By Steven Heitmeyer
Copyright 2012 Steven Heitmeyer
This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, places, characters and events are products of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
As it had been doing for thousands of years, the small, pockmarked rock journeyed silently through empty space, continuing onward towards its David and Goliath encounter with the massive, bluish rock. Unlike the millions of rocks, large and small, that the little rock had passed during its long journey, there was something special, almost unique in the universe about the blue rock. The blue rock had formed billions of years ago, and had existed as nothing more than an empty rock until just a few million years ago. Against all odds, a few molecules had managed to combine and survive the onslaught of the violent, desolate atmosphere long enough to evolve into something more than simple chemical compounds. The evolutionary process continued, slowly at first, and then at breakneck speed until virtually all of the blue rock was inhabited by the ancestors of the original compounds. The first of these ancestors were no more aware of their environment than the tiny rock was aware of its surroundings in space. By now, however, a microscopic percentage of these ancestors of organic compounds had progressed to the point of recognizing, responding to and adapting to their environment.
One of these species had progressed far beyond all of the others on the blue rock and had now acquired the ability to analyze and control its own environment. This species had awarded itself the title of "most advanced species on earth" and named itself "human." Early humans, when they were not pursuing activities necessary for survival, had merely gazed at the stars and wondered what they were. Over the past few hundred years, humans had observed that the stars were similar to their own sun. They learned that their blue rock revolved around a star. They began to speculate that there might be other planets, so they built machines that could peer into space at great distances. They identified more planets, more moons, more comets, more asteroids and more galaxies. In just the past few years, a few knowledgeable humans had begun to believe that there might perhaps even be more universes.
The most intriguing possibility of all, most humans agreed, was the idea that there might be living beings on other planets. This concept inspired both fear and longing, often coexisting in the same human. Moving pictures were produced and novels written describing the endless possibilities and permutations of extraterrestrial life. Small ships were sent beyond earth's atmosphere to search for signs of life. Massive telescopes scanned the skies, both on earth and above the earth. Radio and video signals were sent to the outer limits of the solar system, in the hope that aliens would enjoy
I Love Lucy
reruns as much as humans do. Remote-controlled toys prowled the surface of Mars, scooping up earth and training cameras on the horizon just in case a Martian decided to pose for a snapshot.
The tiny meteoroid was too insignificant to be identified by the telescopes assigned to the task of tracking asteroids and comets. Even if scientists had been advised of the presence of the modest, blemished rock that was about to enter earth's atmosphere, the response would have been a collective yawn. They could not be faulted for their malaise, as somewhere between eighty and one hundred million meteoroids entered the earth's atmosphere every twenty-four hours. Virtually all of them disintegrated entirely as the earth's atmosphere heated them to thousands of degrees. Only ten to fifty of these meteoroids survived each day to become meteorites, landing intact or in fragments on the earth.
Unaware of the odds stacked against it, the diminutive, pitted rock hurtled into the earth's atmosphere at fifty thousand miles per hour. Almost immediately, the tiny rock began slowing dramatically as the atmosphere provided unaccustomed resistance to its flight. The exterior of the meteoroid's hard shell began to burn away, consumed by exposure to air molecules. Before long, while still miles above the earth, the meteoroid had come to a virtual halt, even as its outer layer continued to burn away. A conscious meteoroid might have celebrated its prospective survival at this point, only to despair as a strange force began to pull it inexorably towards the unforgiving, gigantic blue rock. Its speed accelerated once again. Pieces of the outer layer began to break off as it descended. A cognizant meteoroid would at this point have recognized that the survival of tiny fragments would be its only remaining hope. The meteoroid, however, was neither conscious nor cognizant of its impending doom, even as it began to break up into small pieces. It made no effort to shield the unique, unprecedented cargo concealed in its core. When the remnants of the meteoroid finally slammed into the huge, blue rock at a speed exceeding one hundred miles per hour, only a few small fragments remained.
One of the characteristics that set humans apart from the species not fortunate enough to be members of "the most advanced species on earth" is an appreciation for irony. Humankind had been searching for extraterrestrial life for many years, spending billions of dollars and allocating scarce resources to the search. Yet when the miraculous event that resulted in extraterrestrial life landing on planet earth finally occurred, nobody noticed. Nobody, that is, except Snuffles.
