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
Mr. Boles is a Mole
“You sure you want to go to your class?” Patricia asks for the third time.
We’re about to pull up to the school. The sky outside is misty from light rains. All of the parents have already dropped their kids off. I have a jacket on so I’m not cold or anything. In my pocket is a ticket from a Dodgers-Giants game Dad and I went to last fall. I glance at it then shove it back in my pocket.
She continues: “Your teacher will understand. So will your friends.”
I can’t think of any place I’d rather be other than my own house. I can’t go there. And it’s not like she can magically take me to Dad deep in the mountain.
The last place on earth I want to be is with Mom.
“I want to go to class,” I say, watching rain start to patter against the windows. The clouds are darker than when we left Mom’s house. I worry that rainwater will get into the tunnel. I haven’t even told any of my friends what happened. What am I going to say to Clayton when he does his usual thing and calls me by my latest nickname, Space Slug? Does he already know what happened? Does the entire school know my dad is trapped? I guess I’m about to find out. “When will I find out more about Dad?” I ask.
Patricia runs a hand along the steering wheel. “The company your dad works for set up a tent almost right away for families so that information can get to them quickly. We can go there after school if you want, if not sooner,” she says. “As for what happened, lots of people are gathering information about the scope of the cave-in so they can better organize a rescue. They have a lot to figure out—where the survivable pockets are, how stable or unstable the tunnel might be, whether or not anyone is in the safe havens. They’re hoping to establish contact with your Dad very soon. Some of the wires were cut between those trapped and the outside world. Sometimes re-establishing communication is the hardest part. Doesn’t mean he’s even hurt. It’s just difficult waiting. Mr. Perez says a lot of rock and dirt fell in that tunnel. Even so, we all have hope that things are going to be okay.”
I wipe my eyes and get out of the car. I’m so late. Nothing she can say will keep me from crying. At least the rain will make it harder for anyone to tell when I walk in late.
“Your mom will pick you up after school,” she says as I shut the door.
Mom? I can’t stand this. I want to talk to Dad. I know he would if he could.
I don’t really want to be at school even though I told Patricia that I do. It’s just better than anywhere else right now. Everything feels so gloomy. The car. The dark clouds filled with stinging electricity and rain. The sad atmosphere around everything.
I stare at the rain hitting my shoes, wondering if there’s a way I can stay with Mr. Perez and his enormous family. I like his kids. None of them are in my grade but they’re all cool. I think about the last time I swam in their pool, diving into a floating yellow-and-blue inner tube with his kids. We had so much fun. We were so crazy over the summer. I don’t know why summers ever have to end.
Within a minute I’m outside my classroom. Water splatters from rain gutters onto bushes and mud, forms rivulets, gets sucked into nearby drains. I peer into one of the thin streams. I search for eyes in every puddle.
I pause before opening the door. Voices echo from inside the room. Kids are laughing—sounds like Denise and Mary. Mrs. Lucas says something. I think I hear my name. I listen closer. My hand is frozen on the knob. I mostly hear my heart thump-thumping, the rain splashing, streams gurgling into drains.
Every time I’m about to turn the knob I feel a kind of embarrassment. It’s not because I’m late. It’s this strange feeling. It’s why I’m embarrassed—because Dad is trapped.
This is an awful feeling. Me embarrassed while Dad is fighting to stay alive. Why am I embarrassed what other kids might think? Everything is so stupid. Especially me.
What if Dad’s stuck in water somehow? I hope there isn’t a flood. Just rocks and tons of soil. No water, I tell myself. I hate this rain.
I take a deep breath. I’m finally turning the knob when the door swings open and nearly knocks my teeth out. To my surprise Clayton is in front of me. He’s been laughing at something.
He’s as surprised as I am and kind of stutters. “C-Cameron?”
There’s something a little off. I mean he should have called me Space Slug. I guess he didn’t expect me to be at school. Maybe no one expected me to show up. Suddenly he waves a hall pass as if to say, Let’s get out of here!
I completely understand and nod.
He turns around, still holding the door. He moves to the side so the teacher can see me. “Mrs. Lucas! Is it okay if Cameron goes with me to the bathroom?”
“Cameron?” Mrs. Lucas has a look of mild surprise. “You’re soaked.”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Lucas,” I say.
