Way too early in the morning…
The heating element glowed bright orange against the inky dark. At the same time the little fan in the compact electric space heater wheezed into live and did its best to push back the near-freezing cold of my small attic loft. It would take a crowbar get me out of bed.
>CLICK< “I am a lineman for the counteeee!”
There goes the clock radio. Must be time to get up for school but it will take a crowbar AND a stick of dynamite to get me out of bed today.
…. or Mom.
“Your dad couldn’t get the truck started so he had to take the station wagon. You’re going to have to ride the bus today.”
“Oh great”, I thought as I slumped into my seat at the breakfast bar. “Why don’t I walk through a pack of wild dogs with a steak tied to my throat instead?”
“I didn’t think it got that cold last night but there’s Alaska for you!”
I looked down at the cold congealed oatmeal and tried not to gag, then passed on the meal with my stomach rumbling, leaving the table only after finishing the fight scene between Captain America and Mr. Spock that I had been penciling on my placemat. After a perfunctory kiss-on-the-cheek, and the obligatory lecture from Mom about neglecting my homework in favor of drawing superheroes, I trudged out the driveway and across the road to the designated bus stop, which felt a bit colder than expected. I was going out a little early – fresh snow tended to muffle sounds and the last thing I wanted was a surprise arrival and a frantic dash to the bus before our dim-bulb driver Johann took off again after the regulation three-minute wait.
The walk out warmed me up a bit, but the chill mounted an immediate counter attack. I had dressed as warmly as social conventions allowed but the chill kept coming, so I hopped up and down hoping the exertion would lend a little more warmth
I tried hitting snowballs with a stick but failed to connect even once, and concluded that with an RBI average of .000 no baseball team – not even the New York Mets – would sign me up for any position more skilled than towel-hander-outer.
Still cold…and for some reason getting colder.
It was then that I noticed streaks of color low in the sky, kind of like the aurora borealis, but running toward red and yellow instead of the pale greens and blues you would normally see. I was mystified: while actual daylight at our latitude was only about six hours long, we had extended periods of dusk and dawn that filled the sky with magenta and orange streaks…but they weren’t due for at least another hour. Come to think of it, the northern lights were something I usually saw late at night rather than early in the morning. It was definitely a mystery, but I was too cold to think about it and was toying with the idea of dancing the Funky Chicken in place as a better method of getting my circulation going when I was startled by a resonant voice calling to be from behind.
I spun around and almost stumbled into a man standing behind me in the snow. Man? More like a wizard from the cover of a Conan paperback. I tried to shake off the startle, but I was too creeped out by his glowing pupil-less eyes to completely settle down…but at least I wasn’t cold anymore.
With increasing urgency his deep echoing voice rang out again “AUGUSTUS!”
In my mind I cleverly quipped “So, do you carpool with Batman?” but what came out of my mouth was more along the lines of “URK!” I cleared my throat, then meekly said, “Actually, just ‘Gus’ will do”.
“Augustus,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me – “Favored child of the gods of creation– heed my words. I bear a sacred gift for you – a token of honor from the Old Ones!” From out of a deep pocket in his gold-trimmed red robe, he pulled out a box the size of a Dune paperback sliced in half length-wise and made of what looked like cedar, but with gold threads running through and along the grain. There were lids on both the top and bottom of the container, though the latch to the bottom looked like it had been wired shut.
He handed it to me and said, “To you I give this most precious gift from that mystic patron of dreams made real, even the Old One known as NoshWiggi. Use your gift this day to grant form and life to your grandest dreams and secret thoughts. Use it well, but remember that such grace and largesse deserve a modest offering in restitution. I will return at sundown to assist you in rendering this ever-so-small courtesy for the superb gift NoshWiggi gives to you – the power to made tangible your most precious dreams and desires!”
I took the box and held it, tracing the grain of polished wood, and feeling its weight. I opened the top lid to find a slightly tarnished pointed cylinder sitting in a velvet lined slot, red and gold light flickering around it like the St. Elmo’s fire that I had read about but never seen. A small card printed with almost-unreadable script was tucked into a side crease of the velvet cushioning, but I shoved it into a pocket intending to read it once I got some place with decent lighting, and for now all I could see was the little cylinder puking red and yellow sparks.
“It looks like a pencil.”
“An astute observation Augustus. Use it well.”
At that point I heard a subdued rumble, and turned around and jumped when I saw the bus rolling to a stop behind me, the snow muffling its approach just as I had thought. The door opened, and a cloud of warm, moist air wafted out.
