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Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly

Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly

by Conrad Wesselhoeft


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Seventeen-year-old Arlo Santiago lives for the “Drone Zone”—that free, joyful, anti-gravity feeling. He achieves the Zone with risky motorcycle stunts on New Mexico roads, or while playing his favorite video game, Drone Pilot. His gaming skills are so off-the-charts, he’s recruited by the U.S. Air Force to remotely operate real-life drones in Pakistan. How can he refuse the paycheck when his little sister’s health is at stake? This pull-no-punches novel soars, with poetic style, focus on friends and family, philosophical life-and-death musings, and vividly drawn setting of a land “at the intersection of mesa dust and tractor rust.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544542617
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 504,364
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Conrad Wesselhoeft has worked on the editorial staff of five newspapers and is the author of another Houghton Mifflin Harcourt title, Adios, Nirvana. He has three children and lives in Seattle, Washington, with a big grinning poodle named Django.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Kenya Man  explodes out of my phone:

   L.A. . . . L.A. . . . L.A. Gonna get my junk in play
   At the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

   I jerk out of REM sleep, level nine. Scramble and find my phone wedged under El Guapo’s ass, punch in.
   “Dude,” I rasp, “be right out.”
   But instead of Cam or Lobo on the other end, it’s some space cowboy.
   “Hello, is this Arlo Santiago?”
   Everything about the voice sounds like a jail door clanging shut.
   “Am I speaking with Arlo Spencer Santiago?” “Uhhhhhhhmm . . .”
   El Guapo—“The Handsome One”—arches his back and starts to hump me, his way of saying good morning. I shove him, and he tumbles ass-over-floppy-ears onto the floor. Then he pops up and grins at me.
   He’s always grinning. Humping and grinning. He’s the grin- ningest, humpingest dog in the world. Probably the only stan- dard poodle in all northeast New Mexico.
   “Guess so,” I say.
   “Good morning, Arlo. I’m Major Keith Anderson, United States Air Force. How are you today?”
   I glance at the clock—6:55 a.m. Damn, just what I need, a recruiter calling me at this hour. Messing with my routine.
   I’ve polished my mornings to perfection. On the one hand, I give myself Maximum Sleep (MS)—sleep to the very last mil- lisecond. On the other hand, once Kenya Man starts rapping, I’m up, moving fast. In five seconds, I’ve accelerated to Maximum Efficiency (ME). Not to say I’m totally awake; I’m not. But my body knows all the moves, how to cut the corners.
   On a blackboard, you can write it this way:

