by A.G. Wallace
Once upon a time … in a medium-sized town, which lingered between a very large forest and an endless prairie, a boy lived with his mother in an Urban Promise Zone. Their little rental unit was equidistant from his school and her workplace, and every weekday morning they would leave together, wave goodbye at the corner, and walk in opposite directions. The boy hated his school, the mother hated her government job, and every afternoon they would walk home and share stories of oppression over a dinner of fast food.
“My boss tried to write me up again today for taking too many breaks,” his mother said one Tuesday night, grumpily stuffing another double-decker taco supreme into her mouth.
“What happened?” the boy asked, brushing a lock of his long golden hair away from the sauce of his half-eaten burrito.
“The union told her to stop, or we’d beat the crap out of her. I think she’s going to quit. Did anything exciting happen at your school today?”
“No,” the boy lied.
“Come on, Goldie,” his mother urged. “Something always happens.”
Edward put the straw into his mouth and sucked. The brown carbonated liquid rose slowly, and finally spilled onto his tongue. He liked the burning sensation, but he also thought it must be bad for him.
He felt his mother’s exasperation and knew it would just get worse until he told her something. “The sixth graders threatened to beat the crap out of me again if I didn’t cut my hair.”
“Those bullies! Your hair is beautiful!”
“They said real Chicanos don’t have golden hair, and that I must be a girl.”
Soda spurted out of his mother’s nose and Edward could see the rage in her eyes as she wiped her face on the sleeve of her dress.
“How dare they!” she shouted. “You could be a girl if you wanted to! I’ll be talking to the school’s Gender Expression Sub-Committee tomorrow and we’ll see who has the last laugh!”
Edward didn’t want to be a girl, but he kept quiet, threw the food bags away while his mother called in sick, and together they watched Real Husbands of Hollywood until it was time for bed.
The next morning, Edward walked to school with his mother and hoped she didn’t know about the Evil Ink Comics and Krylon hidden deep in his backpack. The bullies dominated the tetherball courts as usual, but Edward pulled his mother toward the classroom.
“Don’t say anything!” he cried, afraid that her interference would only make the situation worse. It was bad enough that everyone saw them holding hands. When Ms. Andry met them at the door he thankfully squirted into the classroom, sat down at his desk, and dodged the “goodbye I love you” that his mother lobbed in his direction.
Edward stayed inside at morning recess to finish his homework, unsuccessfully attempted to eat lunch at Ms. Andry’s table, and didn’t go out during afternoon recess either. As the classroom clock ticked the minutes down, he wondered if the Sub-Committee would call him in to testify. When the bell rang at 3:07 p.m. he grabbed his backpack, fled the school grounds before the bullies could beat him to the crosswalk, and headed for the forest, dressing up vacant doorways with his moniker along the way.
G0LDI3L0X wuz h3r3. g0ldi3l0x rulz. King G0ldi3l0x.
The white Krylon was half-empty as he stood in front of the chain link fence that ran along the edge of the forest as far as he could see. A series of signs at fixed intervals warned citizens of the danger. “Stay Out! Public Protection Code 2945.57(s), Environmental Protection Code 3323.56(h), Wildlife Protection Code 672.40(i), and Land Use Protection Code 1094(t), prohibits any citizen from entering the forest without prior authorization and armed escort. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This sign authorized by City Protection Code 3102.03(e).” Similar signs all over town, some with ambiguous images of wild animals, warned children to stay out of the woods. Even so, the media regularly reported that a child or two had disappeared; no reports of returning children had ever been published, and no one ever said they’d been eaten by wild animals. Over the years, Edward had asked his mother, various teachers, and at least one police officer about the restricted forest, but the answer had always been the same: “It’s dangerous.”
The pat answer from authorities had never seemed good enough to Edward, and he’d finally mustered enough courage to see for himself what dangers the forest held. He eased through a hole in the fence, which had obviously been patched more than once, and stood in the shade of the first tree. The city behind him was hot. He peered into the cool maze of the forbidden, beckoning, forest. About twenty feet in, hidden in the deep shade on the side of the old and unused road, a weathered sign offered one word: “Welcome.”