I lurched into my regular seat; the occupants on each side surprised to see me on the morning run. Across the aisle three hulking figures were playing penny ante poker with much more zeal than the stakes merited. One of them threw his cards down in disgust and turning from the game, spied me and smiled. The smile resembled that of a wolf eyeing a lamb at dinner, and to anyone else it would have been terrifying, but that lupine look of glee meant I was talking to my friend Wayne. He’d been the Damon to my Pythias in junior high, the Rowan to my Martin, but high school had done what no amount of tissue stuffed in Linda Knight’s bra had been able to achieve – it had split us up. While I took college prep courses like Principles of Biology and Plane Geometry, Wayne was studying Principles of Petty Theft and Covet Alcohol Consumption 101…. but while we weren’t best buddies any more we were still friends and our occasional conversations were just as warm as ever.
“Hey dumbass!” I said.
“Hey dickhead!” he replied, “you slumming today?”
“Station wagon wouldn’t start, so yeah, I’m slumming. And starving. You got anything to eat other than your mom’s gut bombs?” His lunches were the epitome of homestead haute cuisine, the most frequent dish a sandwich assembled from Spam and Velveeta with a dill pickle slice and Miracle Whip on white bread – not something my poor stomach needed to contend with so early in the morning, but I was starving.
“NO SMOKIN NO EATIN NO SMOKIN!” Johann’s garbled Nordic bellow startled me for minute and I asked, “Does he get a bounty for busting kids for smoking?” The bus bounced over a small ridge left by the snow plow. I went on, “Seriously – you got anything to eat? I’m starving my ass off”.
“Mom let the gruel get cold again eh? Sorry. Not even Spam and Velveeta this morning.”
I turned back toward the front of the bus and slid down into my seat. It was going to be quite some time before lunch. I started to grope around my coat pockets for a piece of gum or a leather strap to chew on, but instead of Juicy Fruit my fingers jammed up against the cedar box, which I’d momentarily forgotten while distracted by my rumbling breakfast-free stomach.
I opened the lid just a crack and slid (for a better word) the large pencil out of the box and held it in my classic cramped grip. I had no sooner grumbled, “Grandest dreams and thoughts? I’d settle for a cheeseburger!” when the pencil shuddered and took on a slight glow. I started experimenting, moving it around and found a slight resistance to each move, much like what happens when moving a spinning gyroscope…but as I waved the pencil around it left a glowing sparkly line in the air that quickly faded away unless crossed with another line.
I whispered “Hey– keep Johann distracted for me,” then started tracing the outline of a cheeseburger in the air behind the seat in front of me. Adding outline and shading made the image flicker and periodically coalesce into something with volume, but it wasn’t until I penciled in the final edge of sliced cheese that my drawing took on full form and substance – a hot, juicy cheeseburger popping into existence in front of me and immediately falling to the floor.
I caught it on the first bounce, then wolfed it down, my hunger trumping whatever bacterial contamination that may have survived on the icy bus floor. Wayne had no sooner growled out “Damn – that looked real,” when Johann looked up and gave me a suspicious glare in his rear-view mirror while barking out a few more verses of “sit-down-no-eatin-sit-down!” but when he looked back at the road I started drawing breakfast for Wayne as well. Every couple of minutes Johann would sniff loudly, convinced that someone on the bus was smoking, but when Wayne grabbed a hapless freshman’s lower arm and coerced him into a noisy version of the “Why are you Hitting Yourself?” Game our Nordic transit captain ceased his search for smoldering tobacco and focused on yelling at Wayne to stop tormenting the younger student.
Wayne was licking the grease off his fingertips as the bus turned off the highway into the school’s entrance lane. “Totally bitching burger Gus. You always come up with the weirdest stuff but this time you hit the jackpot!” to which I responded by coming up with another burger Wayne could pack away for lunch. Yes, it was weird – and more than just a bit bewildering – but I wasn’t going to worry about it. After a breakfast that good I knew it was going to be the best day of 1968 ever.
Johann hadn’t exactly set a new world land speed record getting to school this morning, but then with a 25 mile bus route he rarely did. I didn’t walk to my locker as much as bolt, so I had little time for socializing other than fending off the inevitably caustic comments from the wrestlers that were homesteading the heat registers right outside the gymnasium doors. Hoping to at least make eye contact I glanced towards Tim’s locker only to be stunned by the sight of a statuesque blond wearing dark glasses and a black leather jacket standing next to him as he rustled through his books and papers, apparently looking for something. A passing jock in a letterman’s jacket started to sneer, “He always hustles the new chicks before they find out who–” but his comment ended with an “OOF!” when I “accidentally” elbowed him in passing. When I glanced back towards Tim’s locker he was gone so I set out to find Neal.
