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 at nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes
Artist: Timothy Banks timothybanks.com or on Twitter @teabanks
Fourth Rule of Survival: Accept Where You Are
I still can’t believe any of this.
Why do I have to live at Mom’s house? I don’t know my sisters, never heard of them, Grandma Benita or my cousins.
Why does Grandma Benita act like she cares so much?
Maria and Sharon sure don’t act like they care. At least I got away from them. They went to their school and I’m on my way to mine. Sounds good to me.
I don’t even want to think about Mom.
She didn’t say anything to me this morning.
Then again, I didn’t give her a chance. I was out the door super fast, though I did sneak some tortillas that had butter on them. They’re really good. Not like the store-bought kind Dad buys.
I’m quiet as Patricia steers us through a morning rainstorm, staring out the car window at all the lawns—perfect carpets hiding wormy tunnels. I imagine Gabby in the distance springing from one of the holes, growing gigantic. She’s huge, keeping up with us, hopping on top of the houses. She isn’t squishing them. Though she rattles trees.
Clouds of leaves swirl like starlings into the misty air. I wonder if Dad is inside this imaginary version of her. Maybe he isn’t and she’s moving on her own. Maybe she really is alive, snaking through the neighborhood, her cutter face twirling in circles, her body gleaming and wriggling—a giant silver snake stretching into the morning.
I don’t tell Patricia what I’m imagining. Mrs. Lucas says that in the stories we read sometimes characters see unbelievable things, but they’re not dreams. They just imagine them. It’s called magical realism. She says it’s a kind of attitude that deals with things in the world. Impossible things happen that seem normal, like me seeing Gabby snaking through the sky.
I wonder if my life is like one of those stories. Do the impossible things in my life seem normal?
Mrs. Lucas told us Webster Dictionary’s word of the year is “surreal.” Maybe that’s what my life is. Surreal. Meaning, very strange, like a dream, because of everything that’s happening.
. . .
When I was with Dad and David at Big Bear, I was so tired that I fell asleep on the couch. It wasn’t for very long because I heard them arguing outside.
“We’ve got to go now while the wind’s changed direction,” David said.
“Wildfire’s got you fooled,” Dad argued. “We wouldn’t make it three miles in the truck if we tried leaving now or an hour ago. Fire crews can’t even reach us. What makes you think we can reach them?”
“Have you looked around? This whole mountain doesn’t stand a chance.”
The cabin was a haze of smoke. It burned my lungs, made my eyes sting and tear. Below us in the basement were stacks of wet towels, blankets and a tub of water. Another door in the basement led directly into the hill. It was a long tube with a flat floor and cabinets everywhere. Water had been spilled in it. Dad didn’t care. He said if we were going to survive in here he wanted water in and on everything.
Dad still disagreed with David. He seemed to think we did have a chance. “You’re panicking,” he said to David.
David had more worry in his voice than ever. “No one knows we’re here. Have you noticed there hasn’t been one water drop on the cabin?”
“There will be,” Dad said.
“What makes you think that? We’re obviously not part of their front against the fire. They’re assaulting the flames from some other ridge using fire-road trails that don’t connect with the road to this cabin.”
“They’re not going to give up this entire mountain,” Dad said.
“What makes you so sure?” David protested. “Are you even thinking about your boy?”
Dad didn’t like that question. “When am I not thinking about Cameron?”
I was beyond frightened at all the uncertainty between them, the smoke in the house, the fire on the hills. I could taste ash in my throat. The same heat burned my lungs. How had I even fallen asleep with the wildfire raging outside? Maybe I should be taking my chances and running through the woods following the deer that sprang past the cabin earlier. Maybe I just needed to finally accept where I was: in a terrible fire.
David said earlier that he saw a cottontail burning. Would I be like the rabbit or the deer? I took a breath, then another and another. Each one hurt.
I watched out the window just then expecting to see bears running past, more leaping deer, flames jumping between treetops ready to smash through glass. I turned to call Dad, but he and David were back outside digging another trench to fill with water.
I couldn’t stop thinking about a horse I really liked. Was it alive? Same with a family of raccoons and the nests of all the woodpeckers in the trees I noticed. I hope some of them got out.
Dad yelled for me to bring the hose and put it in the trench. I started filling the trench. It was very hard to accept that I was in the middle of a forest fire that night. That whole mountain felt like something from the darkest parts of my mind. A nightmare come to life.
But it also gave me the Fourth Rule of Survival:Accept where you are. And at that moment, filling the trench with smoke all around, somehow I accepted that the fire was coming for us.