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
Second Rule of Survival: Be Brave
When we get to the front door, I can’t find my house key.
Dad used to hide the key beneath the painted rock but when I told him I caught Mason peeing on it last year he decided to move it. We have two other places in the yard where we hide a spare key. I check beneath the ceramic turtle in the flowerbed then under the one-armed gnome that watches from the marigolds. It’s there.
I toss my backpack on the couch and hug Snapers. His eyes are black and smiling. The tennis ball in his mouth is covered in drool. He’s so excited to see me that he doesn’t run to Mr. Perez or the lady. “Do you want to play?” I ask.
He runs around in circles like a cyclone of fur moving toward the back door.
“Okay, you win,” I say.
I toss his tennis ball across the yard for him to chase. He brings it back covered in slobbery grass. Spit flies everywhere when I bounce it off the fence to watch him jump. After a few more throws we go inside. I smell like dog and grass.
Like a robot, I fall into my routine, pull apple slices from the fridge and start spreading peanut butter on them. It’s like Mr. Perez and the lady aren’t here even though they’re whispering to each other. Kinda strange if you think about it. Like two ghosts watching me.
Snapers drinks from his water bowl and runs up to the lady. She pets him and gives a look of concern to Mr. Perez.
He puts a hand on my shoulder as I shove a slice of apple in my mouth. “We need to talk, Cameron.”
“Okay,” I say with my mouth full. I can’t imagine Dad in an accident. I don’t even really know what it means. Dad doesn’t get hurt. Ever. My stomach fills with bees and they’re all jabbing their stingers into me. Some sneak into my chest and sting me there too. I suddenly can’t eat any more apples.
Remember that first rule of survival? Realize you have problem? Well, I just realized I have a huge one. The biggest of my life.
I leave the rest of my apples and slump onto the couch.
Mr. Perez sits next to me. The lady sits in a chair. She’s tall, black, with pretty green eyes. Snapers jumps around their chairs and sniffs their hands and shoes. He tries to lick their faces before jumping on the couch next to me. I guess he’s nervous too. His Bordoodle fur is soft and a little curly. It doesn’t shed. Most of the time smells pretty good unless he’s found cat poop or something gross to roll in. Petting his fur makes me feel better, less nervous, even though I know something has gone really wrong. I keep thinking, if I just sit here petting Snapers, maybe Dad will come running in the front door. Usually when I ignore big people I just turn the world inward. Right now I focus on Snapers, his soft fur, his breathing, the lifting of his head when he whines at me to scratch his ear. I’m paying more attention to the dog when Mr. Perez starts talking.
“I need you to listen to me.” Mr. Perez seems far away. I think he can tell I’m not really paying attention. I don’t want to hear anything bad. Besides, this feels like a dream.
I want so bad for Dad to come into the living room. Please, Dad, I think. Please. Just walk through the doorway. I’m getting more upset with every passing second. I squeeze Snapers around the neck and can barely breathe. I try really hard not to cry. A few tears run down my face though I don’t want them to. I don’t want to realize there’s a problem. If I accept Rule No. 1, will Rule No. 2 follow? What about Rule No. 3? Or Rule No. 12?
“Cameron,” Mr. Perez starts again. “That earthquake today? There’s been a cave-in. A lot of workers got out . . . but some didn’t.”
This time I hear him. His voice bounces and echoes like sound in a cavern. I can’t stand listening. It’s like someone keeps smashing at my chest with a hammer. I just want to get up and run. Just stop it, I want to yell. Just stop. Go away!
Mr. Perez takes a breath. “Your Dad is trapped in the tunnel with some other workers.”
This hurts so bad. I can’t imagine Dad trapped. No. I can’t believe it. I won’t look up. I just keep petting Snapers. “Is Dad . . .” I can’t finish the sentence. I want to know if he’s . . . dead.
