Building an Escape Route
Fall - Two Years Later
The siren slid up behind him in a whirl of shrill whines and whistles, bright red light pushing its way into Jim's view at the same time that a modulated, mechanical voice requested that he kindly pull over. With an exasperated sigh and one quick, expert jab down on the back pedals, Jim reduced the speed of his solar surfer, bringing it to a complete, sullen stop. Folding his arms over the safety bar, Jim slumped forward, waiting.
The police-bot rolled into view with calculated slowness, its wheels crunching over loose gravel. Jim didn't even bother to raise his head. He already knew what the police officer was going to say, found himself mimicking the words even as the robot droned them out with infinite patience.
"Can you tell me why I've asked you to stop?"
Jim glanced straight ahead, head resting on his folded arms, his voice low but clear. Resigned. "Doing a measly fifty mph in a thirty mph zone."
"And how many times have I asked you to stop for this very same reason?"
The police-bot straightened. "Precisely," it droned. From a slit just below its badge—No. 679—it emitted a small, pink coloured slip of paper. A shrill little beep signalled the completion of this task, and the police-bot ripped out the slip. One finger folded back, replaced by a pen. It did all of this in one fluid motion, its gaze never leaving the back of Jim's head.
For his part, Jim was already tired of the entire ordeal. The first time had filled him with guilt. The second had made him nervous and courteous in a sullen, put-upon kind of way. The third time was just making him feel apathetic. Before he could figure out exactly what he was saying, he had muttered a few words, his breath hot against his cheeks.
"Maybe you'll get a promotion when you catch me a fourth time."
A rough metal hand grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket, forcing him to turn around. He found himself staring into his own face, reflected in the robot's dark aviator shades. The police-bot's drone clicked out in a slow, threatening cadence. "Don't add contempt for my office to your list of offences."
Jim struggled to pull away, his eyebrows knitting together in a frown. Words kept stumbling out, unreal and alarming even as he thought them up and spit them out into the police officer's face. "I'll keep that in mind."
"What was that?"
The police-bot's hold tightened. A flash of anger raced across Jim's face, but he knew that he was pushing it. The robot had already printed out a speeding ticket. Jim knew it would make good on its threat to slap him with an extra fine for insubordination. Frowning, embarrassed, he allowed his body to hang limply, submissive.
"Nothing, sir," he muttered.
He averted his eyes as the police-bot shoved him back down in one rough flick of its wrist. It held out the pink coloured slip. Jim took it without a word, stuffing it into his pant's front pocket.
"That is for your mother," the police-bot whirred. "She is to pay it within twenty days."
Having said that, it suddenly stooped and hooked its hands underneath and around the solar surfer. Jim had to jump out of the way, stumbling as the police officer lifted the surfer and, after efficiently folding and storing away its solar sail, tucked it under one large arm. Without another word, it turned to go.
Jim felt anger flare up once again. "Hey! What are doing?!"
He stumbled after the police-bot, his eyes never leaving the surfer as it jutted out from beneath the robot's arm. It seemed limp and defeated, ridiculously homemade and shoddy. The officer rolled forward at a brisk pace, oblivious to Jim's protests and curses and rude gestures. It flicked open the door of its police car and dumped the surfer in the back. The board clattered against the seat, slumping down in a crooked, undignified angle.
"This vehicle is now under the custody of the Benbow Police Department until such time as a responsible adult is willing to claim it back for you."
In a whirr and click of gears, the police-bot leaned down, its face level with Jim's. Once more, Jim saw only his own face glaring back at him, flushed and pinched and ugly. The officer's voice was mechanical and cold and final.
"I emphatically hope no one will be foolish enough to do that for you."
* * *
Jim stepped out of the police station with slow, seething steps. His hands were buried deep into the pockets of his jacket, balled into fists, his lips drawn out into a thin, sullen line. Behind him, he could hear the cheerful, affable voice of Dr. Doppler. Jim was willing to bet the doctor was waving goodbye to the police-bots, large fingers wiggling in the air as if everyone were the best of friends. Jim let out one long, exasperated sigh.