Only a fresh bear kill would have been easier to find that Neal’s locker. The door was wrenched open, his lunch was smashed into the back wall and his books scattered on the floor to each side.
“What does that guy have against you? This has to be some kind of psychological fixation with him.”
“I don’t know,” he sniffed, “Maybe he had identity issues – I mean a Korean kid with an Irish first name? I tried talking to him once, but it just seemed to make him more obnoxious than he was before.”
“My dad says the Koreans are the Irish of the Orient – something about their hot tempers I guess, but still–” and I was cut off by the slam of Neal’s locker door as a smattering of sparks trailed to his hand – which I passed off as the static electricity that we all struggled with during the cold and dry mid-winter months…but then I could have sworn I saw just a trace of red and gold sparkles before Neal pulled up his coat zipper as we both took off running for our first classes.
I slid into my desk only seconds before the tardy bell rang and felt quite proud of myself until I looked around at the other students in my Spanish class, all of whom were holding blankets, sombreros, maracas, or some other Latin American artifact. “Oh no!” I groaned inwardly. “I forgot to bring something Spanish!” so when Miss Gardill started taking roll and marking off artifacts, I begged full bladder and ran around the corner to the boy’s bathroom. After insuring I was alone I pulled out the electric pencil and used it to draw a small figure of a bull, modeled after the one souvenir that survived our trip to Tijuana in 1961, then dashed back to class with the faintest trace of red and gold sparkles trailing behind me.
By mid-morning it was obvious that something odd was going on. For one thing I was running across red and gold sparkles everywhere I went and I’d been whisking them away like mosquitoes ever since I talked to that guy with the weird eyes. Eventually I figured out that creating a drawing with the magic pencil produced the little glowing bits in the same way using a pink pearl eraser leaves you with all those little rubber crumbs. The more luminous flecks I saw floating around the hallways, the more sure I became that I wasn’t the only guy with one of those magic pencils.
…and when you go to a high school situated on the ass-end of the world you run out of new things to see by Thanksgiving break. It was the first week in December and in since getting off the bus I’d seen weird crap that you wouldn’t expect in Disneyland much less Kenai, Alaska.
Among the stories I heard between first hour and lunch were reports of:
- A submarine periscope coming out of the drain in the girls’ locker room showers.
- A Roman legionnaire’s helmet and short sword sitting on the teacher’s desk in world history class.
- The floating Nomad robot from Star Trek drifting around the oil-change pit in auto shop.
I drew the line at the story about Finnegan Kim getting chased by Klingons down the freshman locker hall with his pants around his knees, as I couldn’t imagine Kim getting pushed around by anyone. I thought I saw the weird-eye guy across the commons by the smoking area, but he was bundled up in an army surplus parka and passing as a stoner while drifting with the flow in the hall during class change. He kept his distance, but he had that creepy half-smile Uncle Les would get when I was a little kid and he’d talk about gladiator movies. As cool as the magic pencil seemed, something wasn’t right, and since I had study hall for third period I decided to dig out the little card that had been packed in the box and start studying it.
It was written in a flowery language that made me think the writer had been using the Bible or Shakespeare for reference. All the “thee’s”, “thou’s”, and “shalt’s” were confusing and I had a hard time figuring out the first two lines, until the effects of family scripture reading with The King James Bible kicked in and I was finally able to understand. Even so, when I got to the third line I was baffled – “This can’t really mean what I think it does” – but I remembered the last creepy look the old guy had given me out in the hall, and then I recalled the leer on Uncle Les’ face the day he found out that a seven year old boy could run faster than a middle-aged man with his pants down around his knees. I read on until my stomach felt like I’d just jumped off the high dive as I realized exactly what the third line meant…
My multiple pencil theory was confirmed when I slid into the seat of our regular lunch table and found Tim and his latest paramour surrounded by a cloud of what looked like red and gold mosquitoes. I turned to Tim’s silent companion – and with a quick “excuse me” – and as gently as possible – removed her shades to reveal no eyes, but rather just blank concave spaces on each side of her perfect nose. Any other time I would have been terrified, but I just turned back to Tim and said “I thought she looked too much like a Vargas girl”.
“You know I’ve always had a hard time doing eyes.”
This vision of ultimate female foxiness wasn’t a new move-in – she was a drawing. A blond bombshell of a drawing, but a drawing nonetheless and my thoughts instantly descended to the lowest common denominator.
“You are one sick puppy. Have the two of you – you know – done ‘it’?”
“OF COURSE NOT!” His outburst scattered napkins and startled people sitting around us. “No we haven’t done anything. It’s not even possible. You think I have problems drawing eyes? Crap on a stick Gus – how can I draw something I’ve never seen.” He slumped in his seat and continued. “ Hell – I only turned fifteen three months ago and the only “reference” I’ve had access to are my cousin’s Barbie dolls and a Playboy I stole from Dad…and they don’t show anything down there.”
