By Lewis Buzbee
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2008 Lewis Buzbee
All rights reserved.
Finally. He finally found the word he had been looking for.
The moment Travis Williams stepped out of his house into the warm September afternoon, the word came to him. For months, ever since he and his parents had moved into the new house, he'd been trying to figure out what was so creepy about this place. Now he knew.
He stepped off the porch into the bright sunshine and whispered the word.
A Wrinkle in Time was one of Travis's favorite books. He'd first borrowed it from the library a couple of years ago, when he was eleven, and had probably borrowed it three times since, read it he didn't know how many times. Whenever he thought of the book, he pictured the planet Camazotz.
On Camazotz, everything was perfect. Every house was exactly like every other house, every lawn like all the rest. Every garden grew the same kind of flower, and the exact same number of those flowers. Everyone in Camazotz dressed like everyone else, and they all did the same things and at the same times. One child played ball in front of each house, and each ball bounced to the same beat.
Camazotz was supposed to be a perfect planet. And in a way, Travis thought, it was perfect. Perfectly creepy.
Bella Linda Terrace was supposed to be perfect, too. At least that's what Travis's parents told him. The house was big and brand-new, much bigger than the old house. Bathrooms galore, huge bedrooms, and in the living room, cathedral ceilings. His parents said "cathedral ceilings" in breathy voices as if these were the magic words that might open Aladdin's cave.
Before they'd moved in, Travis also thought that Bella Linda Terrace might be perfect. It was a spanking-new subdivision surrounded by a high stone wall. The houses had just been built, many of them still waiting for their lawns. The first time Travis toured Bella Linda Terrace with his parents, the fresh smell of the sunbaked earth was everywhere. He loved that smell. The streets were wide and clean and newly coated with black tar. Travis loved that smell, too, hot asphalt.
When they walked through the model of the new house, his parents showed him which room would be his. Travis would have the enormous bedroom at the front of the house, with two high, wide windows and a vast expanse of floor. His bedroom on Riker Street was about the size of the closet here, cramped but cozy. His new bedroom was palatial.
"All of it?" he kept asking. "All of it mine?"
Travis loved the view from these windows — his desk would go right in front of one. He could see all the way across the valley, past the freeway to Oldtown Salinas, and beyond that the dark Santa Lucia Mountains, and beyond that the ocean.
But his parents had saved the best for last that day. When they left the model home they drove to the far side of Bella Linda Terrace and parked above the community pool. A pool! It was Olympic-sized, the water as bright as a sapphire; there was a high dive and a three-story waterslide.
"You can go every single day if you want," his mom said. Travis felt like he was going to fall out of the car.
They moved in just after school let out for summer. Travis tried his best to decorate his room, not sure he had enough stuff to fill it up. He made sure to swim every day, mostly twice a day, and made a great friend, Hilario. But he never quite got over how weird Bella Linda Terrace felt. Waking up in Bella Linda Terrace was like wearing a shirt that was too tight; he couldn't get used to it.
"Camazotz," he said again, standing on the porch. The word sounded too loud. "It's just like Camazotz."
The hot afternoon wind pushed against him, trying to blow him up into the hills.
At the old house there were big trees that offered shade and cut off the afternoon wind, but in Bella Linda Terrace all the trees were saplings. The trees here were like a kindergartner's drawing of what a tree should be, stick trunks with stick branches. There was no shade at all, and every afternoon the wind was fierce and steady.
"I live on Camazotz," Travis said.
It was true. Everything here was exactly the same as everything else. Nothing was out of place.
There was one huge difference, though, between here and Camazotz. At least on that tedious planet, children played in the streets. The streets of Bella Linda Terrace were deserted. Nothing moved except the wind.
Creepy. He'd better get going to Hilario's.
* * *
Hil's bedroom was always dark. He kept it dark because it made playing video games easier — no glare on the screen — but Travis didn't understand why it had to be dark when he wasn't playing.
Travis and Hil basically lived in the same house — Camazotz again. Although Hil's house was three twisting blocks from Travis's, both had the same floor plan. Hil's bedroom was the same size and in the same slot over the garage as Travis's. And both houses had the same footprint, as his dad liked to say; they faced the same direction, west across Salinas. But you'd never know it because Hil's curtains were always closed. The curtains were heavy and black as night — couldn't get much darker.
Travis fingered the bottom edge of the thick curtain. He was almost afraid to open it; the perfectly bored children of Camazotz might be on the other side of the glass playing their reasonable games.
"So, Big T?" Hil said. "What's it gonna be?"
Hil clutched a fan of video-game boxes in one hand while he gracefully swept the other across them, like the hostess of a TV game show.