"Pleasure doing business with you," the doctor was saying. "I sincerely apologize again for this great inconvenience. It shan't happen twice." The police clerk droned out one tart, crisp sentence. Doppler coughed and edited his pleasantries. "It shan't happen a fourth time. No, no indeed. Not even a fifth time."
As he reached Jim's side—a few more goodbyes and apologies called out towards the police station—Doppler held out the solar surfer. Jim took it in silence, his fingers trailing over its wooden surface, checking for any damage. He found none. He decided he hated the police-bots even more for that. They had probably just tossed it in a corner, like so much garbage.
Doppler let out a delicate cough. "Well then, young man, that's your solar surfer returned to you and one 105 credits speeding ticket paid off on Sarah's behalf." His tone, so cheerful and pleasant before, had dropped several octaves. His expression was closed and pinched.
"I hope you realize that I will inform your mother about this," he lectured, firm and humourless. "Fourteen years old and chalking up speeding charges. I must say I'm very disappointed in you, Jim. Sarah doesn't deserve this."
Jim shrugged. He just wanted to get home. Alone. With a muttered thanks tossed out in Doppler's direction, he walked away from the doctor. His back felt exposed, naked, the doctor's eyes drilling into the back of his head. But even as he felt the guilt, his anger rose to blanket over it, shutting out everything but the dull clump of his boots against the cobblestones.
Clump thump clump.
Houses and streets and shops came and went, trailing out from beside the gutter. Jim walked with his head hung low, till his neck ached from the strain. He pushed on. His fingers had tightened around his surfer, the wood smooth and solid under his skin. He had completed it a month ago, crowning it with a set of twin booster rockets. They had cost him an entire year's allowance. Second-hand. Bought off Mr. and Mrs. Deuterium and their aging, mottled guard sverm.
Damned police-bots. They've got nothing better to do than arrest lousy teenage boys going a stupid twenty miles faster than the speed limit along a friggin' deserted road. Damn them.
Stopping, he looked up. He found himself staring back at his own reflection, frowning at him from between a rack of hot rolls and flat, round bread. He stood in a slump, shoulders jutting up, feet shuffling out. His bangs hung over his eyes, the back of his head shaved clean. A thin ponytail hung at the nape of his neck, braided with string and beads. A faint scar ran along his right cheekbone. His clothes hung on him, several sizes too big, belted tight and creased and soiled from nearly constant use. His eyes were dull, sunk into deep sockets, dirty blue and apathetic and Jim couldn't bear to look at himself any longer.
As he turned his head away, his eyes caught a sign. It swayed slightly in the crisp, cold breeze, attached to a larger, wooden board. Jeweller. Special today. One free pair of earrings with piercing. Second pair 50% off.
The notion hit Jim with a vengeance. Well why not? He had ten credits on him. Enough to pay for the piercing, and the earrings were free. A little gift to himself, to make up for the rotten day. Why not? Jim set his shoulders, shifting his surfer under his arm. He had crossed the street and pushed open the door and called for the clerk and asked for the special before the thought had any time to question itself.
* * *
"James Pleiades Hawkins!"
Jim cringed. He stood at the Benbow's sink, an apron tied around his waist, up to his elbows is sudsy water and dirty breakfast dishes and greasy pots. He could feel the weight of his mother's stare, and he shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He had completely forgotten about the earring. His mother hadn't noticed it last night, when he had stomped in and gone directly to his room. There was also the matter of the 105 credit speeding ticket. Jim felt his shoulders slump, but he struggled to keep his pose nonchalant.
"Mom, don't get upset," he said. The words sounded lame.
Sarah ran a hand through her hair, pushing back at her bangs. Anger and helplessness mingled in her expression. "Upset? Jim, I think I'm beyond upset." She crossed the kitchen, picking up a tray as she went, never stopping in her duties as hostess even though she was angry. "Doppler stopped by before you came home and told me the police had taken your surfer and that you'd gotten a ticket. No need to worry, he said, I already paid the ticket." Sarah closed her eyes, pushing out an exasperated sigh. "No need to worry!"
