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Now or Never
It was the perfect time for leaving. Weather conditions were finally right: a steady breeze blew from the south, plus there was just enough moonlight to see by.
July 3, 2008.
This would be the date our family would always remember, assuming, of course, that we lived to tell about it.
"Hurry up. The wind won't last forever," I said. Three shadowy figures--my sister, Sarah, and my parents--fumbled with their luggage. With me, we were the Newell family. We lived in west suburban Minneapolis-for a few more minutes, at least.
"Shut up, Miles," Sarah muttered. She was twelve going on thirteen, and her carry-on bag overflowed with last-minute additions. I couldn't complain; I had my own private stuff, including a small sealed jar that would be hard to explain to my family. So I didn't try. Right now one of Sarah's stupid paperbacks dropped with a thud onto the sidewalk. I sighed and went to help her.
"I'm not leaving," Sarah said, jerking away from me.
"Everybody's going to die anyway, so why can't we die in our own house?" She plopped down onto the lawn. Pale pumice puffed up around her and hung in the air like a ghostly double. That was the weird thing about the volcanic ash; it had been falling softly, softly falling, for over two years now--and sometimes it was almost beautiful. Tonight the rock flour suspended in the air made a wide, furry-white halo around the moon. Its giant, raccoonlike eyeball stared down and made the whole neighborhood look X-rayed.
"Nobody's going to die," I said. "Though if we stay in the city, we might," I muttered to myself
"How do you know?"Sarah said. She sat there stubbornly, clutching her elbows.
"Actually, I don't. Which is why we're leaving."
Sarah swore at me. Anything logical really pissed her off these days.
"Arthur!" my mother said sharply to my father. "Help out anytime."
My father coughed briefly and stepped forward. "Think of it this way, Sarah. We're heading to the lake," he said, his voice muffled under his dust mask. "We'll get to our cabin, kick back, ride this out. Swiss Family Robinson all the way." He manufactured a short laugh that fell about fifty yards short of sincere. Sometimes I worried more about him than my sister and mother; they at least knew how to put wood in a fireplace. My father was a real city guy, a musician, a jazz drummer.
My mother added, "We all agreed, remember? As Miles said, up at Birch Bay we'll have more control of things, like heat, food, and water. When things improve-when the ash stops falling, and when there's gasoline, and when the food stores are full again we'll come back home." Something, maybe the dust, caught briefly in her throat.
"Miles said we'll have to stay up there all winter and all next year--maybe longer," Sarah said.
My parents were silent. They looked at each other. My father shrugged.
"What does Miles know?" Sarah said loudly. "He's barely sixteen! Why are we listening to him?"
"Can we not wake the neighbors?" I whispered urgently.
Sarah swore at me, and suddenly we were arguing like children.
"Enough!" my mother said to us. Natalie--everybody knows her as Nat, which is a good name because she's small and intense--reached down and yanked Sarah to her feet. "Think of it like ... a vacation. Maybe a little longer than usual, but still a vacation."
"Or better, pretend you're Mary Poppins," I said to Sarah. "When the wind was right, up, up, and away she went!"
"Miles," Nat said in warning. She looked to my father for help; he turned away, to his small duffel bag, and checked its zipper. Typical. Even though he was home nowadays, most of the time it still felt like he was gone.
Me, I had work to do. I went to the garage and eased up the big door. Inside sat my supreme invention of all time: the Ali Princess. I rolled her outside, and in the moonlight she was beautiful.
Perched on her six bicycle wheels, the Ali Princess looked like a gigantic grasshopper poised to spring away at first touch--or a dragonfly ready to take flight. Down her center, like an exoskeleton, was a bicycle built for two. The tandem bike with in-line, recumbent seats had belonged to my parents. It was one of those high-priced, spend-quality-time-together gifts that my father had bought for my mother. I had seen them together on it maybe once; the bike didn't have five miles on it. Attached to the main bike, like legs on a water-strider bug, were two regular bikes. Sarah's and mine, to be exact. Their pedals, chains and sprockets were hooked to the tandem bike through a common axle, which was no small task of design and mechanics, may I humbly say. I didn't want to count how many skinned knuckles and U clamps and quarter-inch nuts and bolts and lock washers and hours of hacksawing that all took.
"Amazing, really," my father said as he stared at the bike--car.
"Thank you," I said modestly.
The Princess, shaped roughly in a triangle, had a cargo bay of four lightweight aluminum lawn recliners bolted on either side of the main frame and secured to a wire-mesh floor. The main supplies--tents, sleeping bags, tools, food, and water--were already packed. If things went totally bust, we could always unload the Princess and start a pedicab business.
Straight up from the center of the Ali Princess rose my true inspiration: the sixteen-foot wooden mast and sail that had belonged to my father's boat, the Tonka Miss. To make the Princess, I had cannibalized every piece of sports equipment the Newell family owned...