Snuffles shot three feet straight up into the air when the rock landed. He hadn't jumped that high in years. The cold water spraying upwards from his water bowl showered him with droplets. He shook his head violently, shaking the water from his fur. The metallic clank generated by the noise of the rock's landing roused him instantly from his usual state of somnolence to intense agitation. His floppy ears pricked inches above his head, converting instantly to antennas capable of detecting danger. His fur stood on end. He stood with his back arched, emitting a low growl intended to alert any intruder that he was prepared to stand his ground. As old and as plump as he was, he hoped that a fight would not ensue, but instinct prompted him to protect his territory at all costs. He stared at his water bowl for a while, waiting for another threat to reveal itself and trying to analyze whether it was safe to approach his bowls.
From his vantage point, he could see that his water bowl was almost empty. Only a small puddle remained at the bottom. His eyes moved rapidly back and forth between the dented water bowl and his food bowl. He waited a while, finally gathering the nerve to approach the bowls. He struggled to walk the few feet to the bowls. The unexpected jump had activated his arthritis and his joints ached even more than usual. He kept his nose to the ground and his eyes pointed upwards as he approached the bowls. His first concern was the status of his food bowl. To his immense relief, the food bowl seemed to be intact. Turning his attention to the damaged water bowl, he raised his head from the ground and peered over the edge. The water bowl was dented at the bottom, but had not been pierced. Small fragments of rock lay at the bottom of the bowl. Despite Snuffle's limited powers of analysis, he could tell that the shards had all been part of one small rock before they had dented his bowl. Snuffles had never seen rocks that looked like these. The exteriors of the fragments were black, slightly darker than standard rocks, but the internal portions exposed by shattering glowed bright green, illuminating the interior of the metal bowl. Snuffles stood mesmerized by the glow for a while, wondering whether the luminous shards constituted a threat or an opportunity for a snack. Eventually, his desire for food overwhelmed his sense of caution. He placed his head into the water bowl and licked one of the fragments. The fragment had no taste. There was nothing that could be licked off the rocks. Disappointed, Snuffles ambled slowly and painfully back to his dog house and positioned himself, as always, with his head protruding from the door. In just a few minutes, he was back to his accustomed state of blissful sleep.
When the sun rose above the white picket fence, light flooded the yard where Snuffles slept. His dream of gnawing on a meat-encrusted bone vanished, replaced by gradual awareness of his surroundings. As always, the first sensation he experienced in the morning was hunger. He stood up slowly, shook himself, and shuffled the few feet to his food bowl. The pain in his joints seemed a bit more intense than it had the previous day, prompting him to remember the events of the prior night. He was thirsty, and he began calculating whether there was still enough water in his bowl to quench his thirst. To his dismay, his calculations proved irrelevant. Snuffles stared at the bowl, stunned. Only the fragments of the pebbles remained, still green and still glowing. The water had been entirely drained from the bowl. Had he been wrong about the bowl remaining intact despite the dent? A quick check told him that he had not been wrong. So where did the water go?
Snuffles resolved to find water later and turned his attention to his other immediate need. Here again, he was shocked. A tiny, round, furry critter had gotten into his food bowl. Even worse, the critter seemed to be busily ingesting his food. This was unacceptable, an impermissible, unwarranted invasion of his territory. Snuffles instantly decided that he would replace a portion of the missing food by ingesting the intruder. Growling, he dipped his head into the bowl and attempted to grab the little disc-shaped creature in his mouth. The creature seemed to recognize Snuffle's threat, and contracted its tiny body towards its disc-shaped center, causing it to stand more than an inch tall. As Snuffles made his move, the creature propelled itself upwards, fluttering through the air and landing on Snuffle's back. Snuffles could feel something extend from the creature onto his back. The creature was attempting to secure its position. Snuffles felt his skin rise slightly as it was suctioned up into the creature's body. It wasn't painful, but it scared Snuffles. He yipped and yelped and spun and twisted and rolled for as long as he could, but he could not dislodge the creature. The creature rode him like a cowboy riding a bronco until, finally, Snuffles was broken. He laid down on the grass, the creature still attached to him, exhausted.
