Nicholas Belardes is a dual-ethnic Chicano writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the YA-themed edition of The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, and others.
He illustrated map drawings for the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and is the author of the first twitterature in novel form, Small Places, which has been studied as part of digimodernism in literature by scholars who seek to discover the fusion of art with digital technologies, in specific, electronic fiction as a new literary current.
Sometimes a ghostwriter of contemporary fiction and YA, he currently lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his wife Jane. The 12 Rules of Survival is his first MG novel. You can find him a nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes
First Rule of Survival: Realize You Have a Problem
I’m not going to cry. I don’t care what happens. I’m. Not. Going. To. Cry. Not because I’m a boy. I. Just. Don’t. Want. To.
Something big is on the way though. I can tell because a scary lump has risen in my throat just like before. Dad says I’m more aware of my surroundings since the fire. I can’t think about all those flames and everything right now because giant thuds are rocking my ears from my heart turning into pistons. Thunk thunk—thunk ka-chunk! There it goes. It’s so loud. Embarrassed and terrified all at once, I wonder if Clayton can hear the crashing in my chest from several desks away.
The thing is, everything outside Mrs. Lucas’s classroom has gone quiet. I don’t mean kids. I don’t see any students in the hallway right now anyway. It’s the birds. I like birds. I listen to their sounds. But there aren’t any right now. The crow family is quiet. The song sparrows are song-less. Even the neighborhood mutts behind our homeroom have gone silent as cottontails.
I can’t breathe. I’ve just sharpened my pencil down to nothing, scattering pencil shavings over my desk. I slowly scoop them into a pile and though sometimes I feel like I should light them on fire and toss my math book on top, I can’t think of how much I hate numbers. Not right now. Besides, something else just happened. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse the water in the classroom fish tank moving weird.
This isn’t normal at all. Still, no one is noticing but me.
Mary Espinoza is completely hopeless. Tommy Warren, Jon Pox, and Simon Borrows are hopeless too. They sit behind her in the first row. Suzie Marie is in the second row. She’s writing a love note to Cooper Hawk. That’s not going to go over well. He likes Sheila Martinez. Like I said, Suzie can’t predict a thing.
I’m in the third row, second seat, nearly invisible. I mean, not totally transparent like a ghost. I just feel that way sometimes, like everything is disappearing around me. I am pretty scrawny. Skinny arms and lumpy elbows. Hair ragged like a storm tossed it in every direction, and a face that I think always seems slightly confused, like I want to know the answers but someone’s keeping them from me. At least twelve kids have a better view than me but no one sees the classroom fish tank quivering, the water sloshing up toward the edges like when I dive in the bathtub with my Chewbacca action figures. Doesn’t help that the fake eel skeleton the goldfish have been darting around has fallen over in the tank. I always thought that stupid eel was looking at me.
I want to yell for my best friend Clayton. Like everyone else, he doesn’t see the water moving or the goldfish freaking out. His brain is tuned FM-radio style to Mrs. Lucas blabbing about Cabeza de Vaca on the Island of Doom. He loves that explorer stuff. And he loves hip-hop. He says she should bust it out like Kung Fu Kenny.
If only I had the guts to say something right now. I don’t want to hold this fear alone but I’m frozen solid to this desk.
“You’ve got pencil shavings everywhere,” Denise whispers. Clayton is her twin brother. Before I can answer, the lights flicker. Everyone laughs except me. I gulp air like a frog.
Mrs. Lucas stops mid sentence in her discussion of Estebanico splashing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico after a rickety raft ride. She tells us to calm down. “You all need to relax. The lights do that. Now take out your workbooks. Page 227—all right?”
Let’s face it—we always listen to her. Most of us are solid listeners. Though right now I’m terrified. Nothing, not even Mrs. Lucas’s sometimes-soft voice can help this fear. This is the kind that glues you in place, that freezes you like ancient bugs and dinosaur feathers in amber.
By the time the last student pipes down there comes a howl that slowly builds from far away. I don’t realize what I’m hearing at first. No one does. Sounds like a train but tracks are nearby. A roar soon follows. It screams and grinds as if metal and wood bend, break and smash.
Suddenly everything in the classroom starts swaying and shaking. I glance up at the clock. It’s exactly 9:17 a.m.—one of those times you can remember forever.
The shaking screams at me, jars my legs, my face, everything. I feel tremors deep in my stomach, like my ribs are collapsing, like my bones are rattling free.
