The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 3: Things Dad and I Don’t Talk About

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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

The roar is dying. The floor now hardly shivers. When it completely stops my brain continues to feel discombobulated. It’s as if the room is turning around and around.

I’m terrified that millions of tons of rocks may have crashed down inside the tunnel. Dad might be trapped inside Gabby.

I wipe my eyes so nobody will see me almost cry.

No way do I want Mrs. Lucas to notice. She’ll baby me. I don’t want Mason to see me. He’ll mock me in front of the whole class. He’ll probably say something like, “No one cries in Seoul. Not even babies.” That’s where he was born: Seoul, South Korea. He’s shared photos—super cool high-tech buildings and baseball games and arcades. Except he’s never really been there since he was a baby—so it’s all talk. He just says that stuff to make kids feel bad.

I glance at the fish tank. A beam of fall light filters through it. Nothing but fake eel bones and three semi-freaked-out goldfish swimming jittery around the skull.

Mrs. Lucas orders us out from under our desks. “Come on. It’s safe now.”

As soon as Mallory crawls to her feet she pukes in a trashcan. It sounds like someone punched her in the stomach though it reminds of an animal show about emperor penguins spewing fish guts into their babies mouths after a day’s hunt.

Mason laughs.

The rest of us groan.

Feels like I just stepped off a boat. I wonder if anyone can see me swaying though the ground stopped moving. I mean, I think it stopped.

Then everyone starts chattering, barking, humming. The entire zoo has gone nuts (including the birds outside, barking dogs and screaming sirens). Denise tries to act like the whole thing is no big deal. “Hey, that was way better than surfing,” she says.

“Surfing’s hard,” says Chris Bend.

I silently agree. Then an image of Dad coughing and choking on dust and dirt pops into my head. I try to keep it together. Really, I’m about to freak out worse than Mallory and the goldfish combined.

Mason poses like he’s on a surfboard. “I caught that wave all the way to Malibu!” He swings his elbows, knocking my books off the desk. His hair flails around his forehead.

“Pick those up and stop invading Cameron’s space,” says Mrs. Lucas.

Mason’s eyes go wide. He always acts shocked anyone would say anything to him even though he wants the attention. “They just fell!” He purposely bends the covers of my math and reading books as he sets them on my desk. “Oops. Sorry,” he mutters.

“You’re stupid, Mason,” Denise says. She knows what’s up.

Mrs. Lucas tells her to stop it. Then her eyes bore right into me. “Those should have been in your book bag.”

Mason grins but he’s under her watchful gaze too.

I don’t say anything. They’re just books. I figure as long as he hasn’t ripped any pages out it’s okay. Besides, I’m growing more worried about Dad by the second.

“We’re done with the excitement,” says Mrs. Lucas. “Everyone sit down and get back to work.”

I stare at my workbook. I can’t open it.

After a while Mrs. Lucas starts checking her phone. She glances my way as I finally start working. Is she mad at me too? My stomach swirls. My brain does too. It fills with terrifying thoughts of Gabby gobbling her way through the San Gabriel Mountains and Dad scrambling for cover as the tunnel collapses.

I’ve finally made it look like I’ve done a few problems in my workbook when Ms. Firstman, who works in the front office, swiftly walks into the room. She’s more of a bouncy rock wren hopping and trilling.

“Cameron Flint,” she says.

I knew it. Whenever my name sounds like it’s being read by a cartoon voice it can only mean trouble. I slowly stand.

“You’re to come to the office.” She grimaces at me. Her beak is a narrow line of unhappy thoughts. “Right now.”

Her words really hit me. And that scratchy cartoon voice stings my ears.

There’s gonna be bad news. Really bad news.

As we walk to the front office I start thinking about the First Rule Of Survival: Realize you have a problem.