Snuffles had never been this afraid before. His terror was compounded when he felt a small amount of warm liquid begin to seep onto his back. There was no doubt in his mind that it was coming from the creature. He whimpered, but he was no longer able to put up a fight. He could only wait to see what other horrors this little creature had in store for him.
Snuffles waited for a few minutes, feeling the warmth of the liquid on his back. Presently, despite his fear, he realized that he was still hungry. He dreaded standing up and walking, assuming that his struggle with the creature had triggered more of the dreaded joint pain. When his hunger pangs finally overcame his fear of arthritis and the creature, he walked the few feet to his bowl and began to eat. Surprisingly, his joints did not hurt more than they had before the losing battle with the creature. The pain generated by his arthritis varied in intensity from day to day, but today suddenly seemed to be a very good day despite his fight with the creature. As he wolfed down his food, it occurred to Snuffles that he was feeling better than he had in a long time. Better still, the creature hadn't done anything more to him. The creature remained embedded in his fur. Snuffles could feel its rhythmic pulse gently massaging his aching back. His mood improved. He ate until he was full.
Jody, who was already awake, could hear his Mother's footfalls descending the stairs. He listened as she reached the bottom of the stairs and padded back up the hallway to the rear of the house. She was approaching the door of his first floor bedroom. She knocked gently three times, as she always did.
"Jody? It's time to get ready, honey."
On some mornings, usually the ones where he felt particularly bad, he resisted her pleas. On this morning, he acknowledged her immediately.
"Okay Mom, I'm up," he answered.
"What would you like for breakfast?" she asked.
"Can I have some toast with jam?" he queried.
"Sure, honey, I'll get it ready for you. Do you need any help today?"
"I don't think so, Mom. I feel pretty good."
"All right honey, I'll be in the kitchen. See you in a few minutes. Love you."
"Love you too, Mom," he responded.
With much effort, Jody managed to prop himself up in the bed. A glance at his alarm clock told him that he had approximately one hour before his daily torturous journey would begin. He pressed the button on his I-pod's docking station, and the sounds of hip-hop blared from the speakers. He knew that his Mother didn't appreciate his music, but she had stopped complaining months ago.
Jody rotated his body, allowing his feet to hang over the bed. The first steps were always the most difficult. Carefully, he placed both feet on the floor, and pushed himself upwards with his twisted arms until he was standing, wobbling slightly as he checked his balance.
"Phase one complete," he said to himself, "ready for launch." He pushed one leg forward. It moved stubbornly, but yielded slowly until it was firmly planted on the floor again.
"Launch sequence initiated, stand by for liftoff," he said, using his robot voice. He willed the second leg forward, and landed it successfully one step away from his first foot.
"Launch sequence completed," he said, his voice partially drowned out by the music.
He continued slowly but steadily all the way to the bathroom next to his room in the hallway. He could see his Mother in the kitchen from the hallway, scrambling about the kitchen preparing breakfast. His toast would be ready for him by the time he came out of the bathroom, no doubt about that. He hoped that he could move quickly enough to avoid eating his toast cold, a frequent occurrence.
Once inside the bathroom, he grabbed the toothbrush in his twisted right hand and positioned it in the manner that he knew would provide him with the most leverage. As he brushed, he examined himself in the mirror. His face was the only part of him that remained perfectly symmetrical. Large, brown eyes were topped by wavy, brown hair and offset by a strong jaw. There was no doubt that he was a good looking kid. If not for the decay of his body, he might be the object of lots of girl's attentions. Sadly, he knew that he would probably never find a girl willing to date him and he would certainly never find one that was willing to marry him.
Jody finished brushing his teeth and began the laborious process of removing his sweatpants and t-shirt. Over his mother's objections, he had stopped wearing pajamas when he was eleven, two years ago. Pajamas didn't pass the "cool" test.
Jody pressed the preset button on the shower, the one that his mother had installed to dispense with the need to adjust the faucets to the right temperature. He stepped in over the one inch hump and closed the opaque sliding door behind him. He hated showering, not just because of the difficulty, but because it forced him to view his entire body. His muscles had been contracting since he was five years old, bending his legs and arms outwards at impossible angles. His calves had swelled to more than twice normal size. He could still walk, but his gait resembled a tall Quasimodo's. It was obvious immediately to all who viewed him that he was one severely crippled kid. To make matters worse, he had just recently begun to experience the worst of all of the predicted symptoms. He was having trouble breathing.
