Reviews of Annie Gomez and the Gigantic Foot of Doom (no, really!):
“I didn’t really get it.”
– Ed Ferguson, gym teacher
“I like to read in the bathroom and this was as good as anything. Well, almost anything.”
– Francine Botachek, retired cheerleader
“Brilliant story of a young magician whose parents were killed by the greatest evil of all time. Despite tremendous odds, he triumphs in the end, but not after an extended series of adventures with his chums. Oh, wait. You mean this little book over here?”
– Denver Postit
“I like started at the beginning of it and then I like sorta forgot where I was and sorta slid into the middle, which was cool. It was cool, you know what I mean, and then I had a brownie and I’m kinda like wondering what happened to my pants. Anyway…”
– Can I get back to ya on the name thing?
“It was ok but it’s not the NY Times.”
– The NY Times
“The children in this book are not real! Don’t ever do what they do! Problems must be solved by adults. And for goodness sake put your pants on.”
– Your dad
“If Jay Cutts is not yet [in] an institution, he should be, and soon.”
– Better Homes and Gargoyles
Annie Gomez and the Gigantic Foot of Doom –
Preface and Chapters 1 through 5
Annie Gomez and the Gigantic Foot of Doom
Contributions to cover artwork by Sophia Boothman
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Especially the sentient rhinos. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This means you.
|Copyright © Jay Cutts 2015All rights reserved.ISBN 978-1507557334|
I think it’s safe to say that life is unfair, adults are the cause, and young people are the solution. It’s safe to say because I’m hiding behind this book and no one can throw anything at me.
I’ve been a teenager now for over 50 years so trust me when I say that it’s intense. One minute I’m ecstatic about some cool thing that I’ve figured out how to do and the next minute I’m a trembling idiot because I have to talk to someone who is actually looking at me.
Please forgive me if I’m honest enough to say that I’m smarter than almost everyone I know and I don’t get why they don’t like me. Why can’t they just accept that they’re inferior? This is one thing I haven’t figured out yet.
As Annie discovers, it’s great to have friends who get you and who are smart in their own ways (though probably not as smart as me). So I’m grateful for our family’s dog, Baxter, who is highly creative, very hands-on, and loves to have his butt scratched. How can you not love a friend like that? Baxter knows the words “walkies” and “mailbox”, which puts him ahead of a lot of people I know. I’m also grateful for my human friends, whose names I’ve forgotten for the moment.
I think you’re going to like Annie and her friends. Annie is that girl in school who’s taller than you, cute, smarter than you (but not smarter than me), says funny things without even knowing they’re funny, and who you’d like to hang out with but who you’re afraid to talk to. Take my advice. It’s like a rattlesnake. She’s just as afraid of you as you are of her. So go ahead and say something to her. You’ll both probably make idiots of yourselves but at least you will have tried. Just like rattlesnakes.
Annie has put together a sort of club. She calls it a “coterie”. It includes a handful of her best friends. Actually her only friends. But, hey, as with rattlesnakes, quality is more important than quantity. And her friends have really amazing quality.
So sit back, relax, and find out how Annie deals with the fact that two different sets of aliens are each claiming that the other one is trying to destroy humanity. How will she figure out which is which? How will she stop an entire alien race with powers far beyond those of mere mortals (probably even me)? What will she do when her last resort fails? Not to mention the question of whether true love is possible between beings from two different dimensions.
I think that in this book I’ve finally proven that the world should be run by teenagers, for a number of reasons, not the least of which involve pizza and not having to wear pants. Enjoy life! It only gets better!
January 14, 2015
Truth, Justice, and the Goatery
When a 10th grade girl who has flunked every quiz and test for the entire semester aces her biology final with a perfect score, there is only one explanation. What bothered Dr. Tripledoor, the biology teacher, more than the score itself, though, was the answer that Annie Gomez had put down for the extra credit essay question: What in your opinion most makes biology relevant to our lives? Instead of the ever popular I love biology because it lets us eat and sleep or (giggle, giggle) Without biology there would be no reason for Saturday night dates, Annie had written:
The human race faces the very real and immediate danger of total extinction NOW.
She had also decorated each end of her sentence with a very neat but not biologically accurate picture of a flower, colored with pink highlighter.
The reason this answer caused Dr. Tripledoor undue anxiety was that he feared she was right. There was only one thing that would explain a 10th grade girl flunking every test and quiz and then achieving a perfect score and writing that essay. Alien intervention.
Dr. Tripledoor stroked his small, graying goatee and stared into space. He wasn’t musing or contemplating or wondering. He was purposely staring into space because that, he knew, was where the danger, and just possibly the solution, lay. And, truth be told (though Dr. Tripledoor may not have liked it to be told) he was gripped by a cold, hopeless fear. Compared to the immensity of space, he suddenly felt infinitely tiny. Compared to space, he was, in fact, infinitely tiny, but being a biologist and not an astronomer, he had never considered the fact before. To make things worse, he suddenly realized that, as it was five o’clock on Friday, he was probably the only person left in the school building. A shiver ran up his spine. He jumped up and began collecting the papers he still had to grade, along with his lunch bag, walking stick, sunglasses, and a freeze-dried scorpion that he planned to add to his “terrarium of death” (his favorite hobby) over the weekend.
Before he left the room, he wrote a small note to himself and stuck it on the middle of his desk. “Monday. Warn Annie.” Then, keeping his eyes down, he scurried (in a shuffling sort of way) out of the building, into his car, and away.
Annie Gomez was not the type of person who usually needed warning. She was also not the type of person who usually flunked quizzes and tests. She was, even by her own acknowledgement (though she never said so out loud) the brightest person in Highbotham High School. Something had to be terribly wrong for her to mess up so badly. Something far beyond the normal terribly wrong things that she had recently become aware of. Injustice, for example. It had been just at the beginning of the school year – only nine months ago now – that she had noticed that not only was injustice rampant but that its opposite – the supposedly noble justice – hardly seemed to exist at all.