   MS + ME = success

. . . with success being getting to school before the 7:29 a.m. bell.
   I have exactly two minutes and twenty-seven seconds to piss, slap water on my face, get dressed, and eat breakfast.
   But first I’ve got to deal with this tool.
   “It’s an honor to speak with a world champion,” the man says. I rub sleep off my face. “Hey, who is this again?”
   “Nice job yesterday on Drone Pilot,” he says. “You finally beat him.”
   “Beat who?” “SergeiTashkent, of course.’” Now he has my attention.
   “What are you,” I ask, “the CIA or something?”
   The jail door laughs. “No, Arlo. Merely the United States Air Force.”
   “Listen, dude . . . Major . . . whoever you are . . .” I roll out of bed and whip a T-shirt off the floor. “I’m running late for school.”
   “Sure, I’ll get to the point. We want you to fly with us.” “No thanks. I’m only seventeen. Call me in a year.”
   El Guapo leaps onto the bed and thrusts his shaggy hips at me. Hump and grin, hump and grin—only God knows the mind of a high desert poodle.
   “Arlo, we’ve been following you on the leaderboards for some time,” the man says. “Last night, we watched you knock Sergei out of the number one position on Drone Pilot. Sergei’s a superb UAV pilot, technically the best we’ve ever seen. And you beat him. That was extremely smart flying.”
   I clamp my hand on El Guapo’s snout. He freezes mid-hump.
   “Look,” I say, glancing around for my jeans. “I don’t want to join the air force.”
   “Arlo, I’m not a recruiter.”
   “Well, who are you, man?”
   “I’d like to invite you to join us for war games this Saturday at White Sands.”
   “War games?”
   I glance at the clock—6:57 a.m. Damn!
   “You’ll get to test your skills against real pilots—some of our very best.”
   “Hold up! If you mean fly real planes, uh-uh, no way. I have no idea how to fly a plane.”
   “Not a plane, Arlo, a drone. You definitely know how to fly one of those. We know that very well. It’s just like your game Drone Pilot. The difference is, we make it real.”
   “Dude,” I say, “this is way too much information. And I’m late for school.”
   “Sure, Arlo, I’ll check in later. Start thinking about Saturday.”
   “Yeah,” I say, tossing my phone. “Peace to you too.”
   Then it hits me—it’s Lobo’s Uncle Sal again—our local joker and genius entrepreneur. Owner of the best coffee shop in town, and my sky-diving instructor for the past three years.
   Uncle Sal has a gift for faking voices. For some reason, I’m one of his favorite targets. Last time, he wanted me to enter a Rocky Mountain oyster eating contest sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
   Lobo would’ve told him about my win yesterday. About se- riously kicking SergeiTashkent’s butt, knocking him to number two on the Drone Pilot leaderboard, which I’ve been trying to do all year.
   I am now the number one drone combat pilot in the world—the virtual world, that is—until somebody kicks my butt.
   In video games, when you reach number one, your butt is out there, cheeks flapping in the wind, for anybody to kick—Sergei- Tashkent, ToshiOshi, IpanemaGirl, anybody.
   There are seven billion anybodies in the world.
   Just the thought of Uncle Sal . . . I start to laugh. In fact, I laugh so hard I trip putting on my jeans. Damn, I’m late.
   Dad walks in, all frayed, scratching, and barely employed. He taps his watch.
   “Ass in gear, Arlo.”
   “Can I have five bucks for lunch?”
   He winces, opens his wallet—puffy with poverty—and holds out three faded ones. Says his daily mantra: “Spend it wisely.”
   “Always do,” I say, and snatch the money.
   “Don’t forget,” he says. “Snack Shack tomorrow night.”
   Dad runs the concession stand at Rio Loco Field. It’s a huge comedown after running a newspaper, but, hey, it pays a few bills.
   “Who we playing?” I ask. “Jeopardy,” he says.
   “Yeah!” I say, and smack a fist into my palm.
   Jeopardy is one of the highlights of the football season. The halftime show is ten times better than the game itself.
   I dig two unmatched socks from under my bed and sniff them. It’s been five months since I’ve found clean, folded, matching socks in my top drawer. That’s one little difference in not having a mom anymore.
   There are many—many!—little differences.
   “And I want to get up to Burro Mesa again,” Dad says.
   “Not me,” I say. “You know where I stand on that, philosophi- cally and spiritually and all.”
   “Overruled,” Dad says.
   I jam on my Old Gringos. Stomp ’em in place. Great boots, like great art, get better with time.
   “She wouldn’t’ve wanted a damn tombstone anyway.”
   “Not a tombstone, Arlo. A monument. Get your nomenclature right.”
   Five months ago—on May fifteenth, at two-fifty in the after- noon—Mom walked into the EZ Stop on South Main to buy a bottle of grape Gatorade and never walked out.
   Siouxsie, waiting in the car, heard the shots and saw the holdup guy run.
   Siouxsie’s thirst for grape Gatorade—and Mom’s swinging through that door to buy a bottle—changed day to night.
   No sunset, twilight, or dusk in between. Just—whomp!—night.
   Dad and I have a standing disagreement over whether to build a “monument” to Mom on Burro Mesa. He’s already sketched it out, bought the sand. Ordered a chunk of Bandelier stone “yay high by yay wide.” Written the epitaph, or inscription, or what- ever you call it, a hundred times.
   It gets longer and longer. Then shorter and shorter. He’s never satisfied.
   Dad was a journalist for eighteen years, but he can’t seem to write that damn epitaph. It’s beyond all his powers of creation. How can he ever expect to finish a novel if he can’t write a frickin’ epitaph?
   Me? I believe the sky is Mom’s monument, and the grass and wind her epitaph. Burro Mesa is perfect the way it is, untouched by manmade shit. To the north, you can see deep into Colorado, all the way to Pike’s Peak. Look south, and you can see halfway to Mexico. Up there, it’s all space, space, space. Green, blue, and forever. The air just shines.
   Last summer, we spread Mom’s ashes along the rim rocks, mixed them in with the lilies, Indian paintbrush, and shooting stars. I ride up there sometimes with El Guapo. Watch him run amok and hump the herd while I sit and ponder. A monument would desecrate everything—like building a McDonald’s at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
   Kenya Man raps out of my phone.

