It’s Saturday, June 8, 1957. My name is Patrick Stoodle, I’m 12 years old, and I’m standing alone in the middle of the desert with no sign of human civilization in any direction. To be exact about it, I won’t turn 12 until tomorrow, but I learned about rounding up in math, so I decided, why can’t I round up my age? I don’t like math, but I’ll use it when I can get something out of it, like being 12.
But that’s not important because once the Reds drop the H-bomb, nobody will care about me turning 12. They won’t care about birthdays or presents or parties or cakes or singing the birthday song or any silly stuff like that. They’ll be fried into ashes with the snap of a finger, and then they’ll blow away like snowflakes.
Can you even imagine how much that would hurt? Your skin would boil off. And that’s not even the worst of it. Imagine how scary it would be. You’d be screaming with pain, and what would make it worse is that you’d know you’re a goner. The last thing you’d remember is getting cooked alive. It’s tough to get that thought out of your head. I’ve tried. It gets stuck in there. “Sixteen Tons” gets stuck in my head a lot too. It’s one of the worst songs there is.
But the only thing stuck in my head right now is sand, because today was the first day I tried to figure out what’s wrong with my life in Cordial Falls, Nevada. That’s where I live, with my dad, in a house on Pine Street. There are no pine trees on Pine Street. There are falls in Cordial Falls, though. The falls are in some woods that a little creek runs through. It’s called Humboldt Creek. There’s crawfish in there, but they don’t pinch you unless you try to rile them up. And why would you want to do that? Imagine if they grew into giant monsters as big as station wagons. You’d be the first one they’d chop in half with their giant pincers.
The falls are down the hill after you go by Winneman’s Grocery, just past Cordial Falls Elementary, where I learned how to “duck and cover” from Bert the cartoon turtle.
I tried to tell Mrs. Pasternack that an H-bomb would vaporize the desk, all us kids, everybody else, and everything in the whole town, so what’s the point of “duck and cover”? She told me not to talk without raising my hand and to mind my manners. I figured I outsmarted her on that one.
But then she said, “We do the drill to protect us against an H-bomb that gets dropped on a big city close to us, like say, San Francisco, because that might cause tremors in Cordial Falls, Nevada, which could shake our school so much that you’re liable to get hit on the head with a piece of the ceiling. And that’s why we hide under our desks. We don’t have to worry about an H-bomb vaporizing us because the Soviets probably aren’t going to bother dropping an expensive bomb on an insignificant place like Cordial Falls, Nevada.”
The class had a good snicker at me after that. And you can guess I felt pretty lousy for trying to be a smart aleck. But I knew from talking to my dad that there would be nuclear winter afterwards, even if the bomb dropped far away, and we’d all die eventually from radiation. I just couldn’t come up with the words for all that just then to answer Mrs. Pasternack.
My dad knows science. He’s definitely a notch or two smarter than Mrs. Pasternack. I learned a lot from him. My whole life, I believed everything he told me. But that’s starting to change. I’m starting to get wise to what’s really going on.
My first step to gathering clues was to head out of town on my bike and get as far away from Cordial Falls as I could. I needed to find out what’s outside of the town. We never take any trips, so how would I know? Turns out, there’s nothing but desert.
It was starting to get hard to pedal. The wind was picking up, blowing sand in my face. It was everywhere. My eyes, my ears, my mouth, my nose. I stopped to pee and looked around. That’s when I realized all I could see was flat desert every way I looked. It was like I was the only person on Earth.
I bet I biked ten miles. And I’d been going for at least an hour. That means I had to bike another whole hour just to get home.
I wanted to keep going to see what I would find, but I was tired and thirsty, so I made the tough decision to head back. Once I got my bike turned around, I thought about how nice it would be to drink a tall, cold glass of milk when I got home.
Our house isn’t a big house. It’s not a small house either. It’s about the same as all the houses in Cordial Falls. There’s no upstairs, but it has a basement. There’s an attic too. My dad let me look up there once. It’s hot, stuffy, dark, and full of cobwebs. If you ever wanted to hide something, like treasure, or a dead body, or a secret pet monster, that would be a good place.
When I’m not out on my bike trying to piece together clues about the real story behind my life in Cordial Falls, you can usually find me reading, especially comic books like Star Rangers, Weird Fantasy, and Weird Science Fiction. And when I get tired of reading, I watch television, if there’s anything good on. At night before bed I listen to the radio. I like X Minus One. I also like Dragnet and Sam Spade, but especially Night Beat, which is brought to you by special transcribed disc. It’s my favorite show because reporter Randy Stone tries to dig up the truth. Sure, Sergeant Friday and Sam Spade go after the truth too, but reporter Randy Stone gets to the truth and the heart of the matter. And then he writes all about it on the front page of The Chicago Star.
I’m Randy Stone out in the desert. I thought maybe I’d discover there are no other towns in the whole world besides Cordial Falls. Next time I go exploring, maybe I’ll find out some evil scientist shot the town with a shrink ray to fit it all on a tabletop.