How just was it, to take one random example, that she, the smartest kid in the school and the tallest girl in 10th grade, hardly had any friends? That most of the other students in her class couldn’t find anything even faintly interesting to talk about? That the girls were all obsessed with hair and makeup, whereas she was obsessed with justice, hair, and makeup? That boys could barely talk to her at all, except for cracking jokes that would strike a third grader as unsophisticated?
Clearly, injustice was rampant and the main victim of it was her. But not only her! There were others as reviled and denigrated. It had been her task to find these people and protect them. That was how Annie’s Coterie  had come into being at the beginning of the school year. The AC (as it was referred to by the members of the AC, as opposed to the Goatery, as it was referred to by those who were not members of the Goatery) currently comprised six fellow miscreants. Annie had carefully chosen students who were outsiders, who were radically different, and whom the mindless pack of normal kids instinctively shunned. And of course her members all adored her. Who wouldn’t?
Her first recruit had been Andy Kanayurak. Andy’s father was Inuit (Eskimo, to the uninitiated). Andy’s mother was African-American. Nobody knew what to make of Andy. The round, cheery cheeks and almond-shaped eyes he inherited from his father twinkled like Arctic snow. The chocolate skin he inherited from his mother spoke of the African sun. His father’s genes had relaxed his hair just enough to make his abundant Afro cascade like a fountain. He seemed to transcend race and that scared a lot of kids. It’s also what made Andy incredibly cool. He would tell people, “Hey, race is a non-issue. If you went far enough back and figured out who your ancestors really were, everybody would seem like your cousin.” Andy had a fantastic sense of humor about identity. If a cop hassled him, he’d say, “Is this because I’m an Eskimo?” which usually left the officer with his mouth hanging open.
Andy was the second smartest person at Highbotham. According to Annie, there were a number of second smartest people but most of them were smart in one particular area. Andy was smart in everything. He was even a good cook. His best grades were in math. However, his real passion was theatre. He loved becoming a new character and bringing that character to life. His portrayal of Anne Frank (in drag and with serious amounts of makeup) had brought tears to the eyes of, well, none of the students, since it is not at all cool to cry in high school, but to most of the faculty and parents in the audience. Even Keri Jenkins, reporter for the school newspaper had admitted:
Andy Kanayurak’s performance as a Black Eskimo Anne Frank was the most unusual thing that this reporter has ever seen, and I’ve seen Sharon Anderson in a bikini (no offense, Sharon).
The second member that Annie had recruited for the AC was Justin Larson. She had chosen him out of pity. Justin looked like a little 5th grader who had gotten lost in the high school. With his shaggy blond hair hanging over his ears, he also looked a good bit like a golden retriever. Everybody liked him but in a head-patting sort of way. This might have been fine if Justin actually were a 5th grader and/or  a golden retriever, but Justin was a 10th grader with college credits in biochemistry, who toured internationally every summer with a world class jazz band. He played trombone. Annie had been the only one who had seen through his puppyesque veneer and he was eternally grateful to her (but was careful not to wag his tail.)
Annie’s third recruit had transferred to Highbotham High at the beginning of the school year and by October he was so miserable that a cloud of doom hung over him. Dressed in black, a black hoodie pulled over his head whenever he could get away with it, and long, stringy black hair hiding his face, he hunched his tall, skinny body around the halls, avoiding all human contact. Johnny Dinicu had moved a lot of times and every time he started a new school, it was torture. All the other kids knew each other. He felt like a zit on the face of humanity.
But this time it had been worse. Somebody had found out about his family almost immediately. It couldn’t have been more than a week into school when he was sitting at his desk quietly waiting for history class to start and some big muscley guy – Greg something or other – had shouted out, “Hey, Gypsy! Play the tambourine for us.” That got a huge laugh for about 2 and a half seconds until Ms. Crimmins looked up and gave Greg a stare that made him choke half to death on his own laughter. You could literally hear the spit trying to go down his windpipe and drown him.
Ms. Crimmins’ impromptu lesson on the history of the Romani people that followed just made things worse. Now everybody stared at him like he was a freak in the side show. “No, I’m not a Gypsy” he had said over and over. “There’s no such thing as Gypsies. It’s a made up idea by people who don’t know who we are.” His mother said that sometimes. She was a Romani rights activist. But even she knew there were times to keep your mouth shut about who you were.
Johnny had sat at a table by himself at lunch that day wishing he could go back to being an invisible nobody. Somebody with long, wavy golden-brown hair over her shoulders who smelled nice and was as tall as he was sat down next to him. Right next to him. Not across the table. Not a few feet away. They had the following weird conversation.
“Droboj tu,” Annie had said.
“Najis,” he had mumbled, focusing on his tater tots and trying not to pay any attention to her. Then it hit him. “What the … What did you say to me?”
“You heard me, dude,” she said. “Don’t worry. That’s all the Romani I know. Now, let’s get down to business.”
Johnny put down his fork, a tater tot still impaled on it, and stared at her.
“The first lesson of life is that you will never fit in with THEM,” Annie continued, tossing her head vaguely in the direction of the rest of humanity. “Even if you wear the right clothes. Even if you learn the right dance moves. Even if you play the right sports. The best you can expect is that they see you do something cool and you get admired for a few minutes. But you’ll never, ever belong. You’ll just be like a freak in a side show.”
“Funny you should say that,” he said.
“It’s not funny. It’s the hard, bitter, contemptible, unjust Truth.” She had to wipe a bit of spit off the corner of her mouth before she could continue. “But you could join a coterie of people who don’t care if they fit in. We just care about each other and do cool things and ignore the normal kids. Are you in?” She held out her hand.
Johnny didn’t even have to think. If he was going to be totally and absolutely alone for eternity, he’d rather do it with other people. Especially her. “Is there a secret handshake?”
