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
Fifth Rule of Survival: Trust Someone is Trying to Rescue You
In the Infinite Mud Space Between the Bushes and the Wall
Clayton runs one way. I dart the other like a scared cat.
I can hear my breathing.
I can hear the rain pouring from the gutters.
No way am I going to look back as I sprint down one hall after another. I imagine Mr. Boles morphing into a giant ball of fur as he squeals and chases me, his long mole claws scratching and clacking on the wet concrete.
Next to me are long green rows of bushes lining the classrooms. I run into a crack between them, then into the space between bushes and the classroom-building wall. I duck around a corner and keep running in this infinite dark space.
It gets cramped real fast. Bushes close to the wall force me to crawl and scramble on my hands and knees. They hang so low that I have to slither through the mud, hiding in the leaves like an animal being hunted. Blood rushes through my heart, pumping through veins and arteries as if I’m related to Gabby and filled with giant pipes and mechanical pumping stations. Machinery churns in my ear canals—pulsating rushes of blood pushes me down this mud-path of fear.
I continue crawling in the dark mud between the bushes and the buildings, ducking and squeezing between branches and leaves. I feel the cold mud soak through my pants. I can’t hear the rain anymore. Only this rhythmic pumping of blood. The pounding coming and going. I hear only digging, rocks breaking.
Suddenly I don’t care if Mr. Boles thinks I painted the graffiti in the boys’ bathroom or that a trash can was burnt to bits. It starts to feel like I’m in a different place, like I’m not at here at all.
These bushes form a dark tunnel. I start to imagine rock walls. I’m crawling on elbows. That’s when I hear someone calling. Someone from the dark. From somewhere down the tunnel. Then I hear my name.
He sounds scared. And that scares me. I crawl faster.
I have to negotiate through all this darkness and grey to get to him.
I slither through slime, kicking my legs, pushing against the thick mud, grabbing and pulling at anything that helps me to keep moving.
The grey around the edge of sky seeps in through the bushes, forms a mist as I creep. The darkness feels like rocks crashing down. If I can only reach him.
“I’m almost to you, Dad.” I squirm through a puddle, spitting dirty water that tastes of earth and root. I’m so muddy and wet. I don’t even care if legions of spiders hiding in the wall cracks watch me with their bazillion eyes.
I just want to reach Dad. I want to get to him.
Mr. Boles chirps somewhere nearby. He has a hold of Clayton. “Where’s Cameron?” His voice is deep, monstrous, like he’s craving blood. I quickly wonder: Do moles ever eat people?
I can hear Clayton screaming, “I didn’t do anything!”
He’s really causing a scene.
Mr. Boles badgers him. “This is the last time you’re drawing on bathroom walls.”
“When was the first time?” Clayton squeals.
“Are you’re talking back to me?”
“Now, once again. Where’s your friend? Is he the one who started the fire?”
“I don’t know where he is.” Clayton begs to be let go. “He took off running. We didn’t do anything. We just went to the bathroom.”
I block Clayton and Mr. Boles from my thoughts and continue to crawl through the mud.
Dad’s voice is instantly near. “Cameron! Get me out of here! Help me!”
I can hardly breathe, hardly see.
“Dad?” I scream. “Where are you?”
He has to be close. Somewhere in these tangles of bushes I’m also slipping between rocks. Am I actually in the tunnel? Where am I? It feels like somewhere in the tons of crushed boulders are these little holes, and through them I can snake my way toward the sound of his voice.
I keep moving, slithering, inching forward.
Everything is so dark now. I’ve crawled through endless holes—or so it feels.
Then something happens. I’m not in the tunnel at all. I’m back in Big Bear and it feels more immediate than ever. If feels real. It feels like it’s happening right now and not in the past.
“No!” I scream. “I have to get to Dad!”
. . .
Dad and David have found me huddling just inside the doorway.
Fire rages outside the windows.
“We can’t stay in here,” David yells to Dad. “The house is going to burn. We’ve got to go.”
Dad’s voice is stern, loud. “We’ll go back out and water down any sparks.”
I’m freaking out, crying. Dad starts to comfort me. “It’s okay, son. We’re going to get through this.”
“Just let him cry,” David says.
Dad doesn’t like the way he’s being talked to. “Cameron isn’t some bush we dragged from the house to let burn on the mountain.”
