, unlimited.”
I turned around and began counting loudly. I heard his feet crunch across gravel and then nothing. The second I counted thirty, I jumped sideways, thirty feet, expecting to hear the poooof of the paintball gun, but Dad was nowhere in sight.
There were several stretches of sand in the wash and one of these had a fresh set of widely spaced tracks leading across it. I jumped to the stretch of sand without crossing the gravel and followed them.
I had to find him without getting shot. But I could jump as much as I wanted. Around a bend in the ravine, the tracks were closer together but they went another fifty feet and stopped in the middle of the wash. Stopped.
Dad wasn’t there, either, and there wasn’t anything nearby he could have stepped onto. For just a second, I thought, Maybe . . . maybe Dad could—
The paintball caught me on the butt. It didn’t hurt near as much as the last one but it hurt my pride. I spun and jumped at the same time, sideways, ten feet, sloppy—there must’ve been ten pounds of dirt falling away from me and jump rot hanging in the air where I’d been. Twisting, fading jump rot.
Dad was stepping out from behind some scrub. The gun hung loosely at his side.
I pointed at the line of tracks in the sand. “Did you jump?”
He laughed, almost a bark. “Don’t I wish! I just turned around and walked back in my tracks.” He pointed at some rocks near his hiding place. “Stepped off the sand there and Bob’s your uncle.” He pointed his finger at the ground and twirled it like he was stirring a drink. “Again.”
I turned around and started counting loudly. As he ran off he shouted over his shoulder, “Look for more than tracks in the sand!”
And that’s the sort of thing we did for the next hour. We did hide-and-seek, limited (where I couldn’t jump until I saw him), and tag, where I had to jump close enough to touch him and get away without getting shot, and closed room, where we drew a big square in the sand and I could jump anywhere in it but not leave it, while he fired shot after shot.
Once he hit a patch of jump rot where I’d been and the paintball exploded, coming back out as high-velocity pieces of plastic film and a mist of spray paint. Another time, I jumped late and the paintball came with me, tumbling through the brush at right angles to its original path, but missing me.
Dad was perplexed. “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it do that before.” Dad had this theory that the jump rot was like, well, like the wake of a ship, the disruption of the water when a vessel passes through. It’s like the turbulence or maybe even a hole I leave behind.
When I jump in a hurry, sloppily, there’s more of it and I carry more crap with me. When I’m focused, if there is jump rot, it’s tiny, and fades away almost instantly.
We continued. When Dad said, “Enough,” I had one more paint mark on my right shoulder blade, but he’d gone through seventy paintball rounds. He let me shoot a dozen rounds at a boulder, enough to finish off the last of the CO2 cartridge, and then we went home.
He never said anything about my swearing and I never said anything about him shooting me in the leg.
Call it even.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I had karate class.
Mum had a doctorate in French literature but she didn’t work. She was homeschooling me. She said that I just got too bored in the public education system, but I heard them talking once, when they thought I was asleep.
Dad said, “What can we do about it? He’s too young to hold a secret this big all the time. It’s not fair to him and it’s too dangerous. Maybe later, when he’s older.”
Mum said, “He’s not a kid. No kid ever talked like that—he’s a miniature adult. He needs to run up against kid logic and skin his knees where we’re not there to pick him up. He needs to make friends.”
The compromise was karate class. The homeschooling curriculum required a physical education equivalent so I had to do something.
I think Dad went for it because of the discipline and because he thought, from the class he watched, that the kids never talked to each other. Well, we weren’t supposed to talk during class but it was an after-school program at the elementary school two blocks away—all form-one kids. Of course there was talking.
I liked our instructor, Sensei Torres. He didn’t play favorites and he was very gentle and he was very careful to keep Paully MacLand in check.
Paully was in fifth grade for the second time and he was almost as tall as Sensei Torres. He’d been doing the karate program since first grade and had a green belt.
And he was mean.
We were doing two-step kumite partner practice. One person would attack with a punch and the other would block and counterpunch. I was working with Paully and he wasn’t interested in the exercise. He was interested in hurting.
There was a definite no-contact rule. If you kicked or punched you had to stop short of hitting anybody. It was a firm rule and anyone who broke it had to sit out and could get dropped from the class if he kept doing it. Paully knew that. One of the kids told me Paully was kicked out of the class back in fourth grade for repeated offenses and was only allowed back the next year.
What Paully did instead was turn his blocks into strikes. He’d block so hard, it hurt—it left bruises. Like, perhaps, a paintball round in the thigh, point-blank.
I didn’t swear this time, though. I gritted my teeth instead and kept going. To hit so hard, Paully was drawing back, cocking before the block, which required he start almost before I actually punched. Next time it was my turn, I broke my rhythm, stepping in, but delaying the punch slightly. He blocked and missed my arm entirely. My punch stopped just short of his nose.
Sensei Torres laughed and had everybody change partners. Later he said to me privately, “Good eyes, Griff. It was bad karate. In a real fight, you can’t block a strike that hasn’t even started.”
But Paully was waiting when I finished changing for the walk home, just inside the locker room, blocking the door. “So, you limey ass-licker, think you’re somethin’ with that stutter punch? Think you can make me look bad in front of Sensei?”
Maybe Dad was right about me having trouble keeping my mouth shut. It just came out, unbidden.
“Bollocks. You don’t need me to look bad. You do that all by yourself.” Right away I was sorry I said it, scared, in fact, but how do you take something like that back, especially when you mean it?
He just charged, rage painted on his face like red paint, his fist cocked back and looking larger than any paintball.
I couldn’t help it. Really, I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to break the rule, but one second his fist was heading toward my face like a thrown rock and the next I was standing in a cloud of dust in a ravine, next to a paintball-splattered boulder, out in the Empty Quarter.
I’d just broken rules number one and two (don’t jump near home and don’t jump where someone can see me) and maybe even rule four (don’t jump unless I must—if I’m going to get killed or captured).
I was in so much trouble.
Copyright © 2007 by Steven C. Gould. All rights reserved.