“No.” She thought for a second. “But we could do this.” She held her hand out and they linked pinkies. “Now go act normal and wait for further orders.” She grabbed her tray, stood up and disappeared into the crowd.
A few minutes later Johnny finished the last of his lunch and headed for his next class. He was still thinking about Annie and forgot to hunch over and keep his eyes down. As a result, he found himself looking into a face that was actually smiling up at him. For just an instant his dark eyes met the twinkling dark eyes of a very pretty, nicely dressed girl with silky black hair. Then she was gone. This random meeting did not escape Annie’s attention. Naomi Feldman was not yet, but would soon be, the next member of the AC.
At first, Annie had considered Naomi to be the least likely person in the world to join the group. Rather than being a misfit, Naomi seemed just about perfect at fitting in. She was beautiful, classy, smart and mature. It was the maturity, Annie later realized, that was Naomi’s undoing. If you crammed a 35 year old fashion executive into a 16 year old’s body and made her go to high school, the result would be amazingly like Naomi. The normal kids liked Naomi but Naomi didn’t find anything about the normal kids interesting in the slightest. She called them the humdrumniks.
In the afternoon on the same day that she had recruited Johnny, Annie approached Naomi.
“Whaddya think of Johnny?” she asked. “The tall kid in black.”
“The black hoodie guy, right? I heard what happened to him in history. Can you imagine? I just felt so terrible for him.” Naomi knew what it felt like from personal experience. The last time a guy had made cracks about Jews around her, he’d gotten a face full of very expensive hair spray and an explicit warning about what would happen to him the next time. “He’s sorta cute in a gloomy kind of way, don’t you think?”
“I guess he’s a little cute. I didn’t really notice,” Annie said, though of course she had. “Let me ask you this. What do Johnny, me, Andy Kanayurak, and Justin Larson have in common?”
Naomi thought for a minute. On the surface there was almost nothing they had in common. Then she got it. “You are all interesting!” Her face lit up. Thank God there are at least a few non-humdrumniks here or I’d be going completely crazy.”
Annie was grinning despite her attempt to be cool. She admired almost everything about Naomi and being praised by her was a real thrill. “Well, we’d like to adopt you.” In response to Naomi’s puzzled silence, she explained, “We’ve got this coterie – that’s like a club, only it’s French – and it’s only for people who don’t fit in, only we do fit in with each other and we’d really like it if you wanted to join but you don’t have to if it’s not cool with you or whatever …”
Naomi jumped in to save Annie from further embarrassment. “I am SO in!” Then she gave Annie a big, warm hug that smelled of terribly expensive perfume. It made Annie blush.
The final member of Annie’s Coterie was, to be honest, a little unusual even by AC standards. He was the only person who had ever gotten a higher score on a math test than Annie. In fact he was the only person who had ever gotten perfect scores on all his math tests. In half the time that it took most of the kids to fail miserably. He would have made a great study partner, except for the fact that he didn’t talk.
To be accurate, he did speak occasionally but it was usually one word. And that word was usually messed up in some way, messed up meaning that it wasn’t the word that anyone else would have used in the situation but it was often amazingly insightful or at least hilarious. His name was Aaron and he was autistic. Or so they said.
Annie had watched Aaron carefully. On the outside, there wasn’t much to see. He looked like a chubby overgrown kid. His sandy hair was too long to be called short but too short to be considered long. It seemed to hang onto his head for dear life, as though it were about to be blown off any moment. When Aaron walked, it appeared as though his mind were somewhere distant and his body was trying to do its best without him.
It was clear to Annie that Aaron’s mind was somewhere else. And that somewhere else was really important. She wasn’t sure what it was that he was thinking about, but she was confident that he was working on things that the rest of the world was ignoring and that some day the world would be extremely grateful to Aaron.
She’d once made the mistake of trying to find out what was going on in Aaron’s mind. She had approached him on the front steps of the school and said, “A penny for your thoughts.” He had held out his hand. She had reached into her pocket and pulled out a nickel. He had taken it and handed her back four pennies. Then he turned and started walking away.
“Wait! I wanted to know what you were thinking about.”
He had stopped, a puzzled look on his face. “Shrinking about!” he had finally exclaimed. Then he sat down on the steps, pulled out a notebook and started writing. Moments later, he ripped the page out, handed it to Annie and walked away.
Annie had studied that page for a full hour. It was filled with drawings, sketches, numbers, symbols. There was almost nothing there that she could recognize, not even standard math. And yet she had the feeling that she was holding the plan for world peace, an anti-gravity drive, or the reanimation of dead flesh. From that moment on, to Annie Aaron was that piece of paper – a plain-looking exterior with an unfathomable and yet earthshaking meaning. Later on, when Annie had asked him to join the club, he just smiled and said, “Goatery”, a word that later became famous among the humdrumniks.
Aaron, it should be said, had never pronounced his own name properly. No one knew whether he didn’t hear it correctly, couldn’t repeat it, or just had his own reasons. His parents and teachers called him Aaron. Aaron, however, pronounced his name Herring, and pretty much everyone else who bothered to speak with him did as well. He knew darn well what it meant, too, because he insisted on having some every Friday night at dinner.
Herring had completed the Coterie and since he had joined, the group had begun to evolve in ways that none of them had expected. If, as Dr. Tripledoor seemed to think, Annie was in danger, at least she wouldn’t be alone.
Dr. Tripledoor had completely forgotten about Annie over the weekend. He had been engrossed first in installing his new scorpion in the terrarium of death and then in entertaining two old college friends who were passing through town. He was, in fact, in a rather cheerful mood as he entered his room Monday morning and was whistling what might have been a little Irish tune when he spotted the note on his desk. “Monday. Warn Annie.”