David’s voice becomes apologetic. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
The house smells awful, like someone threw bits of rubber and plastic along with wood in into hundred-foot flames.
My nostrils burn. My chest hurts. My face and skinny arms are covered in ash and snot.
“Cameron,” Dad says. “Stop all this crying. You have to trust someone is going to rescue us.”
“They’re not.” I’m really bawling now.
“You have to stop this. I have to go help protect the cabin.”
“I can’t. No one’s coming.”
“We’re going to survive this. Someone will come.”
“You see?” David says.
Dad turns to David, angry now. “No, I don’t see.”
I’m close to panic, close to complete nuclear facility meltdown.
“Come here,” Dad bends down, hugs me.
I feel something. I don’t know if it’s safety, or something else in this smoky mess. I’m a little more at ease.
David turns to watch the fire.
Later I realize what Dad was talking about just then—the Fifth Rule of Survival: Trust that someone is trying to rescue you.
The flames turn to darkness . . . to the uncertainty of cold mud . . . I’m confused. Where am I? A flash brightens everything around me.
. . .
I’m back in the tunnel under the mountain and can hardly breathe.
I’m in front of Gabby’s giant cutter face again, slithering like a frantic worm, still holding the rock. Blue and red lights blink on and off.
Gabby seems to be humming though her engine isn’t actually on.
“Dad!” I yell sucking in air. Imagining all of this is almost too much for me. “I’m here. I’m going to rescue you!”
I crawl up to her—the real space slug. She’s gigantic. Seventy feet tall. A giant metal earthworm stuck in a hole, half buried, barely alive. A strange glow pulsates from some hole or a crack. A glittering like ten thousand sparkling glowworms glinting off metal.
Dad’s voice comes louder now. He calls for help from inside her somewhere. “Help me!” he yells. “Cameron!” His voice is growing tired. I imagine he is so close.
I see a hole in Gabby’s side. Some kind of gash from a fallen boulder now cracked in four pieces amid the remains of the cement tunnel that strangely resembles giant potato chips with all kinds of curves, arcs and air holes.
I’m small. I can easily slip between the pockets into her side. I can get through. I can rescue Dad if this were all real.
I edge closer to the rip in her metal. “I’m here!” I cry.
Dad sounds more desperate than ever. “Son? Is that you? How did you find me? I’m in here!”
He really needs me. Just a little further and I’ll be inside.
Suddenly, I stop.
A pair of boots block the tunnel in front of me.
“Dad?” I imagine for a brief moment that it’s him. I slowly look up.
A voice says: “Cameron.”
The entire tunnel disappears. I’ve just crawled out of the bushes, covered in mud.
In the distance two kids stare like I’m some kind of creature. Of all my classmates it has to be Mason Maeng and Chelsea Ocampo, a girl I currently like.
I can tell what they’re thinking without even hearing them: You’re crazy. Nuts. Whacko. Fruit Loops. You’ve lost your entire brain. We’re going to tell everyone that YOU are this school’s freak show.
They’re right. I’m crazy with overwhelming worry and feelings of hopelessness. What else am I supposed to feel? I want to help Dad. I want him to help me. I want somebody to help somebody! I’m so lost. No one will tell me anything. Dad’s gone. He’s really gone and my imagination won’t change any of that.
I hear the voice again—the one that belongs to the boots in front of me.
Mrs. Lucas is staring at me. It’s a weird look I can’t totally explain—like she’s never quite seen someone do what I’ve just done, which is to act totally bonkers. But then her eyes soften. In them I recognize that she knows me. She has known me for some time, and that maybe, just maybe she trusts I have been crawling through the mud for good reason, and that maybe I’m not completely insane.
Whether or not I’m okay, she helps me to my feet. She hopelessly tries to wipe mud off my jacket and pants. It just makes a bigger mess.
Mr. Boles walks up, furious. “Cameron . . . what are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” I lie as he takes my arm.
“I’ll take over,” he says to Mrs. Lucas.
My whole body goes rigid. I’m terrified. He has this weird affect on me like he’s in control of invisible strings to my arms and legs. No telling what he’s done to Clayton. Probably already gave him ten years of detention for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“You can’t run from me like this, son,” Mr. Boles says, marching me toward his office. Mud drips everywhere.
I don’t care. I just want to know if Dad is still breathing.