Other questions jump into my head. Did the tunnel crush him? No, I can’t ask that. Did the mountain squeeze Gabby like an aluminum can? No, I can’t ask that either.
Knots tie themselves in my throat. I can hardly think. I start to sob even though I try really hard not to. “Gabby protected him, didn’t she?” I ask.
“We hope so,” Rudy says. “We don’t have a lot of details yet.”
“Why not?” I cry.
Mr. Perez’s eyes are sad though there are no tears. He and Dad are pretty good friends. We always go to Mr. Perez’s house for barbecues and swimming. He tells us stories about growing up in Ecuador’s capital city, Quito (pronounces KEE-toe), before coming to America when he was a teenager. “I’m sure she’s protecting him,” he says. “We’re waiting to hear what happened. The rescuers are trying to figure out how much of the tunnel collapsed and how deep . . .”
“Can’t Gabby just dig her way out?” I interrupt. I’m trying really hard not to keep crying but can’t help it. Dad has to be alive. He’s inside Gabby. He’s the pilot. She’s the biggest Tunnel Boring Machine on the planet. He’ll be home for dinner. Anytime now he’ll return. He’ll show them. Dad will show all of them. He’s a shapeshifting wizard. He’ll teleport into the room laughing and cracking jokes about diving around falling rocks.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Perez says. “Gabby doesn’t burrow too fast. And she might be broken. Either way, she can’t just dig her way out. It takes a lot of people to make her dig the way we want her to. Even if she could, she’s only a few miles in the tunnel. It would take a long time to bore the dozen or so added miles to get to the other side. You know that. You know a lot about how she works.” He puts an arm around me. “Knowing how smart your Dad is, he’s safe . . . He’s resourceful. That means he can figure things out. We have to figure out a lot too. And we will. You need to have a lot of hope. I do. All of us do.” He looks at me and Snapers, at the lady too. Then he continues, “Gabby’s got emergency supplies for times like this. We prepared really well for earthquakes, floods. Everything. I’ll be going back down there very soon to see what I can find out. I’ll even help dig if they let me.”
I still don’t understand. Gabby’s strong, tough. Indestructible. Like I said, I’ve seen her myself. Clayton was so jealous of that. He and some of the other kids wanted to see how gigantic she was. All the rooms. The metal staircases. The front part—the cutter face that spins and cuts. And all those conveyor belts that carry dirt and boulders.
“Dad said she was earthquake safe,” is all I can sputter out. I wipe my eyes, but the tears keep coming. My stomach keeps tightening like my double-knotted shoelaces and I don’t know how to untie it.
Mr. Perez gives me a hug.
It doesn’t help at all.
This is overwhelming. Dad’s trapped, stuck maybe a thousand or more feet below the mountaintop and at least two miles inside a tunnel. They don’t even know if he’s alive!
The mountain is trying to stop Gabby from burrowing.
The mountain doesn’t like the metal earthworm that Dad is trapped inside.
Mr. Perez glances at the woman like he doesn’t know the right words to say. “She is earthquake safe,” he says as if he doesn’t completely believe himself. “These things can happen no matter how safe we make them. That’s why we prepare for the worst. I know your dad is alive. I can feel it. We’re going to get him and the others out.”
“I have to go help.” I try to steady my voice. “He’s my dad. I need to get him out.”
“Now hold on . . .”
“I need to help!” I yell.
Mr. Perez takes a breath. “You and your Dad were safe at Big Bear. He’ll be safe again . . .”
Why’s he bringing up that other thing? Is he inside my head? Instead of Mr. Perez sitting there, I see flames swirling around trees like giant orange snakes and then exploding upward, trying to reach a sky filled with burning ash and stars. I see the descending night and the glow of fire all around us. I can hear Dad and David yelling to work faster to clear more brush before it’s too late.
“I don’t want to talk about that!” I shout to Rudy.
Mr. Perez realizes he’s said something wrong. He can tell I’m thinking about the past. He pats Snapers.