His whistling turned to a sigh. Maybe he was wrong, he thought. Maybe Annie had just studied diligently for the final. Maybe her answer to the essay question was just a bit of random teenage drama. Maybe after the school year ended on Wednesday, everyone would have a great summer vacation and come back in the fall rested, relaxed, healthy, and happy.
Or maybe not.
The visit from his college chums had stirred up memories. Memories of the person he had been nearly 40 years ago. Memories of a path he had almost taken. A small but persistent voice from the past reminded him of his concerns about Annie. It said, “Don’t ignore this. Trust your instinct. Too much is at stake.”
He unpacked the exams that he had taken home and dropped them on a corner of his desk. Third period would be when he’d see Annie. What could he say that wouldn’t sound insane? He stuck his lunch in the biology lab refrigerator, which was now empty of strange tissue samples and whole dead animals of various sorts, and grabbed an apple from the top shelf. Just be honest, he thought. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain. Make that nothing to lose except my job, he thought. But maybe it’s time. He sat down in the old wooden chair behind his desk, bit into the apple, and waited.
* * *
Third period was a study hall today so that students could prepare for exams. Dr. Tripledoor had convinced the math teacher, Ms. Baca, whose room was across the hall from him, to monitor the class so he could meet with Annie in the counseling office. He was already settled into the plush leather chair and wondering how he could get one like that when Annie made her way into the small room, closed the door, and sat down. She placed her backpack next to her on the floor and brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes.
“I know I’ve done really bad on my tests and I’m really really sorry and I know I’ve disappointed you but I’ve just been really, like worried or something all semester. I don’t know what it is. I’m really sorry”
Hmm. This wasn’t what he’d expected. Maybe the poor girl just needs to talk to somebody, he thought. “What have you been worried about, Annie? If it’s not too personal.” He was a biologist, not a counselor, and wasn’t very comfortable listening to people’s problems and half hoped that she’d say, “Oh, nothing. How did I do on the final?”
Instead, her voice got squeaky and she blurted out, “That’s what’s bothering me! I can’t figure out what I’m worried about. It’s like something I can’t quite remember is wrong and I can’t quite forget it. And DON’T tell me it’s hormones!”
Dr. Tripledoor felt his face get hot. He was only comfortable with hormones when they were labeled in his fridge. “Actually, just about everything is hormones, my dear, but I realize that is not much comfort in your current state. Do you have any close friends that you can talk to?”
“Exactly five, eh?”
“Yes. One is kind of small but he still counts as a whole friend.”
“So you’re not lonely, then,” Dr. Tripledoor continued, not sure exactly why.
“Are you kidding! How can I NOT be lonely?? The world is filled with brainless people. Everybody in this school is obsessed with some stupid little thing like football or clothes or making fart noises – sorry for saying ‘fart’. My parents think I’m still five. Nobody sees what’s really going on. How can I not be lonely? Am I the only one with her eyes open?”
Dr. Tripledoor, who must have dozed off for just an instant quickly opened his eyes. “Yes, I see what you mean. Well, you’re to be congratulated for being a very alert young woman. I’m sure you’ll do great things in your day. If the human race survives, that is.” He stopped to clean his glasses, which were at least partially responsible for things beginning to look rather fuzzy.
“You said something about the human race surviving.”
“Ah, yes. In fact,” Dr. Tripledoor continued, leaning forward and resting his folded hands on the desk, “that’s what I wanted to talk with you about. Your final and your answer to the essay question. Did you study a great deal for the test?”
“No. I’m so sorry. Like I said, I wanted to and I knew you’d be disappointed in me but I just couldn’t …”
“Yes, yes. I understand. But how do you explain then that you got every question correct?”
“Every question… correct? That’s impossible. Really?”
“Quite,” he replied. “I do have a theory but I want to hear your explanation. Think back. As you were working on questions, how did you feel?”
“Well, I knew I was going to fail miserably so I wasn’t very anxious. I guess if you’re condemned to death, you might as well enjoy that last burger, huh? Anyway, I’d look at a question, know that I didn’t have a clue, and then look at the answers. Then I just picked the one that looked good.”
“And you felt confident, correct? No confusion. Not torn between answers.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“And you were correct every time with no exception. Do you want to know my theory?”
“I swear to God I didn’t cheat! I’ll take a lie detector test.” Visions of being kicked out of school and disgraced for life flashed through her mind. She could even see her final days, penniless and homeless on a street, begging for food and someone saying, “Don’t give her any bread. She’s a cheater!”
“I know you didn’t cheat. I believe aliens have been establishing a telepathic connection with you through a finely tuned neurological resonance starting with your limbic system and then expanding into your cerebral cortex.”
“Those are, uhm, biology parts, right?”
“Amazing! You correctly identified them on the exam but you have no conscious memory of the facts. You were coached! By aliens broadcasting into your head.”
Dr. Tripledoor sat back in the leather chair, his fingers running across the cool surface of the arm rest. This was, of course, what he had been most afraid would happen. How to explain insanity? “I shall assume for the moment that you are correct and my theory is insane,” he said. “Let’s examine the logical consistency or inconsistency of the ‘delusion’, if you will. For a number of months now you have been bothered by thoughts or feelings that you cannot identify and don’t understand. Correct?”
“This is consistent with the possibility that someone has been interfering with your brain waves on an emotional and subconscious level. This could be an attempt to control you or to communicate with you. Agreed?”
“Then you are suddenly able to correctly answer complex biology questions at a glance, without even knowing that you were answering them correctly. This is consistent with information being delivered to your cerebral cortex, the part of your brain that performs conscious activities.”
“I guess I’ll take your word for that.”
“If someone has learned to feed information into your brain, they must be trying to tell you something. Deliver a message. And what do you suppose that message would be?”
“Uhm, that I should study more?”
“That’s hardly a message that aliens would bother to send. That’s what parents are for.” Dr. Tripledoor pulled a photocopy out of his briefcase and handed it to Annie.