Twenty minutes later, Jody finally appeared at the kitchen table. His mother smiled at him and he responded accordingly. He loved her smile. She was warm and loving. She was still beautiful, but the wear and tear of taking care of him alone had taken its toll. Her large, bright, green eyes were now sunken and framed by black pouches beneath them. Her long, dirty blonde hair had frayed and lost its waves. She was aging prematurely. It hurt Jody to see the toll he was taking on her, but there really wasn't much he could do about it. There would soon come a time when he would no longer be a burden to her. That was the lone bright spot about his future, or lack of one.
"Hi, honey, how's it going today?" she inquired.
"Pretty good today, Mom," he replied, taking a seat in his special chair. He picked up his toast and began gnawing at it. It was cold and stiff, but he savored the sweet taste of the marmalade. He supposed he should tell her sometime to make his breakfast after hers, but it was really no big deal. "Where's Snuffles?" he asked.
His mom looked puzzled. "You know, I haven't seen him. Now that I think about it, I heard him barking last night. Did you?"
"No, I slept straight through."
They exchanged worried looks, and then breathed simultaneous sighs of relief upon hearing the creaking of the hinge to the doggie door. The distinctive sound of paws padding the hardwood floor followed and Snuffles came into view down the hall.
"Guess he must have heard us talking about him," said his mother.
"Guess so," Jody agreed.
Snuffles appeared at the kitchen table and began barking at them. He barked a few times, then retreated back towards the front door and looked up at them from down the hallway.
"Come on, Snuffles," said Jody, "you can't be out of food already. I gave you a pile yesterday."
Snuffles returned to the kitchen table, barked again, and retreated down the hallway a second time.
"All right, Snuffles, give me a minute and I'll get you some more," said Jody. "You do know you're getting fat, don't you?"
Snuffles continued to beg, and Jody finally stopped eating his meal with a few bites left. "Okay, little buddy, let's go get you some more food. I'll be back, Mom."
"I'll be upstairs getting ready for work," his mother replied. "Do you need me to drive you to school today?"
"No, I'm good," answered Jody as he propelled himself out of the chair. He usually felt somewhat better as the day progressed, and today was no exception. It would have been nice to have his mother drive him to school, but the Doctor had advised that regular exercise would be helpful for his condition. Jody was determined to continue to walk to school for as long as he could manage it. Every day, his mother offered him a ride, and every day he refused. Besides, it wasn't cool to arrive at school escorted by your mother.
Snuffles danced around Jody as Jody slowly made his way out to the back of the yard. He yipped and jumped up onto Jody's jeans several times.
"Relax, Snuffles, it'll happen," counseled Jody. Finally, Jody reached the small plastic garbage container next to Snuffle's dog house. He opened the lid, scooped up some food and walked over to Snuffle's bowl. He paused at the bowl, puzzled. There was still a fair amount of food left in the bowl. Snuffles continued to be agitated. Was Snuffles trying to tell him something else?
"Naah," he thought. "He's just worried that he might actually be able to see the bottom of his bowl." The water bowl was a different story, though. Almost no water remained in it and Snuffles had somehow gotten some pebbles into it. Strangely, the pebbles seemed to be glowing with a greenish hue.
"So it's not food you're worried about, it's water," he said to Snuffles as he picked up the bowl. "How'd you get this junk in it?"
Snuffles continued yelping. Jody brought the bowl over to the back of the dog house, dumped the weird pebbles out and used the garden hose to fill it up with water. He noticed that the metal was severely dented at the bottom and checked to make sure it was still holding water. Funny, he didn't remember the bowl having a dent.
"Come on, boy," he called to Snuffles after placing the bowl on the ground in its accustomed position. "It's time for school."
Snuffles stared at the bowl for a while without drinking. He sniffed it and rotated his head inside the circumference of the bowl, as if he were examining it for defects. Jody thought this was odd, but school beckoned. He walked back to the house. Snuffles finally joined him as he entered the house.