"First up," Hil said, his voice now an announcer's baritone. "For your gaming pleasure, Triumphant Weasel, a riveting journey through a forest of evil-eyed rodents. Next is Going Going Gong II, whose mysteries of the Far East are not for the squeamish. And today's final selection, Icon, where contestants scramble to create world-crushing corporations. All items sold separately."
Travis didn't want to play video games today, but he had to laugh. Hil was a funny guy, that's all there was to it. Sometimes Travis laughed just looking at him, as if he could almost hear the funny things cooking in Hil's head. Even his name was funny. Hil, Hilario, Hilarious.
Travis nudged the curtain and peeked out the window. The world was still there.
"I don't know, man," Travis said. "Whatever. Or I mean, don't you want to go outside or something? There's no one out there. We could do anything."
"Oh, dude," Hil said. "You know I'd love to, but my delicate skin, she is so pale."
Hilario's skin was as brown as a walnut.
"No, really," Travis said. "Let's ride bikes or something. Get outside. The dark in here, it's so cold. Sooooo coooooold."
"Maybe tomorrow. I gotta be here at four sharp. I set up an Icon session with the guys. Have to be online by then."
Hil cued Triumphant Weasel and leaped onto a sofa two feet from the TV. Travis shrugged and fell onto the sofa, too, and began blasting net-bombs at evil ferrets and vile stoats.
Afternoons with Hil weren't like this at first. They'd met at the pool a few weeks before school started, and Travis liked him on the spot. He remembered the first time he saw him, Hilario walking off the high dive as if taking a stroll, only realizing halfway to the water where he was, and then running like crazy in midair to save himself. Travis was already laughing before Hil's big splash. When Hil got out of the water, he took a regal bow, but the only one in the audience was Travis. Everyone else was splashing and screaming.
Travis got in the high-dive line behind him, and just as Hil was about to go out onto the board, he asked him to do his funny walk again.
"Check this out," Hil said. He ambled to the edge of the diving board, turned and looked into the distance as though he'd forgotten something. Then he pretended to lose his balance and windmilled all the way to a big sploosh! About the funniest thing Travis had ever seen.
After that, they were together every day. Which was a good thing because Travis had been worried about making new friends. Not worried, really, more like uninformed. He'd never moved before, and even though Bella Linda Terrace was only four miles from Riker Street, everything had changed — new school, new friends. He wasn't really sure what to do, as simple as that. Did you sit at home and wait for a welcoming committee to come over for a snack and sign up to be your friends?
For the first two months at Bella Linda Terrace, Travis went to the pool every day. He swam and dived and slid down the slide, and occasionally got into a thirty- or forty-kid game of Marco Polo. It wasn't like all the other kids here had friends already, it was a new place for everyone. Some kids did have friends, but they traveled in small groups, twos and threes, groups that were harder to break into. There were a lot of brothers and sisters, and they formed their own little knots. The rest of the kids seemed as uncertain as Travis. But he figured friends would happen, eventually.
Travis and his best friends from the old house, Rich Davis and Anthony Gonzales, had made a solemn pact to stay in touch — no matter what. They spat into one another's palms and shook, swore on it. Something always came up, though, vacations or baseball practice, and then Anthony and his family up and moved to Albuquerque in July.
Rich did come over once for a day of swimming. It was fun, but Travis found there wasn't much to talk about anymore. He and Rich used to talk nonstop about everything — baseball and music and which girls they thought were cute and might actually talk to them — but that evening after dinner, while Rich and Travis sat in his room, a great big empty silence sat there with them. Every time Rich brought up something, Travis didn't know enough about it to know what to say next. And every time Travis thought of something to say, Rich only smiled and said, "Yeah, pretty cool."
When Rich's parents picked him up that night, they both promised to call each other the very next day. But Rich didn't call and neither did Travis.
By August, Travis had to face the facts: He was lonely. His parents were always at work these days, rarely home before eight or nine. Even on weekends they sometimes went to work, and when they were home, they were too tired to go to the pool with Travis. The pool they worked so hard to afford. Travis didn't get that at all.
Then there was Hil. For the last few weeks of summer, he and Travis were at the pool every day. In the afternoons, when it got too hot, they'd go to Hil's and play video games, and in the evenings, when the wind died down, they'd ride their bikes all over Bella Linda Terrace. Then back to the pool for night swimming.
But when school started, everything changed. Turned out you couldn't go swimming every day. Once school started, only one lifeguard was on duty, and children had to be accompanied by a parent.