She turned towards Jim as she opened her eyes. Her jaw was taut, her teeth chewing at the insides of her mouth, struggling to control her temper. Jim stood at an uneasy huddle, unable to lift his eyes from the sink. As his head hung further down onto his chest, Sarah caught a dull, golden glint at his earlobe. Her free hand shot out for it.
"What is this, Jim? You got an earring? When did you get an earring?"
Jim shrugged her off, sliding his lower back along the sink as he moved away from her. "Last night," he muttered. "It's no big deal. It wasn't expensive."
He couldn't bring himself to look at the way her eyes seemed to mute, grow lifeless and confused and disappointed. He had seen it too many times. His hair, his boots, his grades, the way he talked. His solar surfer. He edged away, pulling off the apron.
Stopping, he gazed at her feet. Worn, cloth shoes with little silver buckles at the ankles, muffled under her creased, frayed skirt. "Mom," he said. "I don't know what to say. I can't say I'm sorry." He drew little circles with his index finger along the kitchen counter. Words and phrases kept forming in his head, apologies and reasons and excuses, but his mouth wouldn't work. His jaws had clamped shut.
Sarah's hand rose. Her fingers flexed, once, in his direction. He was turning away from her again, pushing open the revolving doors and shuffling towards the stairs. Her throat contracted.
"Jim," she murmured. "I just want you to be alright."
His answer, if he gave any, was lost in the bustle of customers and clinking glasses and food being devoured by hungry, unperturbed mouths.
* * *
A light drizzle had picked up, the drops becoming heavier as Jim made his way towards the canyons. He flipped up the lapels of his jacket. Slung over his back, the surfer thudded against his spine. It was a comfortable, familiar weight. It had held out for two years, modified and enhanced and protected and cherished. Jim had traded odd bits and pieces of machinery from the Benbow with the Deuteriums, eventually gathering enough to acquire a solar battery pack.
The rain began to fall in earnest, and Jim felt grateful for it. He needed time alone. He needed to put some wind behind his back. Knock away the thoughts spinning around his head. Knock away the image of his mother's eyes, of Doppler's disapproval, of those damnable police-bots and the whole lot of them. He didn't want to think about them. He just wanted to be left blessedly, wholly alone. Where he couldn't hurt anyone but himself.
Maybe I'll crash and break an arm.
The thought almost made him laugh. A broken arm would be the last thing his mother would want to see. He shook his head and began to climb the rock wall. The surface was slippery, but he had done it so many times before that he could climb with his eyes closed. Pulling himself onto the lip, he gazed down. The rain wasn't too bad. It was the wind that worried him. It blew steadily from the north, but there was no telling if it would change course or burst out into tricky little gales. No solar sail that day, then.
Jim flipped the surfer onto the ground, crouching to tighten the twin boosters down, checking the width and length for any chips or tears or imperfections. Satisfied at length, he placed one foot along the board's centre, slid the second towards the back pedals. With one last tug at his jacket, keeping it close about him, he eased his foot down on the pedal, gently.
The surfer hummed, shivering beneath his feet. With a whirr and the faint smell of heated metal, the boosters propelled the surfer up. It hovered several inches from the ground, waiting. Jim felt the tension ease away from his body as he concentrated on keeping his balance, edging the surfer slowly towards the canyon's lip. He pushed back at his sodden bangs and looked up at the sky. Thick, cold drops ran down his face, trickling into his mouth.
With one quick nudge of his foot, the surfer shot forward. Bending his knees, dipping, Jim steered it down towards the bottom of the canyon. He skirted along the rocky base, rising higher and higher as he turned each corner, using the momentum to ultimately break free from the canyon walls and into the open air.
The thrill of that moment, when the surfer jumped from stone to air, never diminished. It sent a shiver up Jim's spine, his whole body seeming to dissolve and become one with the wind and the raindrops and the low, overhanging clouds. He brought his foot down on the pedal once more. The surfer picked up speed, spiralling up in a nearly vertical line. Gravity pushed down on Jim, holding him in place. A grin had begun to work its way along the corners of his mouth.
With a swoop, he flipped the surfer feet over head. The ground blurred out below him, the clouds racing past above. He felt time slow down, the entire universe concentrated somewhere in the pit of his stomach, as he completed the flip and brought the surfer back into a sharp horizontal path. Weaving, he cut a path through the clouds. The rain beat at his face, but he didn't care. It was cold and real and it numbed his senses.
