The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 4: The Unknown


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 or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Artist: Timothy Banks or on Twitter  @teabanks

The Unknown

Last year Ms. Firstman brought me to the office. That was after I poured pencil shavings down Lucy Krzinski’s backpack. I remember trying to explain everything. Ms. Firstman interrupted me with her cartoon voice. “I am not going to listen to you, Cameron. Just sit there and be quiet.”

She’s a clever bird. She watches me. She scampers around. She chirps into the phone. Anyway, that didn’t go so well. Principal Boles called Dad. That led to me getting grounded for a month. Dad also told me if I liked a girl to say it without making a mess of someone’s backpack.

The second time I visited Ms. Firstman’s office was because Mason stabbed a No. 2 pencil in my hand. Mrs. Lucas had been sharing with us her favorite salamander species. She freaked out when she saw the blood and quickly took me to a sink and poured hydrogen peroxide all over my hand. Then she sent me and Mason to the office. I didn’t cry or anything when it happened. I just felt this sharp bite to my palm that radiated with invisible tentacles. I remember staring at the pencil standing straight from my hand. Clayton yanked it out like the sword from the stone.

Mason’s eyes went wide as usual as we all stared at the pool of blood forming in my palm. It grew outward into a dark red bubble. He claimed he didn’t mean to stab me, that he was just joking around, which is what led to Dad shoving Mason’s dad into a desk on back-to-school night. They traded insults then later apologized. Mason was suspended for three days and had to write me a letter of apology, which I still keep as one of my most sacred treasures.

Dear Cameron,

From now on I won’t freak out after Mrs. Lucas announces her favorite species of salamander. I just really forgot some were lungless and breathed through their skin. When she said “nasolabial groove” and “chemoreceptor” I kind of freaked out some more, and I don’t know, stabbed you I guess. Sorry.

God, he’s such a freak.

Anyway, Ms. Firstman has taken me to her office yet again. Like a yearly surprise that I don’t ever want. Not on my life. But here I am. She’s collected me with all her holiday tins lining the room. None of them have cookies inside. I know because I shook every one of them last year when she left me alone for five minutes.

Dad’s co-worker Rudy Perez and a woman I don’t know are seated next to each other. Both appear serious and sad as they slip to their feet. Ms. Firstman tells me I’ll be going with them. I think that’s okay because all I can think about is not being in this room. I just want to hold my breath and breathe through my skin whenever I come close to her desk with all its weird-shaped pieces of glass that resemble melted faces and the tins I told you about. One of them is shaped like a creepy gingerbread man. I worry that everything might come to life. I’ve got to get out of here.

A lump forms in my throat as Rudy looks at me. Feels like I just swallowed air. His face seems as if nothing can shine through it anymore. It’s full of shadows, a painting of complete sadness. A mountain chickadee about to be gorged on by a merlin. Is he going to tell me Dad’s been hurt? Or missing? He’s kind of hesitant, like he really doesn’t want to be the first to say anything but knows he should.

“Cameron,” Mr. Perez says. “I have something to tell you but we’re going to go to your house and talk there.”

My voice is shaky. I have to know. “Is it about Dad?”

“Let’s just take you home first, okay?”

“Why can’t you tell me now?”

“We have to go there anyway.”

“Is Dad there?”

He stares at me. “Come on, son. Let’s go.”

I still have to get out of this office. So I go with him.

In Mr. Perez’s truck, I start thinking through anything that might have happened to Dad. Did he hit his head on some machinery? Was he knocked out by a falling rock? Were his legs crushed by a boulder? I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. What am I going to do? I’ll be completely alone. He can’t be hurt or trapped. A lightning bolt of fear soars through me followed by a rush of panic. I want to jump out the window of the truck, find a phoenix to turn into a portkey like Fawkes, and teleport to Dad in the mountain.

Then I think about the emergency phone Dad gave me. It’s kind of old and doesn’t work very well. Dad put it in my backpack months ago to take to school. Once in a while he recharges it. He told me to use it only in case of an emergency. He also said not to show it to anyone. I think he knows I sneak Clayton some text messages once in a while.

I try to send Dad a text.

Me: Are you there?
Me: Did you feel the earthquake?

Me: Are you okay?

Me: Dad?

Me: Dad?

Me: Please answer

Nothing. I try calling him. Nothing again. It’s impossible. I know he doesn’t get cell service deep inside the mountain. I put the phone away. Rudy glances at me. His face is a heavy grimace. I wonder if it will slip off, melt away.

For some reason I start thinking about the end of class yesterday. Mrs. Lucas’ voice carried over all our noise. “I want the status of the class,” she said. “Make sure you write down the book title and page number. And let me know if you’ve abandoned your last book.”

I remember taking out a piece of paper, thinking about how the night before I’d put down Holes and started reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Then I wrote down the title, page number, and wrote the word, abandoned.

I didn’t feel bad about it then. But now, after everything that’s suddenly happened, and after realizing I have a problem, I don’t want to ever abandon anything, ever.