“I can tag the trees on my way in,” he thought. “That way I won’t get lost. Besides, I’m already in trouble for not going home.”
His mind made up, Edward strode cautiously into the woods, sprayed his moniker on the obsequious welcome sign, and every so often tagged a capital G conspicuously onto a tree trunk. The only evidence that the road existed at all were the occasional rusting hulks of twisted metal that might once have been vehicles; and the unnatural absence of trees that forced its way like a knife straight into the heart of the darkness. Soon, the trees were thick on each side, the air was chilly, he’d lost count of the mangled vehicles, and only a sliver of sky was visible overhead. He shook the rattling can and was about to turn back, when a glimmer of light reached his eyes.
The road emerged into a well-kept clearing, and the warm sun felt good on his back. An ugly little house sat behind a bourgeois white fence, and as he got closer Edward could see that strange plants grew in various sections of the yard. The neatness of the garden made him queasy. He wanted to spray “G0ldi3L0x rulz” somewhere, but the white paint wouldn’t show on the white fence and he wasn’t sure there was enough Krylon left anyway. He threw the can to the ground and went to knock on the front door.
Peering into the window, he could tell no one was home. The door-handle turned easily and he went inside. The uneasiness in his stomach got worse as he made his way through the spotless foyer and the impeccably-furnished living room. When he reached the kitchen, the smell of food made him realize he’d missed his afternoon dose of Risperdal, and he thought that might be why he felt so bad.
Three empty bowls, attended by three clean spoons, waited neatly on the counter. Steam wafted from a covered pot on the stove. Edward lifted the lid and groaned with delight. The food was not something he recognized, but it smelled wonderful and his mouth watered in anticipation. He poured some into one of the waiting bowls, eying the gloopy mixture with slight distrust, and wolfed it down. It tasted like brown sugar and blueberry Pop Tarts mixed together. A cold glass of milk from the refrigerator polished off the meal, but Edward didn’t bother cleaning up after himself. The thought never occurred to him. He’d felt all his life that something was wrong, so he ignored the pang of guilt like always and continued exploring the house.
The entertainment room just off the kitchen contained three chairs, and a TV larger than any he’d ever seen. A big hand-written sign taped on the wall blared an insult: “No TV until your homework is done!” He pulled out a comic book and dropped his backpack on the floor.
The first chair was too big. The second chair was so nice it made him feel queasy. The smallest chair was just right. He settled in, but just as he was getting settled the foot-rest shot forward, the back of the chair pitched toward the floor, and he fell out onto the plush carpet, more embarrassed than hurt.
“Stupid chair!” he said, stomping out of the room.
The stairs were also thickly-carpeted, and Edward felt like he was walking on clouds as he ascended to the second floor. One room had a big bed that was too high. Another room had a small bed which looked just right. The afternoon snack was making him sleepy, so he laid down and covered himself up, intending to take a short nap.
When he woke, the sun had dropped behind the trees, and he heard hushed voices from the first floor. He tiptoed to the head of the stairs.
“Someone’s been eating the porridge!” said the first voice, which sounded male.
“And someone’s been sitting in our chairs!” said a second voice, which sounded female.
Edward felt guilty. “I shouldn’t be stereotyping the voices,” he thought, wondering if his mother’s meeting with the Sub-Committee had gone well or not.
Fear replaced guilt as he realized that the owners of the house were going to come up the stairs any minute, and suddenly his mother’s words of wisdom that “all property is theft” sounded more trite than true. He went back into the bedroom and hid under the covers.
Three sets of footsteps came up the stairs and into the room.
“You can come out,” said the male voice. “We found your backpack.”
“Did you like the porridge?” said the female voice. “If you’re still hungry, you’re welcome to stay for dinner.”
Edward peeked out and saw three bears. “You’re not going to eat me?”
“Of course not,” said the smallest bear. “Where did you get that idea?”
“I don’t know. The authorities are always telling us to stay out of the woods. And you are bears.”
“If we ate people we’d be locked up,” said father bear. “We don’t break the law, unlike some other people we know. Now come on out. Does your father know you’re here?”
Edward dumped the covers on the floor and stood up. “I don’t have a father. My mother doesn’t know where I am.”