“Once,” he says, “my cousin, Jorge, a truck driver, was passing through a town called Papallacta. He survived two days buried after the rains brought mudslides. He survived because he was smart and resourceful. Your dad’s like that. He’s wise. He won’t panic. He’s got far more supplies than my cousin had. He was caught in his truck like some kind of astronaut in a space capsule stuck above the Earth. They say there were pockets in the mud that released air into his truck. It kept him from suffocating. He told me how he put extra seals inside the truck to make it watertight in case he ever crashed into a river. Gabby is extra protected too. There’s more air underground than you think.”
I don’t say anything. I can only imagine the air being sucked from the tunnel, from between rocks and every metal joint of Gabby.
“Let’s just think about something else,” Mr. Perez says. “Right now we have to pack you a bag.”
“No, I need to help,” I demand. “Take me there.”
Mr. Perez nods to the woman in the room. “Patricia is from Social Services. I’m sorry but you have to go with her.”
What’s he talking about? Angel Rios was terrified when he was pulled out of class last year by someone from Social Services. He never returned.
My eyes drift to the stranger. She isn’t my family. She isn’t a friend. She isn’t even a friend of Snapers. Okay that’s a lie. Snapers loves everyone. But this lady. She’s like an alien to me. Does she have tentacles? I don’t want anything to do with her. I think about taking Snapers and running for the front door and then, although I don’t know how to drive, stealing a car and using it to go find Dad. Maybe I can run into the back yard. Me and Snapers can hop the fence, then another, and another, until we’re far away.
“No!” I cry. “I don’t know her. I need to get Dad out of the tunnel!”
Snapers’ ears go up. He licks my hand like it’s some kind of wound for him to heal.
“I’m sorry. I really am,” Mr. Perez says. He’s trying to be calm, but I can hear the frustration in his voice. “I know this is confusing and scary,” he continues. “But you can’t stay here by yourself. Patricia is going to take you somewhere safe. Let’s go pack some bags.”
“Just let me go to your house,” I beg. He has a giant family. I want to be with them.
Mr. Perez leans down until we both can see eye to eye. Rust-brown flecks around his irises seem to pulse. “Cameron.” He puts a hand on my shoulder. His voice is very stern. Not mean, just really serious. “You have to listen to me. You have to be really brave. You being brave will help everyone. It will help me. It will help this lady. And you know who it will help the most?”
I don’t want to answer. All I can think about are rocks falling. Everywhere, rocks smashing the ground—a mountain collapsing, falling inward, sucked into the earth.
“Your dad,” he says. “You have to be brave for him. He’s counting on you to be as strong as you can. Can you do that for him?”
That really gets me.
Be brave for Dad.
I suck in a breath.
I breathe in a whole world of unknowing.
I have to Be Brave, which is the Second Rule of Survival. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier. It’s much easier to be scared, to hide, to run from everything.
Rudy’s right. All I’ve been thinking about is how I feel. Lonely. Afraid. Desperate for Dad to walk in the front door. I’ve been blaming him but he didn’t cause the earthquake or the tunnel collapse. I try to think how Dad might be feeling.
Is he a thousand times more lonely than me?
Is he hurt? How bad?
Is he thinking how I’m alone too? No, wait, that’s me thinking about me again. Does he think I can’t take care of myself?
That’s crazy. Of course I can take care of myself.
I wonder: can I really give him strength by just being brave? Even if he can’t see me? Can he feel me? Can I feel him? I close my eyes and try to feel something. I imagine I have tiny feelers, antennae that poke from my forehead and grow into long tendrils. I imagine they can invisibly reach past Mr. Perez and Patricia, through walls, down the street, along a highway, into a mountain, through rocks and steel. I feel and feel, stretching with all that I am into this uncertain darkness . . .
“Okay,” I say, finally opening my eyes. “But only if Snapers comes too. He’ll starve if he stays here by himself.”