His new school, Torgas Middle School, was tucked into Bella Linda Terrace, and like everything else out here, it was brand-new and too shiny. Because it was new, the other eighth graders seemed as lost as Travis, but Travis had Hil to hang out with, which really helped. They had homeroom, history, and math together, and ate lunch together every day in the cafeteria.
Travis liked hanging out with Hil, but afternoons had fallen into a serious rut. They started every afternoon with sodas and cookies in Hil's kitchen. They goofed around for a while — that was the only word for it, goofing — which usually involved running around the house and jumping over furniture. And that was great, really. But then the video games came out. After that, it was just video games — chasing weasels or elves or robots or strange creatures Travis didn't recognize.
And here they were again.
"Take that, Señor Weasel," Hil said. "Feel the fury of my furry slingshot."
Travis couldn't help himself; he laughed.
But the games were boring, always the same. Hil and Travis captured what was supposed to be captured, blew up everything else. No matter how many times they played, the story was always the same. Nothing changed.
A bell pinged in the room, and Hil's computer sprang to life, the screen glowing blue in the darkness.
"That's them," Hil said. He shot off the sofa and tossed the joystick aside. "We got eight guys on Icon at once. You gotta help me, T, my infrastructure needs some serious work."
Hil was already glued to the computer, clicking his mouse furiously. He was mumbling.
Travis couldn't do it. He couldn't spend another three hours hunched over his best friend's shoulder worrying about the sanitation system of a digital world.
"You know, man," Travis said, "I just remembered. I got some extra homework. I better get going."
He waited for Hil to say something.
"Cool, T, check ya later," was all he said.
He didn't look up from his computer when Travis left.
* * *
The kitchen was spotless; the countertops actually gleamed. When Travis opened the refrigerator, the white-blue light was so bright and the food so neatly arrayed, he couldn't imagine making a snack. It would be like eating plastic.
He padded through the rest of the house, looking for something to do. But it was all too perfect, way too Camazotz.
The carpet hushed under his feet. The furniture looked painted in place. When they moved out of Old-town, his parents purchased all new furniture, so new and clean that Travis was almost afraid to touch it. Even the garage was immaculate, the boxes of their old life stacked tidily on stainless-steel shelves.
The old house on Riker Street wasn't big or perfect. It was crowded and messy, full of life. The new house was a magazine advertisement.
The only sound in the house this afternoon was the wind pushing, whistling in doorways and windows. That sound, the wind, made the whole world seem even more quiet than it actually was.
He could almost hear his mom telling him to go outside and get some air. But the wind and the heat and the stillness kept him inside. Besides, he wasn't allowed to leave Bella Linda Terrace, to take his bike beyond the big stone wall. He was only allowed to ride his bike up one perfect street and down another.
Travis found himself at his desk. He had homework, but it stayed in his backpack, and his backpack stayed hung on its hook on the back of his door. His parents wouldn't be home till past eight, and Travis had no idea how he was going to get through the long, quiet hours.
So he stared. West, toward the ocean, which was a band of blue fog on the horizon. He stared past the other streets of Bella Linda Terrace, past the golf course and the dark sharp ravine of El Toro Creek, past Highway 101. He stared at downtown Salinas, at Oldtown. He thought maybe if he stared long enough, he would spot his old house on Riker Street.
Then he remembered the library. Whenever he thought of his old life, the library was the first thing that sprang to mind. Every Saturday, Travis and his parents went to the nearby public library, the John Steinbeck Library. This was their weekend ritual; they'd spend the whole day there, and always go home with stacks of books. "As much as you can carry," his mom used to tell him.
Although the library was only a few blocks from Riker Street, and it would have been a lot easier to go home for lunch, Travis and his parents always had a picnic on the library's front lawn, right at the base of the statue of John Steinbeck. This made it more like a hike than a visit to the library.
Travis had always liked hanging out by the bronze likeness of Salinas's most famous citizen. Steinbeck was one of the most popular writers in the world, and tourists came from all over to see the places he wrote about, although Travis found it hard to imagine anyone wanting to spend a vacation in Salinas. But when you grew up here, Steinbeck was a part of the landscape, always there, like the wind or the mountains. Even before you read any of his books — Travis had been reading him for a few years now — he was a part of you somehow.
There was something about this statue that was very special to Travis, something that didn't have to do with fame or tourists. The bronze figure was tall, lanky — he was pretty sure that was the right word — dressed in work boots, jeans, and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, ready to get to work. The statue's smile, under a short beard and moustache, was soft, slight, but Travis sensed that behind the smile, Steinbeck was really smart and funnier than he was letting on. And his ears, those great big sticking-out ears — that's how you knew it was Steinbeck. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Steinbeck's Ghost by Lewis Buzbee. Copyright © 2008 Lewis Buzbee. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.