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
Lair of the Mole-man
Clayton is in the hall outside, probably terrified out of his wits.
I’ve been left alone in the Mole-man’s lair.
It’s freezing in here. Not to mention, I’m shivering and wet on a towel while being stared at by a furry animal in a glass case that resembles a flattened bear with huge pointed teeth. None of us know what it is. Some say it’s a giant mole, that Mr. Boles transforms into one at the end of each day.
There’s wood paneling everywhere. Glass shelves hold a row of stuffed ducks, buffleheads and ruddies mostly, not to mention, a row of wood-carved canvasback and pintail ducks, old fishing reels, and two large rainbow trout glued to plaques. Also on the shelves: several rows of history books. Anyone who has spent time in mole-man’s lair knows Mr. Boles is obsessed with history, in particular, the 1770 Boston Massacre. That was that famous incident when a mob of Americans taunted British Army soldiers with words and snowballs and stuff. Five Boston men ended up dying. Mr. Boles it’s one of the biggest precursors to the American Revolution. He has lots of books on the subject and is always talking about “what really happened.” Once a year in March, Ms. Brown’s fourth-grade class re-enacts the famous incident in front of the entire school. Mr. Davenport’s fifth-grade class then holds a mock trial. The rest of us have to make drawings and paintings of what we think really happened. My favorite student poster was when Clayton drew space aliens instead of redcoats. Everyone loved it except Mr. Boles who called his painting an “alternate reality theory,” “fake shenanigans” and “pseudo-history.”
Not only are there lots of Boston Massacre history books, the walls are covered with posters of really old paintings. All I can think is how terrifying the posters are with so many angry redcoats with rifles and bayonets firing into the mob of Bostonians. I imagine furry monster mole-bear heads on each British soldier.
Above the books hangs a large wooden paddle. Rumored among us is the legend of Principal Moss. He worked at the school thirty years ago, and according to the janitor, Mr. Ramone, during one of his man-to-man talks outside the schoolyard lavatory. He said Mr. Moss, a bald man with yellow-tinted glasses and huge knuckles, took great pleasure smacking kids in the butt with that very paddle, which remains hanging as a reminder not to ever cross any principal, ever. And now of course I imagine the paddle floating from its sacred place to my rear, and also how I may become some version of a stuffed bufflehead duck in a glass case.
I really don’t want to be here, or to look at any more dead ducks. I’d rather be in the tunnel helping Dad. When I close my eyes it feels like I’m creeping past rocks again, though I’m not really there. In reality I’m stuck in the lair, in an office that smells nothing like mud, rock or Gabby’s damaged machinery.
After what feels like an hour I hear voices outside the office. Mr. Boles is talking to someone about Clayton. “He and Cameron ran away after I discovered a fire in the bathroom,” he says, adding, “as well as graffiti mocking me.”
It’s Clayton’s mom. I’d know her voice anywhere. “My boy wouldn’t do something like that,” she says. “I know Cameron. He wouldn’t either. He’s a nice boy. Respectful.”
“That’s what I tried to tell him,” Clayton cries before he’s hushed into silence.
I wonder why I’m not sitting with my friend? Maybe some special punishment is being prepared for me as I sit here soaking like a wet noodle. Maybe I’ll have to clean all the soot and marker off the bathroom walls and write a letter of apology to the entire school. Wouldn’t that be something? Boy who didn’t do it has to admit to everything.
When I least expect it, the door opens. Mr. Boles is still talking to Clayton’s mom. She glances at me like she’s kind of helpless to save me.
“He’s to go home for the rest of the day as I assess what kind of discipline is necessary for these boys,” Mr. Boles says. “I will call you soon.”
Mr. Boles closes the door behind him. I’m terrified as he makes his way to a big black desk chair. Behind him is the flattened bear monster thing. I shiver again. He taps a pad of paper with a sharp pencil. The point reminds me of a bayonet in one of the posters. At least I don’t feel guilty for getting his chair muddy.
All I can think is I’m too afraid to say I didn’t draw the mole face.