“The human race faces the very real and immediate danger of total extinction NOW,” Annie read out loud. “That’s my handwriting. I remember drawing these pink flowers but …” She paused for a moment. “I don’t remember writing this.”
“I didn’t think so. Just like you didn’t know you were choosing the correct answers. When the aliens have completed aligning themselves with your brain electrochemistry, you will finally be consciously aware of what they are saying. That’s their goal. For the time being, we have to accept that what you wrote is part of what the aliens are trying to communicate.”
“Wait. How do you know it’s aliens?”
“Well, because it was aliens when it happened to me.”
The Cave of Truth
Annie had asked Dr. Tripledoor to take her to the nurse’s office because she really needed to lie down and she really needed to have some time alone. The nurse had her hands full with students who were suddenly too sick with mysterious symptoms to be able to take their exams, so she set Annie up on a cot and pulled the curtain around it to give her some privacy.
Annie stared at the ceiling. Her brain was flooded with so many thoughts that she had no idea what she was thinking. She relaxed and let the thoughts slowly drift into her awareness. Dr. Tripledoor was probably getting senile. She should just humor him. Smile and thank him for the tip off and that she would keep an eye out for aliens and try not to go extinct. No point in getting him in trouble with the school. And no point in getting him laughed at by students. She knew too well what that felt like.
She felt better and was about to get up when another thought drifted up out of the sea of confusion and burst into words. How had she answered the questions correctly? Why had she written that sentence and not remembered it? The letters OMG blazed across the screen of her mind. It wasn’t Dr. Tripledoor that was crazy. It was her.
Her mind had gone out of control, she thought. It had taken on a mind of its own. Her mind was doing things that she had no control over and not even any awareness of. That had to be a pretty good definition of crazy. Dr. Tripledoor had somehow picked up on this and given her an explanation so she wouldn’t feel bad about herself. Maybe he even believed it. Ok. It was nice that he had noticed and that he cared. But it didn’t really make it any better.
Take a breath, she told herself. Do a reality check. Ceiling. Cot. Floor. Gremlin. No! There’s no gremlin. Good. You passed the reality check, she congratulated herself. So far I’m sane. All I have to do is stick to reality, one little step at a time. At least that will give me a chance to stay in control and figure out what’s going on.
She got up off the cot. Foot. Floor. Backpack. Something was sticking up out of the backpack. It was a crinkled piece of paper. She opened it. “You’re on your own. All I could do was warn you. When they come for you, be ready. Please save us if you can.” It was signed B. Tripledoor, PhD. This didn’t help.
* * *
The AC met on Wednesday afternoon after school. The last finals were over and they were all finally off for the summer. They met at Herring’s house because Herring’s mom loved the fact that he had some friends. His bedroom was huge – the size of most family rooms – and he was continually dividing it up into separate spaces based on unique motifs. Today they were meeting in a Neolithic cave in the northwest corner of his room. Somehow he had made it cold and damp, even though it was hot and dry outside. And the primitive sketch of a now-extinct animal on the wall was truly awe-inspiring.
The six friends squatted or sat on the cold mud floor of the cave. Looking at the mud on her knees, Annie wished that Herring had made the cave a little less realistic, but that was how all of Herring’s projects were. She had once gotten seasick in his simulation of the prow of a pirate ship in that same corner of the room.
“This meeting of the Coterie will now come to order,” she announced, eager to get things going. “I say we forget about old business for now and talk about what we’re going to do this summer. Suggestions? Remember, people, this is brainstorming. Just blurt it out no matter how crazy your idea. No laughing at someone else’s idea. Go.”
Annie was a fantastic leader in the sense that she was always dozens of paces ahead of everybody else. Unfortunately, that meant it took a while for the others to catch up with her ideas. There was a stony, Neolithic silence for several minutes and you could have sworn that a blizzard was raging outside the cave.
Naomi was the first to speak. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m taking acting lessons this summer.”
“Cool. Where’s that going to be? I’d love to do that too,” Andy chimed in.
“Tiny Theatre, downtown. Saturdays, 3 to 5. The teacher is really hot.”
“What’s his name,” Andy asked.
“Her name. Cindy. And she thinks I’ve got some talent. Personally, I think it would be great to forget about myself and become someone else for a while. A good change of pace, don’t ya think?”
“Totally,” Andy agreed. “Though you’re pretty good as Naomi, too.”
Justin was next. “I’ll be touring for two weeks in August but other than that, I’m up for whatever. I’ve kind of been thinking about the reanimation of dead matter. I mean I know it’s only a Frankenstein thing but suppose something’s only been dead for, like, seconds. Is there some kind of biochemical elixir that could undo those seconds of deadness and restore life? Anybody else in on that one?”
Herring raised his hand and smiled. “Finklestein!” he beamed.
Annie interrupted. “Ok, folks. Good ideas but what’s the underlying theme here? We need a concept. A master plan.”
It was Johnny’s turn. “Annie, there is no underlying theme in life. It’s chaos. Just look at history.” History was Johnny’s favorite topic. “Life is an unpredictable process. It just happens. It’s out of control. I think we should avoid any plan at all and every day we can just see what happens. We can just wait until something pops up. No plan. That would be really amazing.”
“Sounds like the definition of boredom,” Justin said.
“Wait,” Annie said, raising both hands. “Hold on. You said life is out of control. Let me deal with that a sec.” She was silent for a moment. “So, you’re saying being out of control is not insanity. You’re saying that’s the natural state of life. So if my mind is out of control, maybe my brain is picking up life waves out of the air. Maybe I am picking up messages.”
“That’s what the brain and nervous system do. They pick up information from all around us. Then we process it and try to make sense of it, but Johnny’s right. The info itself is chaotic. Basic neuroscience,” Justin explained.
“Ok. Right. But tell me this. How far out does ‘all around us’ stretch? Into space?” Annie asked.
