The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 34: The Secret

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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 at nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Artist: Timothy Banks timothybanks.com or on Twitter  @teabanks

The Secret

I’m surrounded by people asking if I’m okay. Someone snaps my photo. A photographer from the L.A. Times asks Mr. Tamaki if he rescued me from the mountain.

 “Did I rescue Cameron?” Mr. Tamaki laughs in my direction. “It would be more accurate to say he and his friend rescued me.”

“Rescued you?” the photographer asks. “How?”

Mr. Tamaki hesitates as if he is about to reveal something about our time in the tunnel, then says to the photographer: “The world needs more people who care as generously as children do. Now please, let the boys and their mothers reunite in peace.” He puts a hand on my shoulder and says to me: “Thanks again for the sandwich. I will never forget your kindness.”

“You brought him a sandwich?” Mom seems stunned by his words. I can’t tell what the light in her eyes means. Is it anger? Relief? Wonder?

The photographer smiles. “This story is getting better by the second.”

 “Kind of,” I say to Mom, taking off my hardhat. “We were both a little hungry. Clayton too. We brought supplies.”

 Clayton’s mom is too busy hugging him to say anything.

 Mom asks if I’m hurt.

I shake my head, embarrassed that so many people have gathered. My face feels beet red. I think she’s going to say something else but she doesn’t and just grabs and hugs me. I’m pretty sure she’s crying, and since this is the best hug we’ve ever shared, I kind of feel awkward. But then I squeeze her back. It’s a good feeling.

 “I just miss Dad,” I say. “I wanted to help.” I don’t tell her how far in the tunnel we went or how I was almost went into the strange hall of lights.

 “I know. I know,” she pulls away, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. “But there’s good news.”

I only now realize how talkative some of the people are, how the energy seems to have risen in the entire camp.

“They re-established contact. Rescuers have talked to your dad!”

“They have?” I ask.

Mom nods as she wipes at her nose. “They also widened the hole and say the rescue might happen as early as late tonight.”

 Now I’m wide-eyed and excited. “Tonight?”

“Maybe,” she says. “I think the whole family should be here. What do you think?”

I think of Dad asking me twice during the video feed where I was staying, but I’m too excited about everything to say no. I give a half smile as she hugs me again.

We decide to go home for a while so I say goodbye to Clayton. “Thanks for going with me,” I tell him.

“We made it out,” he says. “We really made it.”

“And so did your sister and Mason,” his mom says. She doesn’t seem too happy about everything.

Clayton leans over just as he’s pulled away. “At least I have someone to be in trouble with,” he says.

On the way home Mom insists we stop for some milkshakes. Like I’m going to complain about that. I’ve never had something so awesome while being in so much trouble.

“For good luck,” she says.

The ice cream parlor is in a strip mall next to a jewelry store. Strangely, we both order exactly the same thing: cookies-and-cream milkshakes.

 “How long have you liked Oreo shakes?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” Mom slips into a booth. “Forever, I think.” She glances over to the counter where they’re making our shakes as if she doesn’t want to be overheard.

“Me too,” I say, still in disbelief I’m getting ice cream. If anything I should be getting punished for running away. Mr. Tamaki and Mom are both treating me different. Not quite like a grown-up but different. I guess when bad things happen, you can’t always expect people to respond the way you think they will, which in this case is really kind and generous. “Mom,” I say, “the tunnel. It really is a scary place.” I want to say more but can’t seem to.

“I can’t imagine being in there,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll look at that mountain the same ever again.”

 “Me either.”

About to say something, she taps at the counter. Her lips tremble.

Just then our milkshakes arrive. I drink some hoping my insides will freeze. Mom doesn’t even touch hers. I shove a giant glob of whipped cream into my mouth. I can’t talk.

Neither can she. She’s about to choke though she still hasn’t taken a drink. Her eyes are watery and red.

I feel a coldness rise in me and it’s not from the milkshake. I suddenly can’t eat anymore, thinking Dad could be gone, that everything I just thought was possible is going to be taken from me. When Mom finally talks I can feel a buzzing in my head and ears that overpowers almost all sound.

“Remember when we visited your grandfather,” she says.

Now I really am confused. The buzzing is still there. “Did Grandpa die?”

