The Leftover Lettuce
Ri gripped the shiny Chinese coin in his left hand. Pinching the nickel-plated steel with his finger and thumb, he aligned the circumference of the coin with the setting sun. The flashes of direct sunlight sizzled the cornea of his squinted eye. Dropping his gaze away for a moment, he refocused on the fallow lettuce field. Lightning streaks from the sunlight enveloped him, and the streaks morphed into the strewn heads of iceberg lettuce. Fascinating, he thought.
Brian Bowman’s whiny voice interrupted Ri’s contemplation. “You aren’t staring at the sun, are you? It’ll make you go blind, I hope you know. It’s called solar retinopathy and in some cases is permanent. What’re you doing? Where’d you get such a weird coin? Is it transparent or something? It’s my turn to look now…”
Brian never shut up. “Dude! Why do you have to talk every second? I’m focusing here, can’t you see?”
With an absent-minded jerk, Brian pulled off his Star Wars glasses. Using his shirt bottom, he wiped them for the thirteenth time. He shoved his glasses back up his nose and pointed. “Seriously. Ri. I mean it. Are you staring at the sun? I’m super serious about going blind. It’s true. I know you’re obsessed with pain and stuff, but blindness is permanent.”
Lifting the coin higher, Ri realigned it with the sun. He shut his right eye and allowed his left one to peek through a small crack. “Dude. Brian. How many times are you gonna make me tell you to shut up? I’m not gonna go blind.”
Brian wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He stepped back into the small spots of shade created by the lone mesquite tree. His thumb gestured at the old farmhouse nearby. “Is the old geezer home? Is he gonna yell at us for hanging out here?”
Ri gave up his attempt to keep Brian quiet. “Old Bob Willie couldn’t care less we’re standing on the edge of a lettuce field, dufus. He’s busy getting drunk at the Sunshade. Gonna stumble home way later after dark.”
Brian grumbled something indiscernible.
Ri dropped his head and flipped an eye open. “What?”
“I told you not to call me that.”
Whipping back toward the sunset, Ri growled, “Sorry. I’m distracted. I’m focused. People always interrupt my process.”
“What’re you doing?”
Ri sighed and narrated to Brian. “Perception. It’s all about perception, du…de. Einstein showed us the path. He thought long and hard about perception. We imagine we grasp the essence of reality. Ha! No siree. Our brain’s amazing at lying to itself. Interpreting things. Trying to make sense of stuff. When it’s pure garbage. Trash man, you hear me? We envision the sun as a huge burning ball of fire in the sky. So big, so distant, and so powerful, the mere act of looking at it will blind you. And we’re like a hundred million miles away. Try to get closer and we’ll melt. Yet. I hold up this simple coin. Place it over the spot where the sun is. What’s my brain telling me? They’re the same size. The same size? You hearing me? My brain’s telling me the sun and this coin are the same size. Lies. It’s all lies. Our brain’s one big lying machine, and we fall for it all day long. What if. What if…” Ri lowered the coin and caressed it. He waved it at Brian. “What if we could sift through the lies? See the real difference between the garbage our brain feeds us and reality’s true existence? You know, create an Einstein moment. A breakthrough. Get reality figured out.”
Brian grabbed the coin intertwined between Ri’s fingers. “Cool. What’s this? It looks like Chinese or something.”
Ri snorted. “You won’t shut up, yet when I try to talk to you, you’re not even listening.” He soaked in the sun slowly sinking into the horizon.
“This looks brand new. Where’d you get it? Is it Chinese? I’m gonna search for it on the internet on my dad’s computer at work.” Brian waved the coin around.
Sticking both hands into his pockets, Ri shrugged. “It’s a Yi Yuan coin. My dad gave it to me after his first trip to Shenzhen.”
Brian flipped it over. “What’s the flower?”
A deep crease formed across Ri’s forehead. “Um. Oh. Yeah. It’s a christandsummom.”
Brian cracked a toothy grin. “Chrysanthemum.”
“Sure. Yeah. Okay.”
Brian handed the coin back to Ri. “Okay. Cool. Well, it’s sundown. I gotta get home soon. My dad wants me to help clean the shop tonight for Monday morning. See you tomorrow at school?”
“What?” Ri was only half listening, playing with the coin in his hand. “Oh, yeah, sure. See you tomorrow.”
Brian waved in the way an oblivious eight-year-old does. Although he was a few months older than Ri, he never acted his age. Ri dropped a nod and almost lifted his two fingers together, but he caught himself just in time—he only used a two-fingered salute with his twin brother, Rob. His missing brother.