“Yeah. Space is infinite. Theoretically we could be picking up signals from other galaxies.”
“Or Cleveland,” Herring added. He had a certain thing for Cleveland and he always pronounced it correctly, assuming that “Cleveland” was what he was actually trying to say.
“Oh, man!” Annie leaned over and rested her head in her hands. Her sigh echoed throughout the cave, punctuated by the dripping of water somewhere in the distance.
Johnny was sitting next to her and rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. “There’s something you’re not telling us.”
Another long sigh. Then Annie sat up and told them the whole story of her confused thoughts during the semester, her unexplainable performance on the biology final, her cryptic essay response, and her talk with Dr. Tripledoor.
Naomi broke the silence that followed. “Annie, sweetie, you should have said something to us. You don’t have to go through things like that alone. You have us.” There were general grunts of agreement from the guys.
“Thanks, Naomi. I guess I’ve just been overwhelmed. So now what? Is my brain just going to get more and more useless? What the heck do I do if aliens are trying to communicate with me? It’s not like I can text them!”
“Ok, I’m not specifically an exobiologist,” Justin started.
“What’s an exobiologist?” Andy wanted to know.
“A specialist in alien biology. Hey, there are exobiologists,” Justin responded to the skeptical looks. “Anyway, while I’ve dabbled in exobiological theory,” he explained in his little fifth grader voice, “I’m not a specialist in the field. However, my best guess, including the information gleaned from Dr. Tripledoor’s note, is that if aliens are trying to establish communication with you, they probably know what the heck they’re doing and at some point, they’ll just come get you.”
“Alien abdication!” Herring shouted out. His eyes were wide with excitement.
“Abdication is when a king or queen resigns,” Johnny felt compelled to say. Everyone knew it was hopeless to correct Herring but sometimes they couldn’t help it. “You mean ‘abduction’”
“Abdication!” Herring repeated and mimed removing a crown from his head.
Sitting on the floor in the cave was starting to feel a little cramped and most of the kids were squirming, trying to find a comfortable position. “Let’s go for a walk,” Andy suggested. “I could use some fresh air and some sunshine. This cave is getting just a bit creepy.”
The others were already up and on their way out before he finished. Andy and Annie were the last ones out. As they were just about to leave, Annie took Andy’s hand for just an instant and said, “You guys keep an eye on me, ok. Please.” They then passed into the light of Herring’s room.
Acting versus Reality
Andy went along with Naomi to attend Cindy’s first acting class at the Tiny Theatre on Saturday. The Tiny was a local performance space maintained by volunteers who had clearly poured a lot of themselves into making it not only workable but actually inviting. The participants and the teacher gathered on the spacious stage. Andy had to agree that Cindy was fairly awe-inspiring. She was a tall blonde in her late 20’s with an athletic build that was only too well accentuated by her workout outfit.
There were ten students in the class – seven women and three guys. One of the women seemed to be in her thirties but the others, including the three guys, were high school students. Naomi and Andy were the only ones from Highbotham. Andy noticed that two of the girls and one of the guys were obviously friends and probably went to the same school. The older woman was trying to make friends with the remaining three girls – probably just to make them feel more at home – but it just seemed to make them more nervous. Like Andy, the three girls were naturally introverted and were attracted to acting because it gave them a chance to at least temporarily be the outgoing characters they longed to be in real life.
The third guy had come over to Andy before the class started and introduced himself. His name was Daniel and he went to Cebolla High. The way that Daniel moved reminded Andy of an antelope. Not that Andy had ever actually seen an antelope, but he was pretty sure that an antelope would move in the smooth, confident way that seemed so natural to Daniel. Andy’s own movements, he felt, were more like a polar bear, which he figured was natural since the polar bear was his guardian spirit, but sometimes he wouldn’t have minded once in a while moving like an antelope, especially when it came to dancing with girls.
Cindy started the class with some warm-up stretches, first easy ones and then more challenging yoga-style moves. If Daniel is an antelope, Andy thought, Cindy is a lion. Andy was so captivated by her movement and appearance that he had a hard time concentrating on what she was saying. Several times he caught himself wondering if Naomi noticed his focus on Cindy, but when he glanced over at his fellow ACer, she wasn’t looking in his direction at all. Her eyes were focused straight ahead as she balanced on one leg, hands stretched above her head. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail but one loose strand – almost radiantly black – dangled over her ear. He resisted the urge to reach over and sweep it back. What animal, he thought, is Naomi? He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen an animal like her.
After warm-ups Cindy introduced an improvisation exercise. The students were to work in groups of three. One of the three had to make up a character that they would be and then describe that character to the other two. Those two then had to engage the first one in some creative way. Andy was teamed with one of the girls from the group of three friends (it turned out they were from Del Monte High) and the older woman. The guy from Del Monte was teamed up with two of the girls who didn’t know anyone else. Daniel was teamed up with the other girl from Del Monte and the remaining girl who didn’t know anyone else. Naomi was teamed up with Cindy. As his group was deciding who would go first in making up a character, Andy heard Naomi saying to Cindy, “Ok, I’m a space alien and I’ve come to warn you about a danger to the human race.”
The acting session went by quickly for Andy and he really enjoyed it. Some of the students were really good. Daniel, for example, was really playful and laughed a lot. He kept everyone entertained even when he wasn’t acting. The older woman, Teresa, was good at encouraging the kids that didn’t have much confidence. When the groups were doing improv and somebody seemed stuck, Teresa would give them a line that helped them keep going. And Naomi was amazing. She instantly became whatever character she was assigned and brought that character to life. Andy could have sworn that Naomi turned gray and her eyes bulged out when she played the alien for Cindy.
As they left the theatre after class, Andy and Naomi were joined by Daniel and Teresa.
