It was cool that September when Simon tried to talk to his father. The house on the corner acre-sized lot was open and the hedge trees wafted their sticky scent on light northwest fall breezes. Simon stood in the wide doorway of the study in the house his father had built. He was counting the number of oaken floorboards between he and his father.
“What’s up?” His father did not look up from his writing.
“Me and the guys were running around last week,” Simon said.
“Which guys?” Simon’s father put down his pen and turned to face the eighth grade boy. “When Alex and Luke and them were here?”
“Yeah,” Simon said. “Mark and Kurt, too.”
“Ah,” Dad said.
“We took our bikes to the lake and went swimming.” Simon stopped. He wasn’t allowed to be at the lake after dark, even with friends. He took a deep breath.
“Yeah?” Dad leaned forward.
Simon’s father looked thoughtfully at his oldest son and sat back in his chair, crossed his hands over his belly. “Anything happen?”
They all lived on the far side of the big new state lake at a time when there weren’t a lot of lights from the city polluting the sky. Using telescopes acquired as gifts or through summer work, they spent clear nights watching stars and planets but secretly hoping for UFOs. Thanks to Carl Sagan’s program the year before they had hours of things to talk about when there was nothing strange in the sky. That night was the clearest they’d seen in a long time, no need for telescopes. The water in the roped off swimming area was blue-green in the daylight, but at night it was black and for what seemed hundreds of miles there was only the sparkle of the moon on its calm surface.
“Did you see Toni Gruber today?” Luke was floating on an inner tube dragging a lazy hand through the water. They were all just outside the roped ‘safe’ area.
“How could you miss her?” Alex splashed water at Luke. “The way she fills out that sweater. Whoo!”
“Oh, yeah,” Luke said. “If I could get her alone for five minutes ---“
“She’d chew you up and spit you out in itty bitty little pieces, man,” Mark said. “Then she’d call me!”
“Guys,” Simon said. “Look up there.” Skidding across the sky to the south was a long white light from the far west horizon. “It’s going to pass right overhead.”
“What is it?” Alex said. “A comet?”
Luke said. “I don’t think so. Maybe a piece of SkyLab or something.”
“Is it me,” Mark said, “or is it getting lower?”
There was a high whistling sound getting louder and the light was getting brighter. Kurt, who’d been silent during this whole exchange turned and began to swim for the beach. “Let’s go,” he said. “It’s gonna land close!”
They ran up the beach, pulled on t-shirts, slipped on sneakers, draped their towels over their necks and hopped on bicycles then, dripping wet and feet squishing warmly, pedaled hard. There was an eerie bluish-white light from the object above that cast strange dancing shadows across the blacktop. They instinctively ducked their heads when it passed over and when it slammed through the tall trees they didn’t hear an impact, but felt it.
“It’s just over the hill guys,” Luke said. “Come on! It’s only a mile or so!”
Simon wanted to tell his father all of this as it ran through his mind, but he knew what the reaction would be: no more bikes, no more friends around. Probably something more restrictive, too, but that wasn’t clear. There were going to be hurt feelings, angry inquisitions and lots of silence if Simon spoke up. “We saw the meteor come down,” he said.
“Yeah,” Simon said. “We went to look for it, but Alex decided there might be something radioactive, so we came home.”
“Where were you?” Dad still had his fingers meshed together and his face hadn’t changed.
“Ridin’ around the Corps gate by the township hall. Poppin’ wheelies and jumpin’ the humps by the Coultis’ field.” Simon’s mother was a worrier and his father indulged her, though he often confided to Simon that he disagreed with some of the restrictions she placed on him. Still, Simon wasn’t certain enough to tell the truth about being at the lake, and the Coultis’ really lived in town mostly anyway. It was a fairly safe lie.
“Oh,” his father said then leaned forward. “You guys shouldn’t’ve been out so late, and certainly not up there.” Simon’s father looked towards the door into the hall. “I won’t tell Mom, though. Your secret’s safe.” He smiled.
It hadn’t taken them long to get around to the Steele house and the crater. “It’s small,” Mark said.
“For as much racket as it made, you’d think it’d be bigger.”
“Well, Luke, I’m not an expert,” Simon said, “but if it came crashing from outer space it should make a helluva racket no matter how big it is. That’s hundreds of miles up, at least.”
“Maybe thousands,” Alex said.
“Shouldn’t it be hot? I mean, it doesn’t feel hot around here.”
“Maybe,” Mark said. “You gonna touch it?”
“It’s probably radioactive,” Alex said. “I wouldn’t touch it if I were you, Simon.”
Simon stepped forward, a puppet on strings, nearer the cylinder in the crater. It was a torpedo about three feet long, in perfect shape, not a dent on it. “I don’t feel any heat at all, Mark,” Simon said.
“I think Alex is right, Si, you shouldn’t touch the thing. Who knows what it is? It might be Russian.”
“I don’t see any marks on it, Kurt,” Simon said getting closer, crouching down. “I’m going to touch it.”
“Don’t, Si,” Alex said. “We don’t know what it is.”
“And we’ll never find out if we leave it up to you, Alex,” Mark said. “Jeez, give a guy a break. You know he wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t safe.”
“What does that mean?” Simon stood up, still about three feet away from the edge of the crater. He balled up his fists and spread his feet slightly, narrowed his eyes in the moonlight.
“Nothing,” Mark said, waving a hand at his friend. “You don’t take chances is all. Not like Luke or me.”
“I don’t take chances,” Luke said. “Don’t listen to him, Si. If you don’t touch the thing, I will. It looks okay.”
Simon looked to Kurt for some indication. The most serious of the group, he was also probably the smartest and if he gave the okay, Simon would do it. They all wanted to know what was in the thing. Kurt nodded at Simon.
“If there was radiation,” Kurt said, “we’re all,” he paused for effect and looked at the other three boys for emphasis, “already exposed to it.” He waited for everyone to nod positively. Alex looked up and back at the trees where the cylinder came down: none of them had anything but broken branches. “Look: no flames, no charring.” He pointed to the crash path. “We saw the thing flaming, right?”
“This is how War of the Worlds started,” Alex muttered.
“I don’t know what I saw now,” Mark said. “It all happened so fast. There was a bright light, for sure.”
“Yeah,” Luke said. “There was a lot of light.”
“You’re all wusses,” Alex said. “What do we do if it --- if something happens to you? What then? Have you thought about that?”
“You’ll tell my folks I suppose. You all can tell them you tried to talk me out of it,” Simon said. “Alex, what do you think?”
“Go ahead, man.”
Simon nodded and looked each of his friends in the eye, except Kurt who wouldn’t stop staring at the ground. Shrugging, Simon knelt down on the side of the crater, his knees sinking into the soft dirt, and steadied himself. He took a deep breath and held it. “Okay,” he said breathing out and reached out to touch the smooth surface.
Simon’s body twitched and shivered. “Aaaaaaagh!” Kurt pulled Simon back. Alex and Mark grabbed the still screaming Simon’s shoulders and dragged him farther back. Luke stood between Simon and the cylinder and winced, waiting for the worst.
Simon’s scream turned into a hoarse laugh. “Suckers!” he said. “I can’t believe you fell for that!” He kept laughing as they punched him in the arm. They all swore at him.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Here we go for real.”
It was anticlimactic when Simon held the cylinder up. “It’s not heavy. Maybe ten pounds or so.” He ran a hand over it, rolled it over and over. “Hey, here’s ---“
“Hey, here’s a seam,” Simon had meant to say, but he didn’t get to finish. The cylinder broke open and all five boys saw a bright orange light.
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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