Shift

Charlotte Agell

Henry Holt and Co.

Shift
PART ONE
Destination Unknown
Mom and I have been having the same argument for so many weeks now that we've got it down cold. We can run the long version or the short version, depending on what's up, but it never really changes. It would be funny, if it wasn't boring me to death.
"Adrian, you have to sign up for Vacation Bible School." She usually has her arms crossed, as if that makes what she's saying more serious.
"No."
"It's a graduation requirement now. You know that."
Silence. I can say a lot by not talking.
"If you don't do it soon, it's going to be too late."
"Well, speaking of too late, Mom, how the hell does it make sense to even have graduation requirements ifthe world is going to end, the way they keep telling us?" I can get away with this since I know Mom thinks the Regime is way off base on this End of the World stuff. But she hates swearing.
Sigh. My mom looks old when she sighs, and I don't like that, even though I'm winning the argument.
The stalling part seems to be working. It's already almost the end of July, and I'm not signed up yet. And I won't be. The only reason I can think of to go is that maybe at Vacation Bible School I would at least meet some girls. But Daniel says those aren't the kind of girls I want to meet. He's lucky, sort of. He's Jewish so he's not required to sign up. But then again, there's a lot he can't do ever since the new Regime. Like live in my neighborhood. And that sucks.
The interesting thing about Mom's and my argument isn't so much what we're saying. It's what we're not saying:
"Adrian, if you don't sign up, it's going to make us stick out, and that won't be good. Especially for my job."
"Mom, what the heck does the Regime even need you for? It's pretty clear they don't believe in science."
And that's where I get stuck. Because Mom doesn't talk anymore. She used to tell me everything. Now I have no clue what she's doing. Working for them, I guess. But doing what? All I know is whatever it istakes her away too much, and Shriek and I get stuck here with Mitzi, the most sickeningly sweet person in Atro City. And that's another conversation we have on instant replay.
"Mom, I'm fifteen. I can take care of us without Ditzy."
"Honey"--by now she ignores the Ditzy part--"what about cooking?"
"Insta-meals. Besides, I'm good at spaghetti."
"Well, the bathrooms, then ... . You'd never clean them."
"Shriek could do it."
"Adrian!" She gets mad because my sister's only nine and kind of on the special side.
"Okay, I'd do it."
"Be nice, Adrian. Mitzi loves you and your sister."
(Gag!)
All the arguing gets on my nerves, and the pretending is worse. Everything is not okay, and with Daniel not answering his messages (as in the last two weeks!) there isn't even anybody to complain to.
So I decide to go up in the tree.
I haven't done that for a long time, maybe years.
Dad built the fort, way back when he was still around. I was in elementary school, and Shriek had all these imaginary friends, and life was a whole lot better. I remember bringing him nails and cold beer, andhow excited he was by the whole thing. It was like he was offering us nature, and there isn't exactly too much of that in Atro City. Not then, not now.
"This is the last oak," he had said, or something like that. I remember him patting it, as if he was introducing me to an old, beloved friend. Before Dad decided to make the fort, I hadn't thought much about the tree. It was big. It was there. That was about it. When I was little, I wasn't so hot on going outside since I was kind of afraid of bugs. And the rough bark was full of ants. But it was a pretty cool tree, with its wide, spreading branches. Still is. It's a miracle that it isn't dead already, considering the fact that an elevated highway runs straight through our backyard, spewing out fumes and shit.
So, I go by the garage to see if Dad's old binoculars are still hanging on the hook where he left them, and they are. I slip the leather strap around my neck and look up. The tree fort boards don't seem too rotten. I start climbing up the branches. The binoculars smash into my chest with every rung, but it feels good, like I'm finally doing something.
I think about looking for some birds, even though it's getting dark. Maybe birds are more active in the evening ... what do I know? Dad was really into ornithology. Even the word seemed cool way back when he taught it to me, and sometimes I think I'd liketo be into it, too. Just to be like him in some way. But it's kind of hard considering that there just aren't that many birds around. At least not since the Disaster. When Dad used these binoculars, it was different. There were all these little birds with cool names--like chickadee, titmouse, and jay. Hawks, even. Once Dad and I saw a cardinal. I must have been three. I remember it was the color of blood.
These days, all we get is crap birds, pigeons and gulls. They basically just want your sandwich.
I settle onto the splintery boards, hoping to see something different--a sparrow, maybe, or one with color.
Something wild.
 