“Wow!” Daniel exclaimed, still half out of breath. “This is going to be really cool. Cindy is SO creative. And you guys are fantastic!” He delivered hugs all around to his new friends. “Hey, in case you’re interested, there’s a jazz dance jam tomorrow night at the Bradshaw dance center. With live music!”
“Sounds great,” Teresa said. “Do you tango? You can use a lot of tango moves in improvisational dancing and I bet it would work well with jazz.”
“Sure,” Daniel said, and he seemed to be moving to the unheard music already.
“Yeah, sounds cool,” Naomi said, “but I’ve got a date tomorrow. Maybe next time.”
Andy was actually a very good dancer but he didn’t see himself that way. Maybe he had become too self-conscious from people staring at him to figure out what he was. Or maybe he hadn’t quite grown into his tall sturdy body. For whatever reason he wasn’t quite ready to go dance with a bunch of strangers. “I’m gonna pass,” he said. “Thanks for asking.”
“You’re not shy are you?” Daniel asked.
“Nah. Us Eskimos are just not big dancers is all. Try to imagine a polar bear dancing.” Andy laughed but it sounded a little too forced.
Daniel actually stopped and closed his eyes for a minute. The others stopped and waited for him. “Eskimo?” he said, his eyes still closed.
“Yep. Uhm, on my dad’s side.”
When Daniel opened his eyes again, he touched Andy lightly on the shoulder and said, “We’re all polar bears in our own way. Don’t worry about what other people think. You just lumber out onto that ice and kick up your heels.”
After Teresa and Daniel had gone their ways, Andy and Naomi walked together for a while. “You have a date tomorrow?” Andy asked, trying to make his voice sound as casual as possible.
Andy waited for more info. There wasn’t any. “With who, anyway?” he finally asked. “Anybody I know? Just curious. I mean I’m not that curious but I just wondered …”
Naomi looked at him for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t asked anyone yet. What do you think about Annie?”
“I don’t think she’d go out with you,” Andy said.
“No, you silly.” She gave him a little hit on the arm. “What do you think about what she told us?”
“Oh, that. I think she’s been studying too hard or something. She’ll probably feel better now that school’s out.”
“That’s what I was thinking too. It’s not like her to get overwhelmed or to not be in control of herself. I’m a little worried. I hope she’s not sick. I had a friend in eighth grade who thought she was having all of these emotional problems for a whole semester and didn’t know why she was feeling so overwhelmed. It turned out that she had some lump on her thyroid. It wasn’t a big deal – not cancer or anything – and once they removed it, she was back to normal. She was actually better than normal because she was so relieved that there was nothing wrong with her emotions. So maybe we should get Annie to go to the doctor.”
“Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know why none of us thought of that. But suppose there’s nothing wrong with her and aliens are trying to communicate with her. That would mean humanity is in danger. What then?”
“Andy! Holy cow. Listen to yourself. That’s insane! If we can’t tell the difference between improv and reality, we are going to be in trouble.”
History and Hysteria
Justin had picked up Herring and the two of them had walked over to Johnny’s house. Johnny’s house was always fun to hang out at, in part because Mrs. Dinicu was friendly and laid back. She was also a great singer and Justin loved it when she would sing along to his and Johnny’s music. Today she was teaching them a song.
“Ok,” she said. “The words are saying Listen, my beautiful wife. Dance to me like an old wife. Dance to me and sing to me. You will make all of the Romany men crazy.” Justin thought that her rich accent sounded like music no matter what she was saying. Sometimes when she was talking, he drifted away on the sound of her voice and forgot to understand what she was saying.
“Here’s how it sounds,” she continued, and then went on to sing the song, clapping her hands to the rhythm. Justin found his foot tapping enthusiastically. Who wouldn’t want to start dancing to that music, he thought. He looked over at Herring. Herring usually ran away from most of the music that kids listened to. Literally. It was as though it was attacking him and he’d jump up and run out of earshot, usually looking a lot like a bear being chased by bees. But certain kinds of music – jazz, blues, and Mrs. Dinicu’s music – held him in a trance. Right now he was sitting absolutely motionless with his mouth half open, staring at Johnny’s mom as she sang. Boy, Justin thought, if music can pass the Herring test, it’s got to be good.
When she had finished, Mrs. Dinicu asked, “So, you boys can play it?” Justin smiled at what he thought of as her creative way of putting things. He had trained himself long ago not to laugh out loud because it hurt her feelings. She held a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and was an internationally recognized Romany rights activist. She couldn’t help it if English – her fifth language – was weird.
Justin picked up his trombone and turned to Johnny, who was already fiddling around on his violin. “You got it?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Johnny said. “I’ve heard this enough times. Let me play it through a couple times and then you can come in with some rhythm.” As they worked the tune out, Justin noticed Mrs. Dinicu smiling. Seeing people learn her music, the music of her childhood and of her people, must make her feel more at home in a strange land, he thought.
As they got more familiar with the music, Justin was able to take over the melody while Johnny did some fancy improvising on his violin. He’s really good, Justin thought. I wish I’d been brought up in a family that played music together. Not just a family. A whole culture. I guess my Norwegian ancestors were too cold most of the time to play instruments, he mused.
After they had worked out their performance of the song, they played it through while Mrs. Dinicu sang several verses and danced around between the verses. What Justin loved about playing good music was that it was a sort of universal language. You could play music with complete strangers who didn’t speak your language and everyone would feel good. Justin was pretty sure that if he ever got to study an alien race, he would start by playing music for them.
* * *
Johnny had also been thinking, and when he and Justin were done jamming on their own music an hour later, he invited Justin and Herring into the kitchen, where his mom was cleaning up, so that they could get some snacks and hopefully some advice.
“I’ve been thinking about history,” he started.
“Sar te na. Of course,” she replied, as if he had said “I’m breathing.” After all, Johnny was always thinking about history.