Neal strolled up trailing a cloud of sparkles and sat down. I handed them both a penciled copy of my translation. “Okay – so you both have the magic pencils and we’ve all been having fun – by the way, nice touch with the Klingons Neal – but have you taken the time to read the note the pencils came with?” I pushed my own card along with my penciled edited version across the table towards them and they both started reading silently.
Tim is prone to moving his lips when reads, but when his mouth snapped into a tight straight line that you couldn’t stick a pin through I knew he’d reached the third line. Neal on the other hand – I’ve read descriptions of a person’s face “turning ashen” but with Neal it was more like an image on a color television screen that had the color level down. His face noticeably lost vibrancy until it was just short of cadaver level. He looked up and as if on cue both of them turned to me.
“OK…as my dad is always saying, ‘There ain’t no free lunch’. When we took the pencils, we entered into a contract. There’s a price for the pencils and unless we return them AND everything we created with them by sundown Mr. Weird-Eyes gets to–”
“That’s OK! Neal interjected, his hand held up like a stop sign. “You don’t need to say it out loud. My stomach is upset enough as it is.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty grim but I still think we have a chance. If we really hustle during class changes we can round up and erase all the stuff we drew – be even better if we could each ditch at least one class to give us a margin… Our deadline is sunset…I checked and it’s at 3:45 today but school gets out at 3:30.” I paused, then continued almost wistfully, “I just think it stinks that we have to give up the pencils. Just think what we could do with them!”
At this point Tim finally found his voice, which was not surprisingly shrill, “You wanna know what I think? Okay, so I like to draw. I really, really like to draw. But I’m also going to really, really like ‘doing it’ and if I have to choose between drawing and ‘doing it’, the pencils are history.”
As our art teacher was prone to spending most of the period in his office “burning incense” it was easy enough to slip out for recovering and erasing as quickly as possible. The three Klingons proved to be so much of a challenge that I recruited Wayne to help us chase them down one by one and “rub them out”. Surprisingly enough, Tim took the erasure of his synthetic girlfriend in stride, explaining his lack of angst with the simple statement that he “hadn’t written a script for her yet.” It looked like we’d almost make the deadline, but as we were waiting to be let out of class the public address system crackled out an announcement that interrupted a yardstick and eraser baseball game I was losing with: “Attention all students! Buses will be held until 4:00 so students will be able to attend a mandatory pep-rally for the basketball team immediately after school. Let’s get ready to give a real Kardinal send-off to the basketball team as they leave for their first away game of the season in Homer!”
All of a sudden the ease with which we’d been cleaning up made perfect sense. There’d been tons of people running around the school with red & white banners and crepe paper – evidently the teachers and staff had passed off our antics as part of the preparation for the pep rally.
We were so totally screwed.
It was open reading today and as usual Tim and I were sitting next to the window at the back of the portable classroom whispering behind the covers of the science fiction paperbacks we were all reading. Wayne was sitting nearby– and after determining that he was also subject to the contract after his breakfast of cosmic cheeseburgers that morning, he became an energetic participant in the clean-up.
“Did we get everything taken care of?”
“I think so, I hope so. This guy is starting to kind of scare me.”
“There’s no ‘kind of’ about it.” Wayne broke in “I mean, I don’t mind punching it up with anyone but I think this guy might be out of my weight class. I think these Old Ones are the Lovecraft variety rather than the Sunday School version, and we need to–”
It was the guy with the creepy eyes and the Uncle Les expression peering through the window next to us, but it seemed like only the three of us noticed him or heard him say, “Augustus, it is good that you have availed yourself of the incredible potential granted you by the ever-powerful NoshWiggi. Such power should be enjoyed to the fullest, given the gravity of the offering you will be inevitably giving up to the Old Ones”.
I drifted through Geometry, interacting with my teacher only when he called me to task for gracing my homework with a sketch of a topless Wonder Woman for which I narrowly avoided detention as her coiled golden lasso strategically obscured all the interesting parts. “That’s about as close as I’m ever going to get”, I thought as I contemplated our impending doom. At the last class break Neal shared an important discovery: the magic pencil tips glowed when close to or aimed at one of the drawings. It was definitely good news. We’d been pretty thorough, but there was still one drawing left to erase. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the gymnasium and it and the halls on each side were starting to fill up with students heading for the pep rally.