Night arrives, and I haven't seen a single bird. So I use the binoculars to look in on Mitzi, who is dicing something for supper. Celery, probably. She's obsessed with it, because it supposedly has no calories. Her face bothers me. She looks permanently surprised from all the face-lifts she's had. I see Shriek, too, skipping back and forth in her own private world. At least she looks happy. I decide I'm not going in. I'll just stay up in the tree and look at the night sky.
That's what I really want to do, mostly because of the moon. It's going to be full, and the night is unusually clear. I'm obsessed with it. Dad's squadron is stationed there. Or was. The moon is his lastknown address. Five years. No messages. Nothing. He can't be up there anymore. Still, I look up and hope.
You have to hold your breath to see faraway things with binoculars, to keep the view steady. I lie on my back and stare until I'm dizzy, but who am I kidding? There's no way I'm going to see the missile silos, or guys in space suits taking a walk 250,000 miles away. The moon just hangs there, a silent white orb reminding me of Dad.
"Good night," I say to nobody, and then I fall asleep.
 
When I wake up, it's morning. Early, but definitely morning. Traffic honks and whines by the upper branches. I'm stiff as hell from sleeping on the boards, and I feel like a loser. (Maybe I am a loser.) I've got this really terrible feeling in my chest, as if I'm on the moon and out of oxygen, and it's probably just on account of all the fumes, but the feeling makes me want to do something. Only I don't know what.
That's why, instead of coming down out of the tree like a regular human being, I start climbing up. Losers do all kinds of weird and amusing things. I'd laugh, but it's me doing it. I keep climbing until I get to the branch that Shriek always called "the bridge" backwhen we were hanging out in the tree. It's the one that grows right over to the highway, almost like a ramp. The bridge is solid and wide. There are so many branches above me that it's easy to grab one to hold on to, and there are a whole bunch below me if I fall. Not that I'm going to fall. I'm not really all that afraid. I'm not really all that awake.
I walk out over that branch bridge and hop onto the highway as if I've been practicing this move for years. Cars and trucks whiz by so fast my pants flap. I can see the drivers looking at me, like what the hell am I doing on the highway? I figure one of them might stop for me, and I'll tell them where I'm going. I'll have to think fast, because I don't actually know.
Destination unknown.
The view from the highway is unbelievably ugly. If I were a bird, I wouldn't live here either. All I can see is city city city, in about twenty-five shades of gray. To the west, the famous Atro City chemical plants send their plumes of poison drifting into the sky. Downtown is a glittering mirage of fancy glass towers. A long line of electrical tripods, the ones that scare Shriek with all their crackling when we drive by, look like dinosaurs for some reason--and I don't care what the teachers now have to say, there were dinosaurs. How could anybody make up a diplodocus? The only beautiful thing is the river, a long silver poisonoussnake. I cling to the guardrail. This is starting to be a way stupid idea.
Then it gets worse. A yellow HomeState copter comes buzzing out of nowhere. I duck. It's got to be illegal to be standing here on the highway. I'm just about to jump back onto the branch bridge when an ancient red car slows down, some kind of station wagon. It looks as if it's driven straight out of some old-time show starring hopeful and cheery people. They haven't made cars like this in decades. At first, I don't think there's anybody driving it, but then a little old lady leans out and yells, "Jump in!"
So I do.
 
"You must be out of your mind, little boy," she says. "What in heaven's name are you doing on the highway?" Either she left her face out in the rain or she's 102, but the wrinkles are reassuring somehow. Less fake, more granny-like. She frowns at me. "Where are you headed?"
"Beechmont," I say, as if I had that in mind all along. As if I have a plan. "And I'm fifteen years old." Beechmont is where Daniel lives now. Considering he's not answering messages of any kind, there's probably nobody home, and that's truly weird, since his family isn't allowed to go very many places. I'll feel better if I go and check.
"Beechmont," repeats the lady in an amused voice. "Why not?" Maybe she has nothing better to do than drive around, because she gets off at the next exit, the way you have to if you want to get to Beechmont. I'm not sure if I'm being kidnapped or humored, but for now, I'm along for the ride. "You shouldn't walk on the highway," she confides, as she does a U-turn to get onto the crosstown express. "You could get yourself arrested."
I nod and look out the window. She's right, of course. She peers at me as we screech up onto the highway again. "But I'm glad to help you, son." She pats my leg as we drive along at terrifying speeds. She tells me that her name is Myrna and all about her six cats and her four grandkids, or whatever. And it's strange how I feel safe and nervous at the same time. Not nervous because of anything she's about to do. Nervous because of what I'm about to do. By the time she lets me off, I almost wish the ride was longer. At least with her, I was going somewhere.
"Take care," she says as I hop out the door. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
Copyright © 2008 by Charlotte Agell