“What I mean is, I realized that history is only about people, right?” He glanced at Justin and Herring for support. Justin was looking up  at him attentively and Herring was grinning and giving him a thumbs up, though Johnny understood that with Herring that could mean anything.
“Yes, sure,” his mom said. “Same with anthropology. We do study plants and animals but only because they affect people.”
“Exactly,” Johnny continued. “And it’s even worse than that.” The others looked at him, puzzled, wondering what he meant by “worse”. “History is supposed to help us be prepared for the future, right? You know. Those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it and everything?” He waited until the others nodded.
“So what if all of history is missing an important piece?” he went on. “Then the whole main point of history would be wrong and it wouldn’t help us at all in an emergency.” The others nodded tentatively, except for Herring who had wandered off and found a small rubber ball somewhere, which he was now playing with. “Here’s how I see it,” Johnny continued, his voice starting to get louder and more animated. “History is the, uhm, history of humans learning to control plants and animals and other groups of humans. History sort of assumes that plants and animals can’t control us and that the only thing we have to worry about is understanding how to control each other. So do you see what’s missing?”
“No,” his mother said while flipping some fried eggs.
“Computers?” Justin guessed.
“The missing link,” Herring spouted.
“Aliens!” Johnny said. Having accomplished his goal, he started munching on a piece of toast.
“Whoa. Aliens?” Justin said. “What do aliens have to do with history?”
Johnny put his toast down, slightly irritated that this snack was being interrupted. “Nothing. That’s the point. History has never dealt with the possibility that there could be intelligent races out there who are seriously superior to our puny intellects. Look. It’s sort of like if you’re a dog and your whole world view is how to catch cats and squirrels and how to mark a bigger territory with your pee than the other dogs. So you’re going along chasing and peeing and feeling like you’ve got everything under control and suddenly there’s a leash around your neck and your being dragged into a car and taken someplace where they remove your private parts. Totally unexpected. You had no clue that there could be some beings so advanced, so you didn’t have any plan to deal with them. Get it?”
Herring was nervously feeling his neck, presumably checking for an undetectable alien choke collar. Justin let Johnny’s theory sink in. “So, you’re saying…” He paused, not quite sure of his thoughts. “You’re saying that we would be helpless against aliens?”
“I don’t think we’d be helpless but we’d have to be really careful not to, uhm, make assumptions, I guess. I mean, if the Canadians attacked us, we’d make a lot of assumptions that would probably be right, like what weapons they have and what their leaders are thinking and what their weaknesses are, right?”
“Canadians? Why would the Canadians attack us? Do you know something I don’t know?” Justin asked.
“It’s just an example, dude. Maybe they got rabies or something. The point is we’d be able to understand them because our assumptions about them would be pretty accurate. But what if we were attacked by aliens? We wouldn’t even know if they had leaders or weapons or reasons. They would be completely alien. So we’d have to be really careful not to make assumptions. We’d have to test out our knowledge at every step. Suppose you were an exobiologist exploring Mars and you found some orange furry little animal that purred and licked its whiskers and chased Mars mice and you wanted to pick it up and pet it but it’s really some vicious, venomous killer beast. Or it’s not even an animal at all. It’s really a toxic chemical bomb booby trap placed there by Martians to lure and kill you.”
When Johnny looked up, he noticed that Herring was holding the Dinicu’s cat and examining it very carefully.
Mrs. Dinicu set plates of eggs and potato on the table. “Enjoy your snack, boys.” She had decided that the best thing she could do to be prepared for aliens was to finish the laundry and check her email.
“So,” Johnny said, adding the frosting to his thesis, “we can’t be blinded by what we know. We have to keep our eye on the unknown.”
Justin wasn’t so sure. “The laws of physics are universal. Things like gravity and electron shells would have to act the same on Mars as they do here. So I’d say that exobiology is predictable too. Living things need food, water, and shelter and they’ll fight to get those things. I bet aliens would feel things like being angry or jealous. I think we can count on the laws of nature to be the same everywhere. You can’t break the laws of nature! What do you think, Mrs. Dinicu.”
But Mrs. Dinicu wasn’t paying much attention to Justin any more. She was staring at Herring. Who was levitating a small rubber ball about eight inches above the palm of his left hand.
 For example making dog food out of breakfast cereal and vice versa.
 I’m not sure why. Perhaps one good snake is better than a handful of mediocre snakes, but then who wants a handful of snakes, anyway?
 66.4 liters compared to 2 x 10 to the 33rd power cubic light-years. No one knows how many liters fit in a cubic light-year. The best estimate so far is “a heck of a lot, so don’t even think about trying to fill a cubic light-year with liters!”
 In third grade, Annie knew what unsophisticated meant. It had been her personal word of the day for October 16. She could also spell it and give its Latin derivation. None of the teachers knew whether she was correct.
 Words of the day for April 12 in 1st grade and December 7 in 6th grade, respectively.
 Coterie: Close-knit group of people with a similar purpose, often exclusive. From Middle French, meaning people sharing the same cot. Word of the day, November 9, 9th grade. Probably the Middle French would have just called Annie’s Coterie a gang. But then the Middle French didn’t get out much, being stuck between the Outside French and the Top and Bottom French.
 His 8th grade teacher was forced to give him an A+ even though his test average was only A- because Andy had developed a system of equations for calculating the amount of time contained in a black hole.
 There is one recorded case of a golden retriever being enrolled in the school system of a huge metropolitan area, under a false social security number, and making it to the 6th grade before being found out. The owners claimed that the dog enrolled himself but the dog had snapshots of the owners filling out the enrollment forms online. The dog went on to become a successful attorney by taking home study courses.
 “Good day to you.” The response is “thank you.”
 Justin’s legs were unusually long for his height so that when he was sitting down, he looked even shorter. Sometimes people even offered him a booster seat, which thoroughly humiliated him.
 If you ever write a thesis, it’s helpful to remember that it’s more palatable with frosting.