“No,” Mom says. She puts a hand on mine. “Do you remember what he called me?”

What did he call her? I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

“The name he kept calling me—Marina—she was my sister.”

“Was?” I’m so confused. “You have a sister?”

She can tell by the look on my face that I have no idea what she’s talking about. “You have a lot going on so you might not remember he kept calling me Marina.”

“I do remember that,” I say. “You really have a sister?” I realize I’ve probably said the wrong thing. “Oh, wait,” I say. Every word is coming out awkwardly. “She died?”

“When we were girls.”

I slowly take a drink of milkshake. I’m not really so sure this is what I should be doing when hearing this kind of story. Mom sort of figures this out because of how hesitant I am.

“It’s okay. It was a long time ago,” she says. She moves her straw and only takes a little sip. “She liked Oreo shakes too.”

“She did?”

“And she was a lot of fun. We did everything together. Climbed trees. Chased boys. Stayed after school to help Ms. Hawley. We even rode doubles on the same bike. That was our favorite thing. We’d ride from our friend Sammy’s house to the 7-11 and back home all the time. If we could have rode a skateboard or a scooter together we probably would have done that too . . . Anyway, one day we were riding our bike—her bike really. I didn’t have one. Dad could only afford one for Christmas. He gave it to her but she always said it was ours. I rode on the back. My feet rested on these bright pink pegs—she made Dad paint them that color. We went all over the neighborhood—everywhere—the supermarket, the Dairy Queen for French fries and fried burritos. To another friend’s house in a neighborhood across the railroad tracks.

Like I was saying, we were laughing and riding. We were always like that, cracking up about something. We really loved life. Every second we had fun. I can hardly remember ever being mad. I remember we were coming back home from drinking root beer. We were debating the stupidest thing while in the middle of the road about to turn left onto our street.” Mom laughs though her eyes are full of tears. She takes a big drink of her milkshake. I’m kind of nervous too because she’s never talked so much. It kind of feels the way Dad sometimes talks to me, like I’m right in the middle of her story and I’m there, and I can see everything: two girls on a bike, laughing, arguing, doing the things most kids do, like when me and Clayton are together and agree on some things and disagree about everything else and start laughing because we really don’t care about anything other than hanging out, happy we aren’t in school, or doing homework, or chores.

I can tell the way she looks at me she’s not really seeing me. She’s somewhere else—maybe on the bike with her sister arguing, transported through time to the exactly the moment she wants me to see—the way I always see the fire. Then she says, “And, Cameron? I can’t believe it. We were arguing about the stupidest thing. We both wanted to know who was wearing the prettiest socks. Can you believe that?” Mom wipes her eyes again, takes a breath. “And then, all I remember, all I can ever remember, is falling backwards, reaching for Marina’s waist. All I could see was sky and slivers of clouds, like I’m staring upward into this deep blue lake with this piercing in my ears, this awful ringing. I guess I hit my head on the asphalt and broke my eardrum. They said later that she turned the bike in front of a truck. I guess we were laughing too much about socks. She just didn’t see the truck bearing down on us. It must have been there plain as day, coming at us like some kind of monster. Neither one of us saw anything. I didn’t hear her scream. I didn’t hear car tires screech, or any kind of awful crash. She was just gone. I was knocked out for a few seconds, blood coming out my ear.”

Mom pauses again. She touches her ear as if to check for blood. “And you know what?” she continues. “After that I was messed up for a long time. Like, mentally. I was lost without her. I felt only half alive—probably how you sometimes feel without your Dad around lately. I love how close you two are. You have a special bond. He’s good to you and you’re good to him. Anyway, I got depressed a lot. I still hadn’t dealt with Marina’s death when I married your dad. And I didn’t deal with it when I divorced him. And I didn’t deal with it when I did all that traveling my brother told you about, and married Maria and Sharon’s father. That was a mess too. But guess what? I’ve dealt with it now. I really have. I know where I am. I know where Marina is and I know who I need to be. That’s why I’m back in your life. I don’t ever want to leave you again.”

Mom touches my hand and I feel her warmth. It’s crazy, all these things she’s saying. But somehow they make sense as I finish my milkshake and she finishes hers. The world, as insane as it is, feels much clearer, and a little bit smaller.

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