The acrid smell of burning metal reached his nostrils.
Jim's heart fell somewhere beside his stomach, a lump forming itself in his throat. Not now. Come on. Not now. Crouching, he looked back at the boosters. Sure enough, a little cloud of grey exhaust was beginning to weave out, broken into wispy pieces by the rain. Jim looked down and felt his heart contract. He was miles away from the ground. The fall would kill him.
"Damn," he breathed.
The boosters were still firing, although with lethargic, phlegmatic outbursts that sent tremors along the board and up Jim's legs. He was already beginning to drop. His mind was racing, clouding over as he stared, helpless, at the escaping grey smoke. A maddening desire to laugh began to build at his throat. He battled it down. He wasn't going to burst into pieces laughing like a maniac. He owed himself that at least.
The thought hit him hard across the chest. It shook out the unreal, panicked thoughts of death and how it would feel once his body struck the ground. Thinning his lips, he jerked his body towards the right. The board responded, shuddering as it did so. At the sight, Jim felt a wild hope grasp his mind. He jerked to the right again, this time with greater force. The surfer complied. It glided towards the right, dipping as it went.
Grunting with the effort, Jim continued to coax the surfer along, not daring to contemplate the thought that the boosters might give up completely at any moment. He could just see the canyon walls below him, coming into view from between a curtain of rain and hair. Jim put all his weight on pushing the surfer towards the protruding rock faces, frightened at the slow, unsteady pace with which the board responded. The sharp, nauseating stench of exhaust overpowered his nostrils. He was beginning to grow dizzy.
He shook his head. The canyon was just below him. Twenty feet. Doppler had said something about people surviving thirty feet falls. Jim wondered if the doctor had ever thought of testing that knowledge out. He envisioned, for one blinding moment, a panel of canine astrophysicists, shaking their heads in pity. No, dear boy, all it takes is four feet and you're as dead as you'll ever be. With a panicked grunt, he twisted the board towards the right, pushing down, praying for an end to the entire ordeal. He almost looked forward to crashing.
The crash came in more of a tumble. The tip of the board caught against the lip of the canyon and flipped Jim off. Still firing, the boosters continued their descent. Jim rolled to a stop in a haze of rain and mud and pumping adrenaline, fear zigzagging up his arms and legs. Scrambling up, he ran towards the edge. The surfer floated down in a peaceful, coughing cloud of exhaust. The boosters coughed out their last, and the surfer clattered to the ground. Unharmed.
Jim sagged with relief against the edge, his arms dangling down. His mind had gone blank. He couldn't register anything but the fact that he was struggling to think, to figure out what had just happened. He was alive. He was unharmed. He gripped the rock under his hands and let out a loud, muffled shout of joy and rage and embarrassment and relief.
It echoed back towards him and seemed to go on forever.
* * *
He sneaked back into his room through the roof, the wounded surfer strapped to his back. His arms were sore from the still residing adrenaline and fear, and from having climbed, hand over hand, up the Benbow's water pipes. The rain made everything slippery and treacherous, his feet giving way more than once, but it also offered a cover. With a grunt, he pushed open his window and allowed his body to drop onto the ground.
Exhausted, he shrugged off the surfer, pushing it with his feet towards its usual spot under the bed. He fell on his knees beside it and peered blearily at the boosters. They were in pretty bad shape, the edges smoked black, but he was certain he could fix them. He was certain he could scavenge for new ones, if it came to that. He kissed his fingertips and pressed them against the board.
"Don't worry, old girl," he whispered. "I won't let you die."
Straightening, he allowed himself to flop down on his bed. He thought dimly about removing his clothes, but the thought was gone in a black haze that reached up to cloud his eyes and finally, mercifully, shut everything out.
* * *
A crash came from outside, exploding across Jim's subconscious. He sat up with a yell and a thump and a curse as he struck his head against the bookcase above his bed. He rubbed his head with a silent ouch, then stared at himself. The covers were around his body, his boots beside the bed, socks rolled up inside. His pants hung over a chair, folded neatly. A tray with breakfast—porridge and sliced perps and mullard juice—had been set up on the night table. Jim rubbed his eyes and felt a smile grow on his lips.