I’m too scared to do anything, really. I couldn’t run if I wanted to.
Mr. Boles lets out a sigh. Here it comes. He’s probably going to sick the ghost of Principal Moss on me. The paddle is going to grow three sizes right before it starts smacking me.
Just as the principal is about to say something his desk phone rings. “Is she here?” Mr. Boles says. His eyes are on me. “Good. Please see her in.”
After he hangs up he taps the pencil again and waits.
This time when the door opens my mom is let in by the secretary.
“Ms. Gonzales?” says Mr. Boles. “I wish we could have met under better circumstances. Please have a seat.”
“What’s going on?” Mom slips into a chair next to me. “You said there’s been some trouble?”
Mr. Boles shifts his whiskers and continues. “Cameron and his friend were carrying on, destroying property. There was a fire. Some graffiti. I know things are difficult at home but I don’t tolerate this type of behavior.”
It’s Mom’s turn to be horrified. She turns to me. “Is this true?”
I try to shake my head but I can’t. No words come out either. I’m petrified.
Mom takes a breath. She has to say something. I think this is it. I’m going to be permanently on display in this office, right next to a trout.
“Mr. Boles,” Mom says. “I can’t believe you of all people don’t know what Cameron’s been experiencing over the past eighteen hours.”
“I’ve heard.” Mr. Boles leans back in his chair. The furry monster behind him could nibble his ear if it were alive. “Perhaps we should speak privately about how he’s expressing his anger about the situation. He’s out of hand.” Mr. Boles pierces me with his mole eyes. “We need to discuss disciplinary measures. I believe he instigated the whole thing.”
“Instigated?” Mom says. “What proof do you have?”
“Ms. Gonzales. I’ve been working with children for twenty-five years. I know delinquency behavior patterns.”
“There is no behavior pattern,” Mom says. “Unless you want to take note of how scared and quiet he is.”
I want to say something. I want to scream. Mom senses this somehow and steps on my foot a little. I get it. She wants me to keep my mouth shut. I can do that.
“Mr. Boles,” she says. “Let me repeat what you say you already know. Cameron is experiencing a crisis. You said to take him home.” She stands up. “So we’re leaving. That’s punishment enough for whatever you think he’s done.” She turns to me. “Come on.”
I get up as the pits of Mr. Boles’ eyes slightly soften into a quizzical expression.
There’s a moment of tense silence, then . . .
“I can be reasonable,” Mr. Boles says, still sitting. “But I can’t have my school reduced to ashes.” He searches me again, as if he might detect some secret about myself that I don’t even know. “I’ll be expecting a phone call from you this afternoon when we can speak about this in clearer detail.”
Mom pulls me out the door without saying a word. The rain is hardly a drizzle.
“I heard Dad’s voice,” I say when we’re nearly to the car.
Mom quietly glances at me.
I don’t know what her expression means. She could be thinking anything, like, Cameron, you’re crazy. Or, you’ve gone berserk so we’re going to wrap you up like a mummy and bury you for a thousand years until you’re sane again.
“Has . . .” I start to ask, fear suddenly striking me. I wonder if maybe Dad’s disappeared forever. For the tiniest of seconds I’m back in the tunnel. Then it flickers away. I can’t finish my sentence.
I think Mom realizes what I’m about to ask. “No, Cameron. Don’t think that way.” She makes sure the towel is still around my shoulders. “Your dad is fine.”
For some reason I can’t explain, I needed to hear that from her. “I’m never in trouble at school,” I say. “It’s other kids who do those things. Clayton wouldn’t either.”
“It’s okay,” she says as we get in the car. “I believe you.”
She doesn’t quite smile but Mom’s face is more reassuring than the day before. “I can tell what kind of person you are. You wouldn’t do that. And I’m going to tell that to Mr. Boles later. I’ll tell him five times if I have to. Fifty times.”
I think about Mom, how she’s never stood up for me, or how she’s hardly even talked to me. Something has changed. Something for the good. I trusted the Fifth Rule, but I guess I’m surprised by who it is that’s rescued me.