A few minutes later, the two of them were walking to school together. As they walked, Jody noticed that Snuffles seemed to be more energetic than usual. Snuffles danced around him and jumped up on him as he had when he was a puppy. Jody knew that Snuffles had good days and bad days, just like he did with his disease, but today seemed to be an exceptional day for Snuffle's arthritis. Jody was pleased. At least one of them was not letting his disease get him down.
The walk to school was only a few blocks, but the trip took them almost half an hour. Jody was tiring rapidly, but he kept moving, willing his legs forward one step at a time. He was relieved when he finally found himself staring at his high school. Pausing to catch his breath, he reached down and patted Snuffle's head.
"Okay, boy, end of the line for you. You know the way home. See you after school." Snuffles whimpered, but he knew the drill. He barked a goodbye, turned around and headed back down the street towards home.
The school was a large, old brick-faced building, almost a hundred years old. The building was four stories tall. It had been built in an era when the handicapped were an afterthought, if they were considered at all. The school's administrators had finally installed wheelchair ramps and an elevator just a few years ago, after the law required it. Jody shuddered to think what his life would be like without the elevator and he knew that he would soon need the ramps.
Alone now, Jody walked slowly into the school, surveying the locker-lined hallway as he went. Most of the kids were at their lockers. Most of the rest were in the hallway gabbing about boys if they were girls and girls if they were boys. The crush of kids parted like the Red Sea as Jody passed. A few of them acknowledged Jody's presence with nervous hellos, but most of them turned away and avoided eye contact with him. Jody was used to this. They all knew that his disease was not contagious, but at their age they had little idea of how to interact with someone who was crippled and dying. They wanted life to be fun and long, and Jody's presence reminded them that there were no guarantees of either. The resulting isolation was the cruelest aspect of Jody's disease. Jody had no real friends, just acquaintances. Had it not been for his Mom and Snuffles, he would probably be the loneliest person on earth, he surmised.
Jody opened his locker and began to pull out the books that he would need for the morning's classes, scanning the hallway nervously as he did so. He never quite knew when his tormentor would strike. Jimmy didn't harass him on a daily basis, only when the mood struck him, usually about once a week. Jody had his books poised above his backpack when they were snatched. Jody groaned as Jimmy laughed and held the books above him. Where had he come from?
"You want 'em, crip? Go get 'em!" Jimmy launched the books down the hallway like frisbees. Jimmy was big for his age, bigger than any other boy in the school, though not quite as big as a few of the girls. His blonde hair was cropped in a fifties style crew cut that had the dual effect of making him look tough and stupid. He was, in fact, both. He was the prototype for all of the ninth grade bullies that had ever appeared in movies and television. He was also Jody's worst nightmare.
Jody said nothing as he watched his books slide down the hallway. All of the other kids remained silent as well. Jody was not Jimmy's only target, and none of them wanted to be added to the list. As dumb as he was, Jimmy knew enough not to stick around after his misdeeds.
"One of us won't be late for class, crip. See ya!" he taunted as he disappeared rapidly down the hallway.
The bell rang and the kids began disappearing into the classrooms. Jody closed his locker and prepared to face the humiliation of retrieving his books. To Jody's surprise, his books were coming back to him. A pale, wispy girl wearing a kerchief on her head had picked up the books. She held the books out as she walked towards him.
"I believe these are yours," she said. "I can stick them in your backpack for you if you'd like."
Jody normally refused help that he didn't absolutely need, but he was late for class and he wanted to put the latest Jimmy incident behind him as quickly as possible.
"Sure, thanks." he replied gratefully. He stared at her for a moment, trying to remember who she was, though he was pretty sure he had never seen her before. "Do I know you?"
She smiled. "Not likely. This is my first day here. I just transferred. To be honest, I'm not impressed. I can't believe nobody helped you. That wouldn't have happened in my old school."
"Where was your old school?" asked Jody.
"California," she answered.
"That explains a lot," said Jody. "Welcome to backward land."
She laughed. "Yeah, I guess some places are more advanced than others."
"You've got that right," said Jody.
"Turn around so I can put the books into your backpack," said the new girl.