The crash came again, followed by a shout of dismay from Sarah. "Leave it alone, Delbert, please!"
The doctor's voice rose out from the din, muffled, as if he were speaking from inside a box. "No, no, Sarah. I have a stove just like this at home. I can fix it. Save time and money." A hiss and a tired, resigned clatter rang out. Several thumps followed it, and Doppler's voice was no longer muffled. It was chagrined.
"Um," he said. "Unless I puncture the main gas valve, in which case you'll need to buy a new gas valve and..."
Jim had heard enough. Stuffing a perp into his mouth, he gulped down his mullard juice and climbed out of bed. Pants safely buckled, bangs mussed, and porridge bowl in his hands, he came down the stairs and peered into the kitchen. His mother's back was to him, and for a moment he felt as if he should just go back to his room. Her attention was centred fully on Doppler, who was on his hands and knees in front of the stove, sleeves rolled up and face smudged with carbon and flaking soot. Jim stepped quietly into the room and clambered onto a stool.
"Doppler, really," Sarah was saying. "I could've just called Mrs. Zaslawski. She's an excellent mechanic and she would've fixed this by supper."
Jim's lips twitched. Doppler looked downright mollified, his fingers trailing over the wrench he still held in his hands. Sarah reached out to pat his shoulder, murmuring soothing words and guiding the doctor to his feet. It was then that Doppler saw Jim. His eyes narrowed somewhat, but Jim was relieved to see that none of the anger from the day he had retrieved his surfer truly remained. The air still felt stiff between them, however. Jim coughed and looked down at his bare feet.
"I trust you're feeling better," Doppler said. He began to unroll his sleeves, acting for all the world as if he weren't covered in soot and ashes, a few tendrils of hair coming loose from his usually impeccable ponytail.
"Just fine," Jim murmured. He looked up at Doppler and squared his shoulders. "I'm doing fine," he said, his voice clear and frank. "Thank you."
Doppler smiled, the gesture pushing away the remaining airs of misunderstanding between them. "You're very welcome, young Jim."
Throwing on his jacket, he shot an uneasy glance at Sarah. "Well, er, I've just about done all the damage I can for one morning, now haven't I? I'd best order a large, expensive supper and make up for it once Mrs. Zaslawski has brought her expertise and care into the affair."
Sarah kissed his cheek. "You were only trying to help, Delbert. I ask for nothing more."
As the doctor made his way outside, Sarah crossed her arms over her stomach. She leaned against the broken stove and gazed quietly at Jim. He shifted on the stool and pushed the remaining dregs of his porridge around. He knew he was expected to speak first. His jaw was threatening to bail out on him again. With an effort, he pushed a few words out.
Sarah nodded. He was expected to say more.
"I'm sorry I got myself a ticket, and I'm sorry that I pierced my ear, and I'm sorry that I hurt you, and I'm sorry that I said I wasn't sorry, and—"
"That's enough, Jim," Sarah murmured. She opened up her arms.
With a half-stumble and his bare feet slapping the cold, hearth floor, Jim fell into his mother's arms. He held her tightly and buried his face into her stomach. He heard himself murmur I'm sorry over and over, felt her hand as she stroked his hair. Her fingers came to rest against his earlobe, and his face grew hot. He drew away from her and bit his lip, his fingers rising up to trail over the gold hoop.
"I'll take it off," he began.
Sarah shook her head, a look of resigned amusement on her face. "Don't. I kind of like it." She sighed, pushing away from the stove. "Besides, drilling holes in your ear is the least dangerous thing you could do. No, flying your surfer's what's going to be the end of me."
At the growing look of uncertain alarm on his face, she chuckled. "Slow those horses down, young man. I never said you couldn't fly your surfer. I just want you to be careful." She reached out and lifted his chin, gently. "Will you promise me that...?"
Jim felt as if he was betraying her, but, at the same time, he meant every single word.
"I will, mom. I'll be careful."