“That explains a lot,” said mother bear. “But never mind that now. Come and wash up. You’ve been tracking dirt all through my house.”
Edward noticed the trail of footprints for the first time and felt a twinge of shame. “Are you going to call my mom?” The idea caused a simultaneous combination of fear and indifference to settle in his gut.
“Yes,” said mother bear. “Do you know her phone number?”
“It’s in my phone,” said Edward. “In my backpack.”
“Then you can call her yourself,” said mother bear, “and tell her what you’ve been up to. ”
The little bear looked like a girl, the way she bounced down the stairs, but Edward wasn’t sure and felt too guilty to ask. He retrieved his phone and dialed his mother’s cell. “Hi mom. I’m at the bears’ house in the woods and they asked me to stay for dinner.”
Her scream hurt his ear, so he held the phone away from his head. Through the noise, he was able to discern the words “trouble” and “police” before her voice disintegrated into sobbing.
“Mom. I’m okay,” he said, unsure if she was hearing him or not. “It’s getting dark and I’m hungry. They just want to feed me before you pick me up.”
The call ended abruptly, but Edward thought he heard the word “okay” followed by an unknown voice muttering the numbers 10-67 and 207, so that’s what he told mother bear as they sat down for the evening meal, only he didn’t mention the numbers because they made no sense. He was about to ask where the bags of food were, when father bear set a steaming plate in front of him, full of green things, brown things, and a pile of white stuff with melting yellow stuff on top.
“We hope you like venison,” said the smallest bear of indeterminate gender. “We killed it last week. And the vegetables came fresh from our own garden.”
“What’s venison?” Edward asked.
Before anyone could answer, the little clearing in the woods exploded with light and sound. Searchlights tried to pry open the blinds on the dining room windows. Over the thrumming of helicopters came an amplified voice. “You are surrounded. Send out the hostage and give yourselves up.”
“You must be kidding me!” father bear shouted.
“Don’t do anything silly,” said mother bear. “You know what happened last time.”
“That was a long time ago! I thought we were done with this crap!”
Little bear’s eyes opened wide and zhe snickered behind one raised paw.
Father bear excused himself and got up from the table. Mother bear took another bite of venison as if nothing had interrupted her meal. Little bear looked excited.
“What’s going to happen?!” Edward shouted.
Little bear grabbed Edward’s wrist and pulled him toward the window. The helicopters had landed, their searchlights creating grotesque shadows of the silhouetted SWAT team arrayed on the lawn. Edward shielded his eyes from the glare.
Father bear’s voice erupted over the turmoil. “Attention villagers! You have thirty seconds to withdraw!”
Edward started counting backwards. No one moved. The searchlights stayed on. With twenty seconds left, daylight burst from somewhere above the house. Five seconds later, a series of innocuous-looking cylinders rose out of the garden. With ten seconds left, father bear began the countdown.
The black-clad policemen ran. Father bear turned off the sun. Edward watched the helicopters take off and he breathed a sigh of relief. As he turned back toward dinner, a flash of fire belched from the trailing chopper and salvo of missiles screamed toward the little bourgeois house in the clearing.
“Hellfires inbound, daddy!” little bear shouted.
“Defensive measures!” father bear replied.
As Edward stared at the incoming missiles, one of the garden cylinders emitted a beam of light. The missiles evaporated. The chopper that had fired them exploded into a thousand flaming shards that rained down into the dense forest. The other disappeared toward the village, and finally the forest was quiet again.
“I hope the food isn’t cold,” mother bear said.
“Wow,” Edward breathed.
“That was the starfish,” said little bear. “A standard terawatt arc radiator, set to localized multidirectional mode.”
“We don’t like to be oppressed,” father bear grunted, sitting back down at the table.
“That’s enough shop talk for one night,” mother bear said. “We’re glad you could stay for dinner, Edward.”
“Can I ask just one more question?” Edward said, surprised at the respectful tone of his voice.
Mother bear nodded.
“Do you know what happened to the missing children from the village?”
“Oh, yes,” said mother bear. “They were adopted by other families of the forest.”
For the first time in his life, Edward was glad to be home.