I’ll get to the bottom of it one way or the other. I’ll get up first thing tomorrow and hunt for more clues, and I’ll ask my best friend Walt to come along. Walt has so many freckles I think if you took them away he wouldn’t have a face. I haven’t seen him much this summer. I don’t have any other friends. I do just fine by myself most of the time. I used to play cowboys and Indians with Walt and the other kids on the block. But they’d always just shoot each other, and then everybody would argue about who was dead and who wasn’t.
“I shot you dead to rights—square in the gut!” somebody would say.
Then the other person would say, “Uh-uh, no way, you missed. I shot you!”
And that would get boring real quick. It made me want to go inside and eat lunch. And once I was inside I wanted to stay there. Especially after we got our window air conditioner.
One kid I could do without is Tommy Haddigan. He’s a square-shaped seventh grader who always wears farmer’s gloves because I guess he burned his hands when he was a kid and doesn’t want anybody to look at them. He calls me “puny” and “shrimp” and “Patrick Stooge.” And he calls me “weird.” He leaves me notes on my desk saying he’s going to kick my teeth in after school, and then when the bell rings and I walk out of school, he makes me wonder where he is with my legs shaking and my back all sweaty. I get on my bike and zoom home, never knowing if he’s going to jump out of the bushes and kick my teeth in. On the last day of school he promised he would kick my teeth in this summer for sure. So far I’ve been lucky and haven’t seen him, so I still have my teeth.
After I biked a while, the trees and rooftops of Cordial Falls came up on the horizon. I had the wind behind me now, so I felt like I was pedaling at super speed. I was Superman on a bike. With my super strength, I could square off against Tommy Haddigan. I could punch him in the face and he’d land in the dirt. Or I could punch him in the face and he’d go flying off a cliff. Or I could punch him in the face and he’d fall into a horse trough full of dirty water. If I was a space hero, I could punch him in the face so hard he’d go flying into orbit where he’ll die slow and alone.
I imagined telling Dad about my daydreams, and I heard his voice as clear as if he was saying it himself.
“Just be chummy to people and they’ll be chummy back. That’s how people work.”
But that’s not how Tommy Haddigan works. Dad hasn’t factored him into his formulas.
I’d never tell anybody about my daydreams. Why would I? I might be dead tomorrow from the H-bomb, and I bet dying is even worse when you make a fool of yourself right before. Anyway, I don’t think I could ever punch anybody in the face in real life. I think I’d feel bad for hurting them, even if they were a terrible person like Tommy Haddigan.
The best punchers are in the matinees. Cody of the Pony Express and Flash Gordon are my favorites. I ride my bike to the movie house on Saturdays, if I behave. And I usually behave. I only got into real trouble once, when Dad left the keys in the car when it was sitting in the driveway. I got in and tried to drive it. I moved a big lever like I’d seen him do, and the car started moving backwards. Our driveway is only about two or three cars long, so the car rolled into the street. The bottom bounced off the pavement with a terrific clunk that almost threw me off the seat. And then the bumper knocked over the Garbers’ trash cans when it hit the curb on the other side. I was 8. Driving looked easy, but it had a lot more dials and levers than I thought.
Dad grounded me for a week after that one.
He always says, “In the final analysis, you’re a good boy.” He says I’m so good he doesn’t have to worry about me most of the time. But sometimes I wish he’d worry about me a little bit. Good boy. Isn’t that what you call a dog?
I wish I had a dog, but Dad says he doesn’t want to end up being the sucker who has to take the dog out for walks every day. He wants me to show that I can be responsible first.
Thing is, I’m one of the most responsible kids there is. I do chores, like taking out the trash and cutting the grass. I even help out Mrs. Cummings. She’s old and her knees hurt, so she doesn’t get around so good anymore. I cut her grass too, and I bring in her newspaper and milk bottles and feed her cat, Cleopatra. Cleopatra is an old orange critter who has a bad eye and a flap of blubber hanging off her belly that swings from side to side when she walks.
Today wasn’t one of my regular days to check in on Mrs. Cummings, but after I got home and put my bike in the garage, I heard her calling for me out the back window.
“Patrick!” She yelled, but also kind of whispered, like she was trying not to be so loud. “Psst. Boy!”
I could tell she wasn’t just saying hi. She was worked up about something. I made my way over to her yard and asked what was the matter.
She pointed to the grass a little ways away from the window and said, “There’s a varmint in the garden! Get that thing out of here! Lordy!”
Her garden looked normal to me, but she pointed again and seemed in a panic about it, so I looked more closely. Then, between the green beans and the squash, I saw a little garter snake slithering around having a swell old day.
“It’s a snake,” I said.
“Boy, get that awful thing away from my house!”
Mrs. Cummings is starting to forget things. I explained to her before that some snakes are good for a garden because they eat bugs and mice that can tear up the plants. That’s scientific. But she forgot, I guess. My grandma used to forget my name, so I know how it can be with old folks. She died when I was 7.
I told Mrs. Cummings again about how this snake wouldn’t hurt anything, but she shook her head.