I came up with my twelve rules during this other thing that happened three summers ago when we went to a cabin at Big Bear with Dad’s friend David. I didn’t know there was going to be a problem then either. A really big one that would make me start thinking the world was sort of blurry, that reality was kind of like fire and could burn away, turn to smoke. I learned that we all live inside parts of a dark world, like Gabby in a mountain, and that darkness hides worse things than fish-eyed skeleton eels. What can I say? I have bad dreams sometimes.

Fear is a real thing, not just something I feel when Mason walks into the room. It can get much worse than him, like crawling around spider webs in a graveyard while black widows are all awake and hungry. Or being on top of a mountain while it’s burning from the bottom up. The problem is, before the earthquake struck I was just getting over all of that stuff about Big Bear, sort of forgetting it, blocking it all from my mind. It took a really long time.

This may seem like a simple thing, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out anything is even wrong, that something needs fixing, or that your very life is at stake.

I looked up the definition of survival a while back. It means continuing to exist no matter what. It’s sort of like realizing there’s a problem. I know I have to fight through things and not give up. I’ve done it before.

When I forget my homework and suddenly remember I better do it—then I better do it! When Mason is being a jerk and I realize he’s waiting outside the cafeteria to thump my face into pile of beans, I better survive somehow! This usually means I have to outsmart him or somehow duck really fast. I usually do. I haven’t had a black eye in months.

Rule number one can take a while to figure out.

Who can predict things like fires or earthquakes anyway? I know this is weird. But that’s why I need to think about rules of survival. They can be like friends, family or teachers helping me not to panic.

Don’t tell anyone. I have panicked. A lot! I’m not proud of it. How can I be?

Dad and I haven’t talked about the fire much but now I can’t stop thinking about the flames shooting up the mountain. These are things we don’t really like to mention: when the fire came and it felt like the world was made of thin paper, or all the panic I felt when finally realizing everything was about to burn, that we could all die in the forest cabin, or be consumed by heat and ash while running for our lives.

That was our terrifying vacation at Big Bear. It comes at me over and over like a movie. Play then rewind. Play then rewind. And right now it’s starting again.

. . .

We were at the cabin piling wood for a campfire that evening.

Dad’s friend David Ruiz was the first to point out the smoke in the hills below us. “Someone’s burning brush,” David said.

None of us were too worried that anything was wrong. Who ever thinks that a fire is about to scorch a forest or mountain? Not me.

“More likely machinery somewhere caught fire,” Dad said.

“I don’t think so.” David seemed to know the difference.

It wasn’t long before the smoke came tumbling across an entire ridgeline. Like a mega-flock of birds. Dark ashen wings. Terrible red eyes full of flames. Everything started happening so fast.

Within minutes, Dad said, “This whole mountain could light up. We have to start clearing brush. Soak the cabin.”

David disagreed. “We need to get off this mountain now.” He was trying to get a view of the road to see if it led into the flames and smoke. The only road access I could see while in my sudden state of near panic was right where the glow was forming along a valley of smoke.

“It might be too late for evacuations already,” Dad said. “Not sure we can get through. That’s a wall of fire.”

“Shouldn’t we try?” David asked.

“And waste time?”

David was reluctant to answer. “All right. We do it your way. But if the wind changes.”

The wind. I hated it blowing and swirling. It carried sparks and balls of flame and howled like bad dreams.

Fire engines screamed into the mountains on distant roads. Tiny strobes of red reflected into the smoke.

I didn’t know what to think other than I desperately didn’t want to burn in a fire. And my stomach? It felt upside-down in my body. “I don’t want to be here,” I said.

Dad put an arm around me. “Just help us work. We’ll make things safe.” He pulled out a bandana from the truck and tied it around my face. “When the smoke comes just bring it up around your nose.” Then he took me over to a hose and turned it on full blast. “Start soaking the cabin and the ground while we start clearing more brush.”

He pointed to some trees nearby and said to David, “At least there’s a gap between these trees and the main forest below. It’ll make a difference.”

I started spraying down the house and tugged at the bandana around my neck, wondering: Is this the last thing Dad will ever give me?


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