She thinks for a second. “Don’t you two horse around. You have work to do.”
“We won’t!” Clayton closes the door. We start walking down the hall. “I thought you weren’t coming to school today,” he says. “What with everything going on . . .”
I know now that he knows. Everybody knows my dad’s trapped beneath a mountain. Maybe dead. My insides burn worse than ever.
“It was in the news,” he says. “We watched it at home before breakfast.”
Ugg. Why am I here? Oh yeah—I don’t want to be at Mom’s house with that insane pug. But poor Snapers. He’s by himself! How could I leave him! I didn’t even feed him! I’m doing a terrible job of surviving without Dad. And I don’t even know what is happening to him.
“Are you okay?” Clayton asks. “I don’t know why you came to school. They know anything yet?”
I shake my head.
He can tell I’m not feeling too talkative.
We get to the bathroom. He points to graffiti above the sinks. “Hey, look,” he snickers. Someone has written PRINCIPAL BOLES IS A MOLE in black marker across the tiles. Above that is a face similar to Mr. Boles, only this is a little mole creature with glasses.
I actually laugh. Sounds like a pig snort.
Clayton starts laughing so hard that he bends over the sink.
Still laughing, he runs his hands under the water, splashing some onto the drawing. “Just what I thought,” he says. “Whoever did this is gonna get busted. Permanent marker. We better not stay long.”
“Don’t you have to go to the bathroom?” I ask.
“Nope. Just came to wash my hands.”
In other words he wanted to sneak out of class. We do that sometimes.
As water pours over his hands I say, “Thanks, man.”
“For what?” Clayton tries to shake soap out of the dispenser.
Words fumble out of my mouth. “For not saying anything. I didn’t, I mean, I don’t really want to talk about what happened.”
“It’s okay.” Clayton purposely takes a long time scrubbing his hands. “They’re going to find your dad.”
My eyes are all watery. “I think he’s okay.”
“How do you know? Did the rescuers talk to him?”
For the slightest of seconds, I feel like I’m transported through space, through mountains and rock. I’m in the center of a tunnel—a giant machine in front of me. Lights flash blue then red. Then I see Clayton again.
He’s finally turning off the water. “So? Did they?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I can feel it.” I wipe my eyes, trying to figure out what I just saw.
Clayton doesn’t seem bothered by my answer. “You know it’s going to be weird in class. Everyone’s going to ask you questions.”
“Can’t be any weirder than where I’m living right now,” I say.
“Uh oh,” he says. “You’re not staying at home?”
I tell him how me and Snapers have been forced to live at Mom’s house, how I spent the night in a room filled with unicorn colors, and how there’s an evil pug named Bella that freaks out like some kind of gremlin that’s been transformed into an evil creature by a drop of water.
“Your mom?” He dries his hands. “But you don’t even know her . . . And, who can sleep in a pink room? I don’t know how my sister does it.”
“I know,” I say, noticing something strange behind Clayton. It’s surreal. Shapes move in the room. Wispy and black. At first I can’t figure out what they are.
Clayton sees my face turn to horror. “What?”
“The trashcan,” I point. “It’s on fire.”
He turns and we both stare at the flames. Smoke swirls and shoots upward. I see the forest fire again. I see Big Bear.
“Wow,” Clayton says.
We both turn and race through the exit.
We’re no more than five feet out of the building when we bump into none other than Mr. Boles who gazes down at us. He seems to be sniffing. His eyes are very dark, mole like. The graffiti is actually pretty spot on. Which makes this whole thing even worse. He’s a dark burrowing creature. And he’s paranoid about us running out of the bathroom. I can see it in the points of his eyes, the way he narrows them. We’re careful not to touch him. Not only does his coat have cat hair stuck to the pockets, it’s the color of mole fur.
“Clayton. Cameron.” He seems to sniff the air again. “Don’t you boys need to be in class?
“Totally where we’re headed,” Clayton says. “But . . .”
“No buts,” Mr. Boles says. “Get back to class. Walk this time.”
Clayton doesn’t hesitate. He starts walking. I know what he’s thinking—we need to get out of here before mole-man turns us into one of his kind.
We don’t get very far when we hear our names yelled from the area of the bathroom. It’s Mr. Boles. He’s furious. “You boys stop! Come here right now.”
That’s when I panic. That’s when I run for my life.