He tried to stop himself from thinking about Rob, but it didn’t work. The events of last week tumbled through his mind like someone had turned his memory into a puzzle and then shaken up the contents. His adventure with the alien Rozul after he broke the moon; the memories they’d had to find to save the world; the Librarian of Death who wouldn’t stop terrorizing him. For a few days, as crazy as it was, Ri had forgotten he ever had a missing identical twin brother. His therapist said it was from the trauma. Then Rob had sent a message revealing he now lived in another universe, and it all came back to him. But Ri found no comfort in trusting his jumbled puzzle memory.
Ri gazed back at the open lettuce field. He figured the summer harvest had been canceled. Some people claimed global warming made their summers too hot for iceberg. No planting again until September. At least, Makena’s boyfriend, Todd Takei, had made such a claim. His mom had invited Makena and Todd over for dinner last night. Makena, the cop with a grudge against Ri, gave him the stank eye all night. She refused to forgive him for his constant running away from her the previous week. And in between Makena’s death stares, Todd had babbled nonstop about global warming. Ri wondered what all the fuss was about. If adults had done bad things to heat up and ruin the earth, why not find a way to stop it? After all, they ran the planet.
Ri shrugged. He grinned and turned to his left. “Idiots.” He realized no one stood there. For a miraculous moment, he forgot about his trauma, his issues, his missing brother, his broken mom. His apathetic dad. Living in a boring town with boring people. His only friend, an outcast.
Ri found no desire for Brian’s friendship. Lisa Lemmons would never give him the time of day if she caught him hanging around goofy Brian. After last week, though, he no longer cared. With or without Brian, she would ignore him anyway. The poster child for the broken kid with the missing twin brother. So, he figured he may as well hang around Brian. Brian reacted to everything Ri did with a sense of awe-filled magic. At first, it had made him feel uncomfortable. But it provided a nice change. Rob used to move one step ahead of him, so Ri had been stuck playing catch-up all the time. Acting in charge of his new friendship with Brian came with an ego perk. Even if Brian did annoy him with his constant pestering. Cursed with one of those “personality disorders.”
Ri scrunched up his wicked grin. He spoke aloud over the empty lettuce field. “Ha! I may be crazy, but things could be worse. I could be Brian.”
The wind hushed to a still silence. He nodded. “Yeah, sounded funnier in my head,” he mumbled to himself.
A soft buzzing and vibration in his front pocket got his attention. His mom calling for the twentieth time. He slapped the outside of his pocket to stop the phone from shaking.
The sun had completely crawled down beneath the horizon. Ri swallowed a hot, dry cloud of desert dust. Perception. He scratched the surface of something important and needed to express it better. The mysteries of the universe—unlocked, unraveled, and understood. He still wondered whether last week’s adventure with Rozul had been real. The broken moon. All the adults’ heads, including his mom’s, turning into black holes. Slipping through alternate realities. All of it had felt more real than anything he had ever experienced in his entire life. It tasted purposeful and meaningful and important.
Afterward, the world had returned to its boring, predictable self, leaving behind big gaps in his memory. Gaping holes of information his teachers and mom expected him to know and remember. Yet, his world was off. His mind was off. Something dangerous was off. And his mind replayed the burning question: why?
His therapist—Esther Evans—judged him. Though she never said it aloud, she gave him the “you’re completely nuts” look every time he opened his mouth.
Ri sucked in a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. He grinned at the lettuce field. “Appreciate you’re only dirt. Because living a human life is tough. Complicated. Full of uncertainty. Hard to find the joy sometimes.”
The wind whistled. It almost sang in chorus with his words. It lifted each syllable and carried them like musical notes from an alien instrument. His forehead furrowed. He spoke again, channeling his brother Rob’s voice, “Now, lettuce romaine calm…”
Each word hit a wind tone echoing across the field.
Ri swallowed hard. Time for him to get home. He refused to trust his mind. He failed to distinguish between his mind’s fabrications and reality. The wind—according to all knowledge he had acquired up until then—had no ability to speak. Rotating on one foot, he faced the direction of his bike, leaning up against the tree. He took one step forward. Except, he failed. His foot stayed stuck.
He tried to jump—but was halted by a bramble of sticker weeds crawling along the ground like slithering snakes. The barbs attached themselves to his sneakers and dug in with the strength of magnetic Velcro. Uh—what is happening? The barbs held his shoe locked into the ground, with his foot stuck inside the shoe. He remained fastened to the ground.
Ri’s eyes pumped open wide. I’m not losing my mind. I’m not losing my mind. I’m not losing my mind.
That’s when the earthquake hit.