   L.A . . . L.A. . . . L.A.

   Me, I live in C.A . . . C.A. . . . C.A.—Clay Allison, New Mex- ico, located just south of Butt Crack, Nowhere, at the intersection of mesa dust and tractor rust.
   This time it’s Cam. “Dude! What the —?” “Be out in a minute,” I say. “Kick it for me.”
   I grab a sausage off the stove, bite it, toss the rest to El Guapo, and shoulder my backpack.
   “Mornin’, Texas Slim.”
   Siouxsie—my twelve-year-old sister—sits at the kitchen table. Her hearing aids look like tiny fortune cookies beside her cereal bowl.
   “Put those in your ears,” I say.
   She doesn’t move. Maybe she doesn’t hear me. Maybe she does.
   I’m never exactly sure.
   I raise my voice. “And don’t forget to feed the mares. Remem- ber, one and a half quarts of oats, not two. Always feed Big Z first. She’s the alpha.”
   Siouxsie rolls her eyes. “Have faith, Texas Slim. I won’t forget.” “Yeah, right,” I say. “You can’t hear a damn word I’m saying.” “You said feed ’em five and a half gallons.”
   She stirs me away with her spoon.
   “And do NOT bring any of those barn kittens into the house again,” I say. “Guapo’ll catch fleas.”
   She clamps her hands over her ears. “Can’t hear a damn word you’re sayin’, Texas Slim.”
   Siouxsie’s got Mom’s go-your-own-way gene and nickel-hard stubbornness. Plus, she’s got another gene—some trait that’s popped up in Chromosome 4.
   At first, the doctors didn’t know what to call it. They hemmed and hawed, scratched and twitched, then gave it a name: Hun- tington’s disease. Basically, HD creeps like a glacier, neuro-de- generatively crushing a few cells at a time. Siouxsie’s main symp- toms, so far, are stiffness, some loss of coordination, and some hearing loss.
   Dad doesn’t open the medical bills anymore. Just stuffs them in the drawer beneath the microwave.
   I grab my helmet and bang outside.
   Cam and Lobo are out by the barn. Cam’s revving my bike—my green Yamaha 250 four-stroke. Super-strong frame, which I’ve tricked out with heavy-duty shocks.
   I bought my Yam 250 in Santa Fe using my chunk of the life insurance money. It’s a little banged up and scarred, but a great bike. Mega-fast acceleration. Profound off-road and scramble ca- pability. Able to handle all my abuse. Never wiped out or spilled any tools.
   Not yet, anyway.
   I mount up, pull on my helmet. Adjust my shades. Grind the throttle. Listen like a doctor to the thump-thump-thump of the engine. Dirt bikes congest the way people do—they wake up 
coughing and hacking. Grinding acts like a decongestant, but the best decongestant is the open road.
   Two of the mares—Queen Zenobia and Blue Dancer—stare at me from the corral. When I rev again, they flatten back their ears. They disapprove of my grinding Yamaha, and they disap- prove of Lobo and Cam.
   Cam throws a leg over his Kawasaki KLX.
   Lobo, decked out in his “Ride Naked” T-shirt, is saddled on his Bandit 350.
   “Top of the mornin’,” he says over the throbbing engines. “Hey, I just talked to your Uncle Sal,” I say. “He wants me to join the air force. The dude is crazy.”
   Lobo nods. “All us Focazios are batshit.”
   The screen door slaps. “Good morning, Homo sapiens!” Siouxsie shouts from the porch.
   She wraps an arm around the post. Without her hearing aids, she probably can’t hear us talking, but she can definitely hear us revving—even the dead can hear us revving.
   Lobo lifts his voice. “Hey, how’s the prettiest girl in all Orphan County today?”
   “Hey, Lobo,” Siouxsie says. “Ride careful—and take care of Texas Slim.”
   “Oh, yeah, we always do,” Lobo says. “Don’t we, Texas Slim?”
   El Guapo barks, and we’re gone.

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