“Uh oh,” Denise says. “Cameron?”
Her words beg for some kind of help I can’t give right now.
I cry out in her direction. “Did you see the fish tank?”
She scoots to safety beneath her desk like the yellow-rumped warblers that dart between trees in the schoolyard so they don’t get eaten by the local merlin, a little falcon that feasts on small flying things.
“What? No. What’s happening?” Denise cries.
Mrs. Lucas slides her huge blue-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Everyone get under your desks now!”
Books slip off counters. Pencils roll to the floor. Classroom mobiles of famous Americans twirl and swing. Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman all dance crazily. History’s come alive! Other mobiles of the solar system make the planets zoom everywhere, meteoric, shooting pinballs in the cosmos.
My hands are frozen to the desk where Denise and I usually sit. I wonder if I’m somehow holding the world in place.
Denise calls from somewhere by my feet. Her voice an echo. “Come on, Cameron!”
Kids giggle and joke as they take shelter. To them it seems fun—like a rollercoaster, like ocean waves moving under our chairs.
I would probably giggle too if I wasn’t so worried about Dad. That’s when Denise reaches up with a long condor arm and yanks me under the desk.
Mallory Whitehead is the only one totally freaking out. She starts crying from the back of the room. Everyone knows she got carsick last year in the Fourth grade. That bus trip our class took to Griffith Park? Puke city. That trashcan was a mess.
The earthquake feels really weird, messing with my senses, my brain. I can’t figure out what’s happening. I’m dizzy. Disoriented. Feels like flipping in the surf not knowing which way is up or down. Did I mention I’m a terrible surfer? I keep trying. I keep falling. I’m better off on a surfboard lying on my stomach looking like a seal. Looking like shark food.
Like everyone else, I crouch beneath a desk. It’s more like a small table. Two or three kids can easily fit beneath.
Clayton, Denise’s brother, grimaces at me from a few aisles over. His dreadlocks fling sideways. His eyes go from me and his sister to other kids crouching and laughing.
Simon shouts, “Whoah!”
Mason, who sits in front of me, hits his head on the desk. On purpose. He’s like that—always wanting to be the center of attention, like one of those dancing cockatoos. Head bobbing. Wings flapping. A constant viral video of wackiness. I’m surprised he isn’t stumbling dramatically around the room showing off his big nose and beady eyes.
I never think he’s funny.
Denise quietly holds onto one of the table legs. She’s definitely worried. I’m scared. Two years ago I was in Ms. Okimoto’s third-grade class when a 4.8 earthquake shook the hamster cage to the floor. We never found Harold. Now that was tragic. The cage smashed open. Harold was knocked silly for a few seconds before darting past the teacher’s feet. I won’t ever forget that fur ball scurrying for his life right out the door.
This earthquake feels stronger.
I hope the fish tank doesn’t crash. I’m terrified those eel bones will rise from the floor, a monster skeleton with goldfish eyes, and come for me.
When the lights go out Mason and some of the other kids cheer. I hear a crunch from his direction. I think he might have hit his head on purpose again. “Ow!” he screeches.
Chelsea Ocampo squeals like she’s seen the monster eel skeleton in the halls.
More kids scream. Everyone’s a terrified squawker.
The earth roars as we hide and shake.
I see strange shapes in the dark room so I close my eyes.
Mrs. Lucas sounds a little scared too. She calls out: “It’s going to be okay. Just stay under your desks!”
I start to realize the room feels like a tunnel in the shaking darkness—like I’m taking cover from falling rocks. Is the classroom ceiling going to cave in? It feels like everyone is about to panic.
Forcing myself to be brave, I re-open my eyes. I’ve adjusted to the light but everything still moves. I can see the forms of my classmates. The colors of their clothing seem dimmer like the tremors are sucking all the brightness from everyone.
Then it really hits me again.
Nothing about this is funny.
Now I really can’t stop thinking about him. Is he safe? My heart has swollen into my lungs. I still can’t breathe very well. I’m more than a little sick.
A horrible pain shoots through me. Dad might be injured, deep inside the mountain with Gabby—that weird giant metal earthworm. She’s a rock eater. A tunneler. A drill, literally. I don’t want to be at Pleasant Rock Elementary. I want to be with Dad far away from all this shaking. I can tell Denise feels the same about her family. She wants out. She just wants to get away.
“Mom” squeaks out of her mouth. But only once.