♫ Oh when the Kenai Kards walk down the street
They look a hundred per from head to feet ♫
It was our school’s fight song, accompanied by the arrhythmic thump-thump of bouncing basketballs and a roar from the crowd as the team entered the gymnasium. Tim and I pushed through the hall and met up with Neal and Wayne, all of us slightly out-of-breath and flushed after crowding through the hall.
♫ They got the smile, the style the winning way
And when you look at them you feel you want to say ♫
Weird-eyes was there as well, slowly walking across the commons, and while it was ever so slight, that creepy smile was just a little wider as he mouthed out something completely drowned out by the crowd, but looking like “very soon now”. Wayne pulled me around by my collar with a terse “just let him ‘bite me’”, to which I started to answer, “Yeah, well I think that’s already part of the plan” when Neal met back up with us.
♫ You’ll say that there’s a team I’d like to know
They have high school spirit pep and go ♫
Straining to be heard over the roar of the pep rally he yelled, “We’ve narrowed it down to somewhere in our locker hall. We have to check each one”, at which point Wayne handed each of us a short crowbar-like length of iron.
“WHAT THE HELL WAYNE!” Then marginally softer, “these look like burglar’s tools!”
“You want to keep your stuff or not?”
We split up and started working from each end of the two sides of the hall using the pencils like mine detectors and prying open the doors to lockers that gave any sort of indication…which invariably turned out to be bits of red/gold sparkle that had stuck like cockleburs to coats and scarves.
♫ GO-GO! ♫
“We’ve only got five minutes!”
♫Sportsman ship that can’t be beat! Can’t be beat! ♫
“What the hell? This is my own locker?”
Wayne stood dumbfounded in front of his open locker on my side of the hall and about twenty feet away. He seemed almost frozen as he held up the one single drawing that we had yet to erase – the cheeseburger I’d drawn up for his lunch. He was also the only one of us without the means to erase it.
Just over his shoulder I could see Weird-Eyes, his ratty old parka replaced with the gold-trimmed red robes he wore at our first meeting and in each hand carrying what looked like a yardstick with a long blade at one end and an over-sized treble-prong fish hook at the other…and if he grinned any wider his face would split apart.
I turned back to Wayne, “THROW IT TO ME!”
“THROW IT TO ME. I’LL HIT IT. LIKE HITTING A BAT WITH A BALL!”
“NO! YOU SUCK AT BASEBALL!”
“YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR STUFF OR NOT?”
♫ The team from Kenai Hi-i-igh! ♫
The cosmic cheeseburger arced through the air, passing a clock on the hallway wall that read 3:44 and down where I swung and made the impossible hit. The burger burst into a cloud of red and gold sparkles followed a split-second later by all three magic pencils and the creepy-eyed guy.
“♫ YA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-Y!! ♫”
The bus-ride home was anticlimactic, the sole subject of discussion between Wayne and I being the awful smell Weird-Eyes and the pencils made when they popped out of existence. (I suggested sulfur while Wayne flatly stated, “milk farts”.) It was dark when I got off the bus and as I looked towards the northern horizon I could see the aurora starting to ripple with the usual pale greens and blues…and then suddenly a cold wind started swirling snowflakes around my feet…
I whipped around to find another Conan paperback cover wizard guy standing behind me in the snow. He had the same weird eyes but his ears were slightly different and instead of the morning guy’s red and gold robes, everything was aquamarine and silver. I paused for a moment wondering why they always had to sneak up on people, but when I started to push past him towards the house he held up his hand, and with a flourish offered a box similar to the one from this morning, only this one was filled with a gleaming substance that could have been either wax or clay.
He called out with a deep echoing voice, “AUGUSTUS!” and broke off a piece of the wax clay and started kneading it in his hands as he continued, “To you I give this most precious gift that the mystic patron of dreams made real, even the Old One known as ReebSnorboc.” He was working the clay and as he spoke he formed a rudimentary bust of a woman. His voice rumbled as he went on, “Use your gift this day to–”
– – – – – – –
My mother really hates it when we track snow into the front room so as I got to the porch I carefully kicked the snow off my boots, went inside, pulled up a chair to the breakfast bar and asked, “Mom – do we have anything to eat?”
“Sweetie, Dinner is only an hour away but help yourself to an apple”, she suggested, but then asked, “Did someone get off the bus with you?
“It looked like you just pushed someone down into the snow.”
(I write in a style known as ‘creative nonfiction’. Everything in my autobiographical writings actual happened –though sometimes I’ll tweak the time frame to make a better story. This is pure fiction – the first fiction I’ve written I’ve written since 1971 – if you don’t count the totally bogus/inflated efficiency report I wrote on SSG Rogers just to get him transferred the hell out of my platoon.)
© David Ralph Deitrick 2021