* * *
"Here's the deal," Jim said, patting the length of the surfer with a negotiating hand. "You keep from bailing out on me, and I'll give you a brand new coat of paint, plus a good, hot waxing. How's that sound?"
The twin boosters glinted in the faint, muted sunlight that streamed down through a low cover of clouds. Two words had been painted out on them, one for each booster, in bright red enamel. Luck off. Jim felt in the pit of his stomach that maybe the words would somehow work against him, jinx everything and still bring him crashing down. Still, he felt justified in tempting fate. He had survived several nasty spills till now. He could look another straight in the face with a bit of defiance.
He stepped onto the board and ran a silent countdown in his head. A cold, biting wind had picked up, fall already pushing up against winter. Jim shifted his shoulders, savouring the tension he could feel mounting along his muscles. With a sharp intake of breath, his countdown reaching zero, he fired up the boosters. He hung, for a few minutes, above the ground, the boosters whirring faster and faster, raring to go. With two quick jabs of the pedal, body bent down and into the wind, he took off at full speed.
A shower of pebbles skittered out behind him, the rattling and humming of the surfer echoing along the canyon walls. With the wind nipping at his cheeks, his jacket fluttering out behind him, Jim manoeuvred the surfer along the base of the canyon, once again building up momentum by climbing ever higher along the rock wall. He cleared the lip in a dizzying streak of red melting into grey. A misty, intangible cold brushed against his skin, and he knew he had broken through the first layer of clouds.
He hung in a world of milky white mist. He couldn't see a thing in front of him, and a strange mixture of panic and excitement shot up his spine. Everything was racing past him in a blur, as he guided the surfer onto a vertical position and continued to rise, higher and faster. The boosters rattled out behind him, friction humming along the length of the board. Battling the strain of gravity upon his body, Jim turned his head and shot the boosters a sharp glance.
"No bailing out," he muttered at them.
They coughed out, once, as if to spite him. He glared at them. The action, he knew, was peevish and foolhardy and pointless. He couldn't help but grin, though, as the boosters rattled out their last complaint and fired out again with renewed vigour. Now that's more like it.
In a blinding second of white mist and speed and blurred motion, Jim broke through the top cloud layer. Blue exploded into his eyes, bright and clear and immense. Looking up at it, Jim felt his chest swell. Every part of him seemed to be stretching out, dissolving, floating. The sky spread out above and below and beside him, swallowing him even as he could never truly reach it. His heartbeat slowed down, his lungs expanding as he took in deep, satisfied breaths. He felt, drank in, the feel of the wind as it pushed and slid and trailed against his face and his hair, an utter sense of weightlessness and nothingness settling down upon him.
A sense of peace, of escape.
With one slow, calculated movement, he shut off the engines. They whirred away into silence, the sense of empty sky rushing in to fill the void. For one dazzling moment, Jim couldn't feel himself. His body had disappeared, dissolved away into the sky. Closing his eyes, he spread out his arms. Slowly, sensation began to trickle back in, the wind roaring up against his ears as he began to free-fall. He could feel himself, dimly, going through the paces that would save him from a crash, from loosing control. His body responded to signals and movements he couldn't really remember giving it. His mind was completely clear, free of all worries and doubts and thoughts.
He was falling.
He was flying.
6 March 2003. Another so-called snowstorm whistled past New York City today, and here is the third and last chapter to this story. I hope you enjoyed it. I apologize to any of you that were a bit disappointed at how I didn't leave Jim as a sweet eight-year-old. I always sort of envisioned this story as snippets of Jim's evolution from a relatively carefree little boy to the sullen, troubled teenager we all know and love. That and an awful lot of solar surfing.
I'm not sure if I've described the physics of solar surfing [e.g. sky diving or snow boarding] correctly, but I've based all descriptions on my own experiences on simulators [those wonderful machines where you strap in and spin upside down] and on my own, childhood-long love of flying.
Thank you for all the reviews. They mean a great deal to me.
© 3-5 March 2003 Team Bonet. Treasure Planet is © 2002 The Walt Disney Co. The characters of Jim and Sarah Hawkins are © 1881 Robert Louis Stevenson.