“No, mm-hm. You get that varmint out of there.” She was dead set against that snake. So I picked it up by the tail and flung it into our yard. It’ll probably come back, but I figured at least Mrs. Cummings will feel better.
“Lordy.” She shook her head.
She backed away from the window and I couldn’t see her so good anymore. But I heard her talking still.
“You come in here now, boy.”
I came inside through her back screen door. Her house always smells like butter frying in a pan. I like how every house has its own smell. Except mine. But the thing is, I figure if somebody else came into my house, they’d probably smell my house just as clear as I smell Mrs. Cummings’.
Mrs. Cummings has a scrunched up little face with dark brown skin and a tight batch of hair on top of her head with little gray strands sticking out. She was wearing a gray dress with orange flowers on it today. I noticed some white spots and dark spots on her legs as they shook, carrying her over to her big old chair with the faded flower patterns on it. She got herself into position over it, and then she sat down and let out a big breath.
Every now and then Mrs. Cummings will offer me a piece of butterscotch and chat with me awhile. She tells me stories from the Bible mostly and asks if I’m saved. I tell her I go to church most Sundays, so I figure I’m in good with Jesus. Once she told me the terrible story of her great grandfather, who was a slave. I learned in school that her ancestors got kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery right here in America, just like the Israelites in Egypt. And I learned that in some states in the Union, her people still get treated rotten because of prejudice and discrimination. We learned those words in school.
Can you imagine being a slave? I hear the whip crack in my head and I feel how much it would cut into my bare skin. It makes me shiver.
“Go ahead, have a piece of butterscotch,” she said with a little laugh.
I unwrapped a piece of candy from her little bowl and popped it in my mouth. It didn’t hit the spot like that glass of milk I wanted, but when you’re seconds away from dying of thirst in the desert, you take what you can get.
She had a lot of chuckles in her today for some reason. I didn’t know why at first, but then I noticed on the table next to the candy was a box wrapped in newspaper with a ribbon around it.
“Oh, what’s that there?” she said. She was smiling big at me and sort of winking with both eyes at the same time.
I looked at the box and it had “Patrick” written on it. That’s when I figured out she was giving me a birthday present. I wanted to say “thank you” because I knew it was the polite thing to do, but I’m not sure if one came out. I started tearing the wrapping open, and I heard her chuckling some more.
It was an ant farm. The tin box was bright red with a funny black drawing of an ant on the front. It said, “See the ants building bridges! Digging subways! Moving mountains!” Mrs. Cummings probably got the idea from my dad. He thinks I like things like this.
A bunch of thoughts went through my head while I looked at the box. I told Dad I didn’t want a birthday party this year. It’s too many people. That means this ant farm might be the only present I’ll get besides Dad's. And his present is still a big mystery that he hasn’t told me about.
“It’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
I nodded. I could feel the redness rushing into my face. I felt bad for her, giving me a present that I didn’t really want. With her knees, she would have been better off staying at home than going out to Fawber’s Department Store, which is surely where she bought it. I never know what to say when somebody gives me something I don’t want, especially when they sit there in their comfy chair with the old-lady patterns on it and their set of little glass figurines of poodles and Bible characters on the shelf behind them, and their face glowing like a heavenly angel because they’re so happy to give me a gift that they think I’ll love to death.
Grown-ups have this way about them where they seem to be trying real hard to be nice to me. It’s like they’re nervous around me and want me to like them. I don’t know what it is, but I never felt it from another kid, only a grown-up. Except my dad. He acts normal. Well, he acts like my dad, if you can call that normal.
Mrs. Cummings sat there smiling.
“Do you like it?”
I felt a pain in my chest, like I was short of breath. I couldn’t bring myself to lie and say I liked it because I can’t lie that good. So I just looked down and tried to say, “Thank you, Mrs. Cummings” like a good boy and get out of there as fast as I could.
That night I sat in bed and read Strange Adventures with my flashlight. It was the one where Captain Comet fights the Air Bandits from outer space. I’ve read it before, of course. I was mostly just looking at the drawings.
Dad’s footsteps came past my door every now and again, but I couldn’t tell what he was up to. My door was closed and the little “Do not disturb” sign I made was hanging on the doorknob. He used to knock on my door and say goodnight. One time he did that after I already went to sleep.
His little knock woke me right up, and I said, “You woke me up!”
That’s why I made the sign. We don’t really say goodnight anymore. We just sort of go about our separate business.
I had my radio on. There was a show about a midget who plays major league baseball. I wasn’t paying too close attention to it, but I liked the sound of the baseball announcer and the fans cheering in the stands. It reminded me of when I went to a real baseball game. It was at the high school. Dad got me a hotdog and I remember I didn’t squirt quite enough mustard on, so it was almost too dry to eat. We sat together, and he didn’t say much because he said he had some thinking to do. But it was nice being there with him.
Let’s see if I live through the night to make it to my actual 12th birthday. Because if the Commies drop the big one, this is the last you’ll ever hear from me.